Life Lessons in Perseverance Prepared NFL Legend for Cancer Battle
Kristen Coppock, MA, Managing Editor
Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly is well known as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he said he used perseverance to reach his dreams on the gridiron. On Tuesday, Kelly also shared with specialty pharmacists other personal stories of perseverance that included the death of his young son, marital problems, a plane crash, and, most recently, his fight against squamous cell carcinoma in his upper jaw.
Kelly, 60, spoke about his life during a keynote address for the National Association of Specialty Pharmacy (NASP) 2020 Annual Meeting & Expo Virtual Experience. The discussion took attendees from a childhood spent tossing a football in his backyard with his brothers and his collegiate rise from fourth string quarterback to a starting position at the University of Miami, to challenges with his son’s medical condition and his own cancer battle.
Throughout all of these challenges, perseverance paid off. Kelly said those earlier life experiences are what ultimately prepared him to deal with cancer.
Kelly was initially interested in attending Penn State University, and he was offered a spot on the team as a linebacker with a full scholarship to attend the school. However, Kelly wanted to play football as a quarterback and chose to keep searching for the right fit.
An opportunity at the University of Miami allowed him to play quarterback, eventually assigned to the backup role. As the team was preparing to play Penn State, he was told he was being promoted to starting quarterback. “I went into the bathroom, and I threw up for 20 minutes,” he said, adding that vomiting was typical for him before big games.
Miami won the game, upsetting the then-favored Penn State team, 26-10. “That was the start of my college career,” Kelly said.
Later on, a shoulder injury sidelined Kelly, who continued to persevere. Following surgery and rehabilitation, Kelly was selected to play professional football as the 14th pick in the first round of the 1983 draft.
During his professional career, Kelly led the Buffalo Bills to 4 consecutive Super Bowls—and lost them all. Despite those setbacks, Kelly said that reaching the Super Bowl and playing in the sport’s biggest game with other accomplished athletes reminded him of his youth, when he had only dreamed of making a career in football.
“When you’re going through tough times, it’s about your attitude,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of things that don’t go your way, but you’ve got to fight through them.”
His successes on the field throughout his career would later lead to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Following retirement from football, Kelly faced even bigger challenges. The first was his infant son’s diagnosis of globoid cell leukodystroy (Krabbe disease), a severe and progressive neurological condition.
Patients with the infantile form of Krabbe disease typically do not survive past 2 years of age. Kelly’s son, Hunter, lived to the age of 8 before passing away. He had no motor skills, relied on a feeding tube, and forced oxygen at all time, according to Kelly.
“That was probably one of the toughest times in my life,” Kelly said. “Those times were very hard on all of us.”
According to Kelly, his marriage to his wife, Jill, had become strained as they were dealing with their son’s illness. During this time, Kelly was also frequently traveling for business reasons. The couple also had 2 young daughters at home.
After his son died, Kelly said, he quickly knew that he had to change his life to “become the husband and father that I should have been,” and he set out to work on those relationships. During his NASP presentation, Kelly said his wife and daughters are still by his side, and their family life has improved.
“We had our nuptials redone, which is awesome,” he said. “My 2 beautiful daughters, we just raised them.”
During the NASP presentation, Kelly also shared his story of survival following a plane crash.
“I was in Alaska, bear-hunting with my brother. My brother was on shore and my plane took off, crashing into the Bering Sea,” he said. “I was able to swim about 20 yards, until I was able to touch [the bottom of the sea], and then I swam in.”
At the time, Kelly said, he thought that was the end of the proverbial “roller coaster” he had been on. However, Kelly said, there was another challenge for him: cancer.
“I’m sure there are a lot of listeners out there today that have been through similar situations, whether it was with yourself or a family member or a close friend,” Kelly said.
He described experiencing a great deal of pain in his mouth. Following a series of root canals for oral issues that were initially believed to be the source of the pain, he developed a serious headache. At that point, Kelly’s health care team performed a biopsy that revealed squamous cell carcinoma.
Kelly said he was concerned for his family and how they would respond to the diagnosis, considering the loss of Hunter. However, he said his wife and daughters “rose the occasion” and took on the fight against cancer with him. Their support inspired Kelly to come up with his life’s motto, the 4 ‘F’s’: faith, family, friends, and fans.
His family, including 5 brothers, would often visit him in the hospital. All of them provided encouragement, and on his worst days, didn’t allow him to give up. “Not one time did they ever frown or was there an attitude back. They were there to make me better,” he said.
He also received a great deal of support from friends and former teammates, and received positive messages from football fans.
Kelly eventually went through 45 rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, he said, and had his upper jaw removed after the cancer had spread. At one point, Kelly had stage 4 cancer and had a less than 10% chance of survival.
He said after 3 cancer diagnoses and multiple surgeries and treatments, he is now cancer-free.
“I’ve been through so many things in my life, and I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I might have lost 4 Super Bowls, but I don’t plan on losing against cancer.”
Citing God’s plan for him, Kelly said he now understands why his life has had these tough challenges. “It’s to get me to my platform now, to be able to make a difference for some many other people.”
Kelly said a film about his life is now in the works.
Kelly J. Keynote. Presented at: National Association of Specialty Pharmacy (NASP) 2020 Annual Meeting & Expo Virtual Experience; September 15, 2020.