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2018 NCAA Inspiration Award: Jim Kelly

Hall of Fame quarterback’s perseverance impacts others

Jim Kelly was named honorary captain of the Miami (Florida) football team before a 2014 game against North Carolina. Lynne Sladky / AP Images

Jim Kelly’s father instilled the “Kelly Tough” mantra early on in his six sons. He believed the motivation to excel must come from within.  

Kelly would lean on that lesson for the rest of his life. Not only to will himself to a college scholarship and a Hall of Fame football career, but also to soldier through a debilitating shoulder injury, the disappointment of four-consecutive Super Bowl losses, the death of a young son and his own yearslong battle with cancer. The toughness he needed to endure his life’s challenges took shape decades before, thanks to a few simple, stern instructions from a father who wanted his sons to flourish.

“My dad was always telling us, ‘If you’re waiting for me to tell you to get in the backyard to throw, or if you’re waiting for coach to tell you to run and get into shape, you’re just going to be an average player,’” Kelly said.

After his first start as quarterback at Miami (Florida), Kelly proved he would be much more than average. Two hours before kickoff during a 1979 midseason game against Penn State, Hurricane head coach Howard Schnellenberger told the redshirt freshman quarterback he would start. Miami was a heavy underdog and was playing in State College, Pennsylvania, just hours away from Kelly’s hometown. Kelly wasn’t flustered by those pressures, and Miami pulled off the 26-10 upset.

“Every single game, no matter what the score was at any point, no one in the huddle thought we were going to lose,” Miami teammate Don Bailey Jr. said. “And that was because of the way Jim managed a game, the talent he had and the will he put forth.”

Kelly led Miami to a Peach Bowl victory during the 1980 season, the program’s first bowl game appearance since 1967, and tallied 5,228 passing yards during his four seasons with the Hurricanes. A Heisman candidate his senior year, “Kelly Tough” was tested again when he suffered what doctors called a career-ending shoulder injury. Surgery followed to place three metal rods in Kelly’s arm.

The East Brady, Pennsylvania, native responded not only by playing football again, but by showing he was healthy enough to warrant being picked in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. Instead of playing with the Bills immediately, Kelly signed with the United States Football League’s Houston Gamblers, breaking USFL records until the league folded in 1986. He joined the Bills that year and led the team to four straight Super Bowls, starting with the 1990 season. They remain the only team to ever accomplish that feat — and the only franchise to have lost four in a row.  

“One thing I take from those Super Bowls is the resiliency our team had to never ever give up,” Kelly said. “Of course, you think about not winning, and that hurts for about five seconds. Then you mentally focus somewhere else.”

Kelly’s focus took a dramatic shift one year into retirement. On Feb. 14, 1997, Kelly and his wife, Jill, welcomed their son, Hunter, into the world. Four months later, Hunter was diagnosed with Krabbe leukodystrophy, a fatal disease that took his life eight years later.

“That was probably one time in my life when I wasn’t really tough,” Kelly said. “I was mad. But I understand now why I was put in those positions, and that is to make a difference for those who might not think they have a tomorrow.”

Anger eventually yielded to hope. The year his son was born, Kelly launched Hunter’s Hope — a foundation that funds research into the cause, prevention and treatment of Krabbe and other leukodystrophies. Since its inception, Kelly and the organization have raised millions of dollars to help children affected by these diseases.

“He took the most unimaginable situation and painful situation and did the absolute best he could with it,” Bailey said. “He found a way to help other people.”

In 2013, Kelly was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma and had a portion of his upper jaw removed. The cancer returned a year later. Through the fight, he remembered his son.  

“We all go through tough times in our life,” Kelly said. “My attitude got better every time I thought about what my son went through.”  

Kelly survived the scare and, in January 2017, launched the “Your Cancer Game Plan” campaign, which provides tools to help meet the emotional, nutritional and communication needs of cancer patients and their loved ones. The “Kelly Tough” approach to life that started in a backyard in East Brady now echoes within households around the country.

“He inspires everyone around him so much that they can’t quit,” Bailey said. “Jim is so powerful in his actions and the way he handles things that you can’t quit.”