Jim Kelly relishes returning to Miami, even when his destination is Sun Life Stadium to serve as a Buffalo Bills ambassador Sunday while his beloved Bills take on the hometown Dolphins — a team he defeated several times during a bitter rivalry in the 1980s and ’90s.
That’s because Kelly, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, also is known as the first modern-day Miami Hurricane to begin the lineage of quarterback greats at a program once nicknamed “Quarterback U.”
And now, the charismatic quarterback considered among the toughest to ever play the game, the on-field warrior whose body has been repeatedly carved by surgeons, is beating another nemesis — cancer.
“They had to remove my whole upper jaw and pretty much all through my left side of the cheek,” said Kelly, 53, of his squamous cell carcinoma. “I’m getting there, but I’m not a very patient person. I wanted things to feel good from start to finish. There’s still pain, but the only time it really bothers me is when I talk for a while.
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“I’ve already taken my Advil, so I’m feeling a lot better now.”
Kelly had surgery in June to remove the cancer and wears a prosthesis connected to “a couple of teeth I still have left,” he said during a phone interview with the Miami Herald.
“I know that sounds gross. I went to the recent Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony and everybody was like, ‘What does it feel like?’ and I was like, ‘Man, you don’t need to hear my problems. You probably have enough of your own.’ ”
Kelly’s prognosis for recovery is considered good because the cancer was isolated, and he didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation, doctors said in June. He sees an oncologist regularly to monitor his progress.
He said he never smoked cigarettes or dipped tobacco before getting sick, but smoked cigars occasionally. In the past two years, not counting previous football-related procedures, Kelly said he has had “back surgery — two plates and 10 screws — and double hernia surgery five months after that and at Christmas time, neck surgery — a plate and six screws in my neck.
“I had three jaw surgeries before they found out I had cancer, and I’ve gone through six root canals on my bottom teeth because some of my nerves were affected.
“But I’m actually doing well,” he said, laughing. “You have to confront your challenges head on.”
Even before those surgeries and the recent cancer, Kelly, who lives with his family in Orchard Park outside Buffalo, had begun his biggest battle off the football field. His son, Hunter James Kelly, was diagnosed as a 4-month-old with globoid cell leukodystrophy, a genetic disease that affects the nervous system.
Hunter died at age 8 in 2005.
Jim and his wife Jill, who began the Hunter’s Hope Foundation in 1997, through their foundation established the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute at the University of Buffalo’s School of Medicine.
The memory of Hunter still inspires Kelly, whose life’s passion is to help find a cure.
“I’m a lot better person today than before Hunter was born,” said Kelly, who also has two daughters, 18-year-old Erin and 14-year-old Camryn.