Jim Kelly got a second chance at life. Maybe even a third chance and he’s going to fulfill it by making not about himself, but for others.
The Hall of Fame quarterback for Buffalo Bills during the John Elway quarterback era, Kelly was in Denver on Friday to make cancer victims aware of his all-encompassing Your Cancer Game Plan organization.
His trip in was well-timed as six days earlier, the Denver Broncos selected his nephew, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, with the No. 253 and final pick of the NFL Draft.
“If he comes back healthy, watch out,’’ Jim Kelly said. “Because he’s a heckuva quarterback.’’
As prospects go, Chad Kelly for the longest time was like an untamed colt who took a while to break. There were off-field skirmishes, including one that landed him briefly in jail. Elway, who is now the Broncos’ general manager, called his former colleague and fellow 1983 draft pick to ask about his nephew before drafting him.
“Bottom line is, those things happened three years ago,’’ Kelly said in an interview with 9NEWS. “People keep bringing that up and as an uncle and he’s my godson, it irritates me because he’s a good kid.
“And, yeah, he made stupid mistakes. But that was three years ago and they keep bringing it up. Most of those things happened when he was not even at Ole Miss and people keep bringing it up.
“But you know … he’s learned from it and hopefully he continues to learn, like all kids do. But he’s a guy, his work ethic is unmatched. I never even came close to his work ethic. His athletic ability. Now he has to get healthy.’’
Jim Kelly said Chad Kelly’s recovery from his second ACL surgery is about 80 to 85 percent along. A bigger issue, at least for the short term, is Chad Kelly recently had surgery on his right wrist that will knock him out for a while.
Not that Elway wants Chad Kelly wants to lose all his fighting spirit. Look at the players Elway has added to the Broncos’ roster the last year or three. They all have an attitude, a spirit about them. Elway likes Chad Kelly in part because he is a player with gumption.
“That’s the way John was, too,’’ Kelly said, laughing. “And myself and (Dan) Marino and the thing is you’ve got have that little chip on your shoulder, which there’s no doubt he has on his now because of all the teams that shunned him and didn’t pick him.
“But you’ve got to understand there’s going to be a question mark when you have your knee and you have your wrist surgery.
“But I look forward to it. I look forward to cheering him on. He’s got two guys in front of him he can learn from (Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch) and hopefully – who knows what the future holds, but I have a lot of confidence in the kid. He’s a baller. He’s a player. Just keep my fingers crossed and keep praying.’’
Long term, the bigger concern for Chad Kelly is he’s had double ACL surgeries. One in the spring of 2013 – in which he returned to the field five months later – and the other in the fall of 2016.
The list of players making a successful comeback from one ACL surgery gets longer every year. The list of those returning from two ACL surgeries is written in gray, not black and white.
“He’s a quarterback,’’ Jim Kelly said. “He’ll wear a knee brace. He won’t be able to scramble the way he used to. But a lot of times you look at all the great quarterbacks in the league today, most of the great ones are pocket passers.
“Yeah, you want a guy who can get a couple first downs with his legs, which I still think he’ll be able to do. But he won’t be the Chad Kelly with the running ability he used to have. But now it’s all up in your head. It’s being able to read the defense and your hot routes and be a quarterback in the NFL. It’s not college any more. I have faith in him.’’
Forgive, Jim Kelly for downplaying the long-term effects of double ACL surgeries. Jim Kelly came back from double cancer in his upper jaw.
He was first diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in 2013. Surgery removed his upper jaw and V2 nerve and rebuilt it. He was proclaimed cancer-free. In March of 2014, his cancer returned.
The news hit as the NFL owners were convening in Florida. NFL executives and coaches asked for a reaction to Kelly’s condition may not have quite talked about him in the past tense. But put it this way: Nobody thought then he would be sitting in a chair for a 9NEWSinterview three years later.
