For those of you who know me you are aware that one of my best buddies is going through a tough time. Although to most, Jim Kelly is a Hall of Fame quarterback for many of us he is also “JK”, just one of the Kelly boys. This is no ordinary family. Parents Joe and Alice had their own team of tough, Catholic, Irish characters who enjoy and occasional beer (possibly an understatement). This family grew up in a situation like many of their friends where money came tough but values came easy. If you know this family, the phrase “Kelly Tough” is an underlying theme. Sometimes I wonder if they have nerve endings. When we are on a hunting trip and I am cold, wet and shivering, these guys are running around in short sleeves! Their toughness permeates all aspects of their work and play and of course Jim’s toughness on the field is legendary.
Jim was diagnosed with oral cancer over a year ago and had a pretty debilitating surgical procedure, losing a good part of his upper jaw inside his mouth. Just when it seemed that things were good, he began experiencing severe pain in his face. Although this level of facial pain would have crippled the average person, Jim kept on with his speaking engagements, hunting and family life. We communicated a lot about his pain level and my 30 year experience with facial surgery told me that it was truly unbearable and unusual. As it turned out, this pain was a sign of recurrence of his cancer. Trigeminal nerve pain has been described as one of the most severe pains known to man and this guy was walking around with it for months; an example of “Kelly Tough”. Pat Kelly (Jim’s older brother) describes Jim as being “as tough as a Waffle House steak”, and he is correct.
Brothers Danny, Pat and Jim showing off their puzzle skills ( they are a lot better than me ).
I had the chance to spend the weekend with Jim and his family at the hospital in New York City. I feared that I would find a debilitated and depressed patient but what I found was the usual “JK” as upbeat as possible and looking tired, but not sick. In the first 2 seconds I saw him, a relief came over my body; Jim is making the best of it as usual. Even if Jim was not an NFL quarterback, he would still be the “commander” with his friends. He would be barking out commands keeping things straight while not asking anyone to do something that he would not do. I guess this is just a facet of being a leader and to his friends he has always been a leader. It did not matter if you were cooking on the grill, having a party, or stalking Elk with the bow and arrow, JK would be controlling the reins.
As with many of my friends, I have always admired Jim, and we have shared some heartache. Not long after Jim and Jill’s son Hunter was born with a rare and fatal genetic syndrome, my wife April and I had not one but two sons born with severe disabilities. Only families that have gone through this can even begin to understand the heartache associated with sick children. Scores of emergency room visits, weeks of hospitalizations, numerous operations and a future of total uncertainty just scratch the surface of this situation. I have to say that I was beyond devastated having this happen to me twice with 2 sons. When I would fall into the “oh woe is me, life is so hard”, Jim would reel me back into reality and remind me that “this happens, be tough, deal with it. You did not cause it but it is life and you have to be strong for you, April and Joey and Evan.” Jim showed me by example how to handle this situation with dignity, resolve and toughness and I have called on this many times when the going gets rough. I am counting on my pal JK to show me the same example with his current situation and I know he will.
Family is everything and Jim is wealthy in that respect. His wife Jill has always been a light house in the storm and gets that from her mom Jacque. Jim’s daughters Erin and Cameron are his everything and currently the first line of defense in keeping him strong. This is an extremely religious family and they live by the power of prayer. When people ask the family “is there anything we can do” the answer is simple, they will answer you by saying “please Pray for JK” and have established this link for that purpose.
Jim’s former team mate and Hall of Fame peer Bruce Smith was also at the bedside all weekend and specifically told the doctor “you have to fix this guy because we love him”. Usually when Bruce Smith (all-time NFL sack record) speaks, people listen, so I know the doc got the message. I arrived in NYC late enough to miss our mutual friend and Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas who introduced Jim into the fine art of jigsaw puzzles. I left at 7:30 Saturday PM, and unfortunately was a bit too early to see a surprise visit by another Hall of Famer and close JK friend Dan Marino who showed up with a giant box of Joe’s Crab Legs. With the Kelly’s Pat, Ed, Danny and Ray in the room, I get the feeling they did not last long.
Jim, Joe and Bruce share some laughs and compassion at the hospital.
Jim’s medical team is being headed by the very talented Peter, Costatino, MD who is a surgical hall of famer in his own right. The surgical plan has changed and Jim will soon undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He will need everyone’s support as there will be some rough water to navigate, but he is in a great place. He has his family and thousands of friends, fans and supporters who are thinking and praying for him.
“Stay Kelly Tough Jim, flex your muscles and look it in the face. You can win this”, that is what you would tell me.
Joe Niamtu,III DMD
Cosmetic Facial Surgery