EAST AURORA, N.Y. (EYT/D9) — Getting to Graham Field on a chilly autumn Saturday afternoon was a hike for Jim Kelly and his East Brady Bulldog teammates.
(Pictured above: Jim Kelly poses in front of the billboard in East Brady in 2015/Photo courtesy of the National Football League)
The journey from the locker room at the high school to the football field was nearly three-quarters of a mile.
With each step, Kelly’s fervor grew.
“We had to walk down a long alley the whole way,” Kelly said. “When we got down to a certain point before we crossed the regular road to go onto the field, we were pumped. We were ready to go. And the fans, even though it was a small town, they were always there.”
And, there were always a lot of them. Most of the residents of the borough, which is nestled inside a bend of the Allegheny River, wedged themselves shoulder-to-shoulder onto the bleachers or packed the hillside.
Workers at the old Rex-Hyde rubber factory along the river would spill out onto the loading docks and climb atop the warehouse roof just to see a few quarters of Kelly and the Bulldogs play.
“There was a lot of pride in East Brady football,” Kelly said. “There’s a saying: ‘Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog.’ We still live with that motto today.”
Kelly lives by a few other mottos, as well – a product of a life that has been full of tremendous highs and unthinkable lows.
There’s a movie being made about Kelly’s life — it was scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 but has since been resurrected. It’s expected to hit theaters by 2024.
Kelly, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, is excited about the film and made sure to stress that it’s more than just about him. It’s about his wife, Jill, as well.
“It’s about all the things we did to keep moving on,” Kelly said. “It’s about never giving up on anything. It’s about being from this small town, East Brady, and all the big dreams I had.”
It may be an impossible feat of filmmaking to jam what has happened to Kelly, 61, into a 120-minute flick.
Like a shoulder injury in college that nearly ended his career.
Like the neck, back, head, ankle, and knee injuries he suffered while playing in the USFL and then the NFL.
Like the heartache of losing a son, Hunter, at the age of eight from a rare nervous system disease.
Like four consecutive Super Bowl appearances with the Buffalo Bills — and four consecutive crushing losses.
Like four battles with mouth and jaw cancer — and four hard-fought victories.
“Kelly Tough” is one of his mantras. Hard to argue with that.
“He’s been through a lot of pain, I tell you,” said Terry Henry, who coached Kelly on the East Brady football team and remains one of his closest friends. “He always tries to stay as positive as he can, but sometimes he says, ‘I don’t know why this has happened, and why I have to suffer like this.’”
Deep down, though, Kelly said he knows why.
“Make a difference today for someone fighting for their tomorrow” — another one of his mottos.
“That’s one of the things I’ve learned throughout my speaking time the last 10, 15 years,” Kelly said. “I’m a difference-maker. I can be a difference-maker. And, you can, too. You don’t have to be a Hall-of-Fame quarterback or a professional athlete to be a difference-maker. If you can make people want to see tomorrow, then you’ve done your job because there are too many people I’ve met over the years who are ready to give up.”
Giving up was never in Jim Kelly’s vocabulary. His five brothers wouldn’t allow it. Neither would his parents, Joe and Alice Kelly.
The family moved from West Deer to a yellow, two-story house on Purdum Street in East Brady when Jim was seven, so Joe could be closer to the factory where he worked as a machinist. The blue-collar borough was a perfect fit for the Kellys.
In that house, you never quit when knocked down. You got up and soldiered on.
The entire Kelly brood was into sports. Football, basketball, baseball — you name it — and they were always, always physical.
“I grew up in a family with five brothers,” Kelly said, chuckling. “We’d play tackle football inside the house, as well as outside.”
All of his brothers grew up to be star athletes. The oldest of the six boys, Pat, was drafted by the Baltimore Colts after starring as a linebacker at the University of Richmond.
And then there was Jimmy, as Kelly was known to everyone in East Brady when he was a kid — and still to this day.
He didn’t play varsity football for the Bulldogs as a freshman in the mid-1970s. That was only because he wasn’t allowed.
