RICK CLEVELAND: Tough-guy quarterback Jim Kelly in the fight of his life

RICK CLEVELAND

RICK CLEVELAND

JACKSON

This was last September. Jim Kelly, the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, was in Jackson to speak at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Kent Hull Tribute Banquet. We were eating dinner at the head table in front of about 400 folks. Suddenly in mid-conversation, Jim winced, then leaned over and whispered, “I’m going to need a little help here.”

We’ll get to what Kelly needed, but first some background…

The banquet was to raise money to perpetuate a Kent Hull Trophy that goes annually to the most outstanding college offensive lineman in the state. Kelly had accepted the invitation to be the keynote speaker four months earlier. He didn’t have to think about it. “I’ll be there,” he said.

Then, in June, three months out, Kelly was diagnosed with cancer in his jaw and immediately underwent surgery.

We called to wish Kelly well and to essentially tell him we hated he wouldn’t make it.

He sent back this message: “Don’t count me out. If there’s any way, I’ll be there. Kent would be there for me.”

And, three months later, Kelly was here, flying in from upstate New York (coach), gladly posing for photographs and signing autographs and mingling with the folks who had paid $100 a plate to honor his buddy and hear him.

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly is battling an aggressive form of cancer in his jaw. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly is battling an aggressive form of cancer in his jaw. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

So, back to where we started, at the head table: I looked over at Kelly and he was rubbing his jaw, frowning.

“Lean over here and block me from the crowd,” he said.

I did.

Kelly reached into his mouth with his thumb and forefinger and pulled out his artificial jaw, his prosthesis. Then, he put it on his napkin in his lap, pulled some food out of it, wiped it off, and stuck it back in his mouth. He used his hand, on the outside of his face, to maneuver it back into place.

“There,” he said. “Ready to go.”

A few moments later, Kelly stepped to the podium and gave a moving speech about his buddy, Kent Hull. His poignant speech was at times funny, at times eye-watering. He received a standing O.

I told Kay Hull, Kent’s widow, the story about the prosthesis later. She wasn’t surprised.

“Those guys are so tough,” she said. “Jim’s like Kent. You’d never know either one of them was hurting. They’d never let on.”

Close partnership

Kelly and Hull joined the Buffalo Bills together, led them to four AFC championships, four Super Bowls. They were more than 11-year teammates; they were close, close friends, Kelly from Pennsylvania, Hull from Greenwood. They always had one another’s back.

In 1996, Hull told Kelly he was retiring. Kelly said if Hull was retiring, he was, too. Kent made his announcement first. Kelly’s followed, days later. The Bills have never been the same.

When Kent passed away in October of 2011, Kelly had this to say: “Kent was the heartbeat of the Buffalo Bills. He was the leader. People talk about Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly, but if you were looking for the glue to it all, you looked no further than number 67.”

Kelly was something, too. He threw for 237 NFL touchdowns, more than 35,000 yards. It was never easy. Kelly lost a son to a rare disease. He has two plates and 10 screws in his back from one surgery, another plate and six screws in his neck from another surgery. Somewhere in there, he had surgery for a double hernia.

And now, the evil cancer that was in his jaw has returned with a vengeance. Doctors have described it as “very aggressive.” It is in his brain. At first, surgery was planned. Then, doctors decided they couldn’t do surgery until the cancer is blasted with chemo and radiation. But that’s been delayed because of an infection and fever.

In other words, grim understates the situation Jim Kelly, a good, loyal and brave man, faces.

“… but if anybody can beat this, Jim Kelly can,” Kay Hull says. “He and his family need our prayers.”

Indeed. Send them Jim Kelly’s way … from Mississippi, with love and utmost respect.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.