Eye-to-eye with greatness

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:04 AM ET

Jim Kelly looked into the eyes of the kids from the Thames Valley Children's Centre and recognized their fight.

The Buffalo Bills football legend saw those same eyes for eight years while his son Hunter battled with Krabbe Disease, an inherited nervous system problem that usually comes with a brief life span of 14 months.

"He's up in heaven now. Hunter fought every day of his life and that kid never gave up. He lived the longest of anyone who had Krabbe leukodystrophy," Kelly said. "I think about him every day. I wanted to see these kids. I know what their parents are going through and how important it is to raise money for causes like this."

The four-time Super Bowl runner-up headlined one of the most star-studded versions of the London Sports Celebrity Dinner and Auction last night at the London Convention Centre. This year's collection of big-time athletes had plenty in common, making it one of the liveliest evenings in the event's history.

Kelly, an owner of a NASCAR Busch Series racing team, chatted with Canadian driver Ron Fellows, who nearly ended up working for the former pass-thrower.

"A while back, I did some testing with Frank Cicci (Kelly's racing partner) at Daytona," Fellows said. "Nothing materialized and I ended up signing with Kevin Harvick, but it's funny that the potential was there to end up racing for Kelly's team."

Kelly, who lives in Buffalo, talked to Sabres draft picks Adam Dennis and Dylan Hunter of the London Knights, congratulated David Bolland on his world junior gold medal and gave fellow American Rob Schremp praise for bringing home the fourth-place "fronze medal" from Vancouver.

London native and Boston Red Sox outfielder Adam Stern was jazzed to meet fellow head table guest and former big league great Larry Walker -- the best baseball player Canada has ever produced.

Walker, who retired after his St. Louis Cardinals lost the National League championship series to the Houston Astros this past fall, has signed up as a Canadian assistant in the upcoming World Baseball Classic and will be coaching Stern in the event.

"You hope with playing South Africa first, you can start well and get on a roll," Walker said. "This has the potential to become a big thing in our country and pick up steam. We're not just sending a bunch of guys into it. We've got proven major leaguers on this roster."

Second baseman Orlando (O-Dog) Hudson knew it was a business decision when he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks from the Toronto Blue Jays, but he didn't realize he would be given the business about it from the Toronto Argonauts ageless quarterback Damon Allen yesterday.

"He's happy to be out of the Yankees' division. He's happy he doesn't have to face Randy Johnson."

Hudson wasn't about to take that sort of smack from his fellow head table guest.

"I really think the Argos need to get a quarterback," Hudson said with a wide grin. "My favourite CFL quarterbacks are Nealon Greene and (Casey) Printers in B.C."

The Allen, 42, the reigning CFL MVP, managed to huddle with promising 17-year-old Catholic Central Crusaders receiver Kevin D'Hollander for a little pigskin chat.

D'Hollander's Crusaders wrapped up their memorable high school season last fall with a victory on the same Rogers Centre turf where Allen often weaves his magic.

"His (Grey Cup) ring is the size of a golf ball," D'Hollander said. "He's a very nice person. It was great to get a chance to meet him."

Sitting and watching the interaction with much satisfaction, London's long-time Paralympic swimmer Adam Purdy noted the bond most athletes share: the love of participating and the opportunity to motivate others.

Almost 20 years ago, Purdy was a Thames Valley kid watching the annual parade of his sports heroes into London. Now, he's among celebrities signing autographs.

"As I've gone along from Atlanta to Sydney to Athens and hopefully to Beijing, my attitude towards sports has changed. I've learned a lot but the biggest is, win or lose, as long as I get the chance to compete, that's when I'm happiest. That's what we as athletes live for -- to get to the start line and look at the other athletes there and to take part in the big event."


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