Kelly's hero

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly will be in London on Monday for the Sports Celebrity...

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly will be in London on Monday for the Sports Celebrity Dinner. (File Photo)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

Jim Kelly was known as one of the toughest quarterbacks in the National Football League.

In his 11 years with the Buffalo Bills and four Super Bowl appearances, he faced some of the toughest players ever to play the game.

But on the day he was inducted into pro football's Hall of Fame in 2002, Kelly made it clear the toughest person he'd ever met was a little boy in a wheelchair.

"It has been written throughout my career that toughness is my trademark," Kelly said in his induction speech. "Well, the toughest person I've ever met in my life is my hero, my soldier, my son, Hunter. I love you, buddy."

Hunter Kelly was five years old. He was suffering from Krabbe Leukodystrophy, an inherited, fatal, nervous system disease. The Kellys were told Hunter would not live past 18 months. With his family fighting for him, Hunter defied the odds, living until he was eight. He died in August last year.

When Jim Kelly takes to the podium Monday night at the London Sports Celebrity Dinner and Auction, he'll draw inspiration from his son.

"I've learned to never take life for granted," Kelly said yesterday from the office of Kelly Enterprises Inc.

"Without doubt, he was my hero. I saw first-hand what he went through. They said he wouldn't live to 14 months and my little buddy lived for eight years.

"It's different in the household now. We know he's in heaven. He'll be able to do all the things he couldn't do on Earth up there. He's sitting on Grandma Kelly, my mom's lap, and keeping an eye on us.

"It's funny, I look back on all the things he was able to accomplish and all the kids' lives he's already helped (by living so long). Through treatment, Hunter's Hope and through Hunter, we see our kids walking, talking, smiling now -- not 100 per cent, but they are getting there."

Hunter's Hope is a foundation established by Kelly and his wife to increase public awareness of leukodystrophies and to increase the likelihood of early detection and treatment. It raises money to fund research and new treatments and a cure for Krabbe and other leukodystrophies.

It's amazing what the illness of a child will do to the toughest of us and what it does to our priorities in life. Kelly is a motivational speaker. Kelly Enterprises deals with marketing and brand loyalty. He also owns a team in NASCAR's Busch series.

Ask Kelly what he enjoys most, though, and the answer comes quickly.

"Hunting, fishing and spending time with my kids," said Kelly, who has two daughters. "I have that on my schedule, too. My wife made me listen to a CD a few months back and it talked about businessmen who have their agenda and schedules and when someone calls they say, 'Can't because he has this.' I've put my family on my schedule so when people call, I say, 'Sorry I got kids this weekend, I'm going on vacation, going here, going there.' "

Long before the birth of his son, he established the Kelly for Kids Foundation in 1987. It is committed to providing funding and support to children's charities throughout western New York.

"But we never felt we would have a disabled child," Kelly said. "It's changed my life and my wife's life for the better. Now we're moving on and trying to make a difference for other kids."

He's gone to Washington and the governor's office in New York to advocate for "newborn screening, making sure every state in the United States check for the same number of diseases, which they do not . . . 3,000 babies die every year because they are born in a different state. If I don't do it, nobody's going to do it.

"I know if my son was diagnosed early, he would have had a quality of life."

This is Kelly toughness, a toughness that allowed him to survive four trips to the Super Bowl and four losses and that has led to rumours he has an interest in running for political office.

Kelly was part of the 1983 draft class, perhaps the best quarterback class ever. Drafted in the first round with Kelly were John Elway, Dan Marino, Ken O'Brien, Todd Blackledge and Tony Eason.

Kelly had no desire to play in cold weather. But he eventually found himself back in Buffalo. Now he lives there year-round and attends all the games. Kelly believes the Bills made a great move bringing back his his old coach and friend Marv Levy as general manager.

"It's awesome," Kelly said. "He brings so much to the table. He knows talent. I think it's a breath of fresh air that they desperately needed. He may not have been a general manager in the past, but it will take him about a weekend to know the business."

Kelly will be the keynote speaker at Monday's dinner.

"I go 100 miles an hour. I speak from the heart," he said. "I never have any notes. There'll be good times and bad times in your life. It's like a roller-coaster. The ones that succeed, the ones that come to the top, will be the ones who turn the negatives into positives."

Just as Kelly has done.


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