“A lot of people didn’t, but I did,’’ Kelly said. “What I’m learning through my whole journey, not just through my cancer that I’m going through now, but even way back when I tore my shoulder (the third game of his senior year at the University of Miami) and they told me I’d never play football again. And going to four Super Bowls and not winning and having a son (Hunter) born on my birthday and he winds up passing away, and all the things I’ve been through, I never thought that cancer would come into my family. And all the sudden, boom, it hit me, not just once, but twice.
“And laying there in a hospital room in New York City and giving me less than 10 percent chance of making it – which thank God they did not tell me. They did not tell my family because it’s all about your attitude. I’ve learned throughout my whole life, it is about your attitude to continue to get you through, to keep fighting and never give up.’’
The shoulder separation in his senior season at Miami nearly ended Kelly’s professional quarterback career before it started. He eventually ushered the NFL into a no-huddle, wide-open, point-scoring frenzy through the Bills’ ‘K-Gun’’ offense. But four Super Bowl appearances in four years left him and the Bills with zero Lombardi trophies.
Shortly after Hunter’s birth on Feb. 14, 1997, he was diagnosed with Krabbe Disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system. Hunter courageously fought to live much longer than expected before dying from the disease at 8 years old.
And then Jim was hit with cancer at 53 years old. No doubt, Kelly has had his share of tough breaks.
“I laugh about it, too,’’ Kelly said.
Only he doesn’t seem to look at it that way.
“You do to a certain point because you always look back and say the good Lord had a plan for me,’’ he said. “And I know I went through a lot, I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been at the top of the hill and I’ve been to the bottom.
“It’s the people you surround yourself with. I’ve been very blessed to have a great team. Even the team I have now with ‘Your Cancer Game Plan.’ It’s to go out there and encourage people to never give up. And we do have a place you can go to, log on to yourcancergameplan.com. There’s so many questions people have. And I remember when we were going through it, I had nowhere to turn. My wife didn’t know who to talk to.’’
And now the inflection in Kelly’s voice raises as he gets to the cause that is now part of his life’s work.
“Head and neck cancer, over 60,000 people this year will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer,’’ he said. “All the sudden we came up with this Game Plan. I’m glad that we know more now so we can tell more people about it to make a difference in their lives.’’
Nearly everyone reading this has the experience of loved ones whose lives have been affected by cancer. One of the first questions people have is: How did they get it?
“People thought I either dipped or smoked,’’ Kelly said. “I’ve never dipped in my life and I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. I’ve had a few cigars here and there, you know, by the campfire in celebration. But I just thought that I had some bad teeth. So I had a number of root canals done. But the pain was still so severe in my head that I knew something was wrong.’’
He had two biopsies. The first came back negative. Kelly knew better than to celebrate. The pain was still there. Something was wrong. A second biopsy revealed what doctors diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma. Surgery removed it once.
“And then it returned with vengeance,’’ Kelly said. “That’s when I went through my radiation and chemo. That’s when it did not look very good for me. But the thing is I surrounded myself with quality people.
“I live by the four Fs. No. 1 is my faith. There is no doubt the prayers got me through to where I’m at today. No. 2 is my family. Not one time did they ever walk into my room whether it was my wife, my two daughters or my five brothers, they walked in with an attitude that they’re going to make my day better. And they did.
“No. 3 was my friends. I’m blessed to have some great, great friends. And No. 4 is the fans. Believe it or not, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and even Denver Broncos people were e-mailing me and sending me cards saying they’re praying for me. And I’m like, ‘Wow, is this really happening?’
“But I think that’s why I’m put in a position today to be able to make a difference for others that don’t have that supporting cast that I have.’’
Kelly’s website also lists proper nutrition as a critical factor to beating cancer.
“I was one of those guys, I’d eat everything you put in front of me,’’ he said. “That’s why I ballooned to 260 pounds.’’
What was playing weight?
“Two, thirty, 232, right where I’m at right now,’’ he said. “And then it’s the attitude that you have. Never give up.’’