My long history as a Buffalo Bills fan began more than 40 years ago when, in 1971, my family moved from State College, Pennsylvania to Rochester, New York. At that time, only nine years of age, I was woefully ignorant about how much football was actually being played in this country. Specifically, I was only aware of games on Friday nights (occasionally going to Bellefonte High School games) and Saturday afternoons, when Penn State provided my father, who wasn’t to have a son until after our arrival in Western New York, a chance to teach me the basics.
Rochester opened a whole new world to me, and while many now have very strong feelings about O.J. Simpson, for reasons that have nothing to do with football, my memories of him during the fall Sundays of the early 1970s are pretty good. I came to believe if the Bills couldn’t always win (or, when playing the dastardly Miami Dolphins that decade, ever win), I’d settle for a couple hundred rushing yards from The Juice.
I left Rochester for college in 1979 and have never lived there since, but I did not abandon the Bills, and while I could never bring myself to root against them, I did hope for the best when it came to draft picks during those long, painful seasons in the early 1980s. And it was from those years that my complicated feelings for Jim Kelly emerged. Complicated because he ditched Buffalo, going to the USFL of all things, preferring that ignominious glory to an NFL career with the franchise I adored. It was no way to warm my heart. And when he did finally arrive a few years later, I held a grudge because, you see, I’m Irish-American, too. It’s what I was built to do.
Somewhere around 1988, my icy heart began to melt, thanks to the arrival of Thurman Thomas and an unexpected trip to the AFC Championship. Hmm. Maybe it’s time to cut Kelly some slack. Needless to say, four far more successful AFC Championship games followed in the years to come (beating the Raiders 51-3 was a particular highlight), and by this time I had completely adopted Jim Kelly as my favorite Buffalo Bill. All transgressions forgiven. Sure the Super Bowl losses were tough, but I’d rather have a stake in the Super Bowl than go, say, 15 years without a playoff game. But I digress…
Obviously Jim Kelly has proven his toughness plenty on the football field. But it was in the months following his 1997 retirement, when the world learned about his infant son’s fatal diagnosis and the long struggle they endured thereafter, that “Kelly Tough” began to take on a new meaning. And then again in the last couple years, the slogan became a hashtag, a growing symbol of what it really meant to be a Kelly, as Jim suffered through two bouts with cancer.
Jim Kelly has always lauded the toughness of his parents, the toughness of his five brothers, the toughness that defined his upbringing. But now with a new book, Kelly Tough, written by Jim’s oldest child, Erin (with help from her mom, Jill), we can get some vivid insight into what makes that family tick and how their faith and strength helped them endure some pretty difficult days when Jim’s survival, and therefore the future of their family, hung in the balance.
While the book and their story are very much connected to their deeply held religious beliefs, there’s plenty in Kelly Tough to inspire people regardless of their belief system. A story in Chapter Six about Ray Kelly’s “prayer” for his brother suggests that even the Kelly family provides a range of spiritual beliefs, but they all share a love for each other and faith in the strength of that love to move mountains while overcoming death, loss, sickness and pain. It’s a powerful story, made more so by the voice of such a young woman.
Recently Jim and Jill Kelly visited Fort Wayne and shared their story with audiences at Fort Wayne’s Embassy Theatre. I was there one of those nights and attended a reception the following day and finally met my Bills hero. When I welcomed him to Indiana, using that as a justification for wearing an Andre Reed shirt to a somewhat professional function, he gave me a hug. I told him “I really love my Bills,” and he said “I do, too.” “I know,” I replied. And I really do. What’s a couple years in the USFL between friends?