Jim Kelly: Power Forward

NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly takes the stage at Power Forward 2016.

Jim Kelly, a man whose life can only be described as “a journey of perseverance,” visited Tallahassee this week to share his story at the fourth-annual Power Forward event held by First Commerce Credit Union.

Achieving immense fame during his time as quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, Kelly eventually turned his name-recognition into a massive cooking and tailgating brand. However, Kelly’s path to success was also paved with immense struggle.

Alongside his five brothers, Kelly was raised with toughness and heart. As the audience filling FSU’s Ruby Diamond Concert Hall would find out, he needed every bit of that toughness to stay positive during his “roller coaster” career and life.

The son of an orphaned steelworker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kelly was raised with sports, especially football, on the mind. His dream from youth was to make it to the NFL and be able to support his parents.

“Always in the back of my mind was taking care of mom and dad.”

After making it to the NCAA as QB for the Miami Hurricanes, Kelly endured a serious injury to his throwing arm that would have put many players out of the game for good. But he persevered, and with some help from his brothers, was able to participate in the 1983 NFL draft.

From there, he would go on to lead the Bufallo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Even though his team never won that elusive ring, he sees the four consecutive appearances as a testament to the team’s strength and determination.

“There’s always going to be someone bigger, faster, stronger than you – but attitude is everything.”

In 1995, after 11 years in the NFL, he retired to make sure he would remain healthy for his wife and first daughter. But the life of this retired superstar quarterback would be far from idyllic. In 1997, his second child, Hunter, was diagnosed with Krabbe leukodystrophy, a rare genetic disease. The condition left young Hunter with limited motor skills and a tenuous grasp on life.

“The things we take for granted every single day, he never had,” said Kelly.

Despite this, Kelly and his wife, Jill, gave their son a rich life, doing everything they could to make his time fulfilling. After an eight year struggle, Hunter lost his battle. Jim Kelly, however, refused to let this tragic remain tragic. Hunter, even though he was never able to speak a word, has impacted millions of lives around the world through the foundation Kelly started in his name: Hunter’s Hope.

Since its inception, Kelly’s foundation has made strides in helping those suffering from the Krabbe leukodystrophy by advocating for better infant screening across the country. The foundation’s clinical center is contributing to finding a cure for the disease.

Hunter’s story is also immortalized in two bestselling books: Without a Word, written by Jim’s wife, Jill, and Kelly Tough, written by his eldest daughter, Erin. Now a student at liberty university, Erin wrote the bestselling novel when she was 17.

“Make a difference today for somebody who is fighting for their tomorrow.”

The moment of his son’s passing was a crossroads for Jim, but his struggle was far from over. In 2013, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a form of jaw cancer. Despite a low chance for a successful recovery, Kelly drew from the strength instilled in him by his mother and father and persevered once again, making a full recovery.

In addition to Hunter’s Hope, the Kelly family operates a children’s charity in Buffalo, NY, as well as the Jim Kelly Football Camp. Kelly attributes his success to his mother and father and the toughness they inspired in him, which he refers to as being “Kelly tough.”

“You will go through things in life, but it’s all about attitude.”

Through it all, Kelly remains cheerful. He maintains that his strength comes from his “four F’s”: faith, family, friends, and fans – like the audience members wearing Buffalo Bills jerseys bearing his name. After the emotional speech ended, Kelly interacted with those same fans, taking questions and quizzing audience members about NFL history. A few lucky fans even had the opportunity to catch a ball thrown by the Hall of Fame Quarterback.

The address was impassioned, and honest. Kelly has endured much throughout his life, but still finds immense joy in living, and in his family. Because ultimately, his message about perseverance is applicable to anyone. No matter what your circumstances or hardships – staying tough and maintaining a positive outlook can help you push through, and power forward.
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