“Ninth-graders weren’t able to play varsity football at that time because it was against the rules,” Henry said. “If he could have, he probably would have been my starting quarterback. So, instead, his brother, Raymond, was the quarterback.”
When Kelly did take over under center, he was scintillating. He ended his Bulldog career with 3,915 passing yards, 44 touchdowns, and just one interception.
East Brady was the littlest of the Little 12 Conference teams, but it didn’t matter. The Bulldogs routed almost everyone they played.
“Most of the time, we only played a half, maybe a little more than a half of a game because we were beating teams so bad,” Kelly said.
Kelly got noticed, catching the eye of Joe Paterno at Penn State. Being a Nittany Lion was always a dream of Kelly’s, and it was about to become a reality.
But two weeks before signing day, Paterno gave Kelly some shocking news: he had already signed two quarterbacks and wanted Kelly to come to State College as a linebacker.
That was a deal-breaker for Kelly.
Meanwhile, in South Beach, the University of Miami had hired offensive guru Howard Schnellenberger to rebuild a floundering program that was nearly canceled by the school a few years earlier. Schnellenberger was installing a new pro-style, pass-oriented offense with the Hurricanes.
He needed a gunslinger to run it.
He needed Jim Kelly.
Kelly’s first game with the Hurricanes was against Penn State and Joe Paterno. Kelly led Miami to an upset win.
“That’s something I cherished,” Kelly said. “How all that came about.”
Kelly also cherished his two years in the USFL with the Houston Gamblers and then his long career in Buffalo where he led the K-Gun, hurry-up offense. It was an innovative attack at the time and helped the Bills dominate the AFC for four straight years.
Kelly never got a Super Bowl ring, though. “Wide Right” and then three blowout losses denied him the ultimate prize.
It was deflating to Kelly at the time, but nothing compared to what he had to face in retirement.
His Biggest Battle
Kelly has been running a football camp for 33 years. He teaches the kids about more than just football; He also teaches them about overcoming obstacles — and they listen because Kelly has overcome more than anyone else probably could.
“I just enjoy watching and teaching kids, not only about the game of football, but about life,” Kelly said. “I mean, that’s probably the biggest part of my football camp and the part I’m most proud of, our ‘Chalk Talks.’ We make the kids understand that, you know, nowadays nothing comes easy in your life. You got to work at it or you’re never going to achieve anything.
“Look around,” Kelly added. “There’s so many people who have it worse than you do, so just keep plugging along. Keep fighting.”
In 2013, Kelly had to keep fighting through intense, unexplained pain in his mouth. He had a series of root canals in the hopes that would solve the problem.
Kelly then began having debilitating, severe headaches. That prompted his doctors to run more tests, and they eventually found he had squamous cell carcinoma — a form of cancer — in his upper jaw.
Another bout with cancer and a period of remission followed before his biggest battle yet. The cancer returned in 2018 — this time, Stage IV. Kelly had a 10% chance to live.
Kelly endured 45 rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and more surgeries than he could count before he had finally beat cancer — again.
“They removed my upper jaw because of the cancer and put my fibula bone in my mouth,” Kelly said. “They took a piece of my fibula, broke it in four pieces, and reconstructed my jaw with it.”
Kelly still struggles with the side effects of his treatment. He can’t produce saliva and is always carrying a water bottle. He’s lost his sense of taste.
But he’s alive and cancer-free again.
“My faith in the Lord is what got me through,” Kelly said.
The ravages of a long football career and four bouts with cancer are evident all over Kelly’s body.
He has two plates and 10 screws in his lower back. He has a plate and screws in his neck. He just underwent his second ankle replacement surgery last week — the result of an injury he suffered all the way back in high school.
“They call me Titanium Man,” Kelly said, laughing. “I have more titanium in me than I don’t know what.”
Kelly isn’t sure what the future holds for him, but he knows he still has a lot he wants to accomplish through his motivational speaking, his camps, and his Hunter’s Hope Foundation in honor of his son.
And, as always, he hopes the Bills do well this season.
“I’m excited to see what they can bring on the defensive side,” Kelly said. “I know offensively they’re very good. So, we’ll see what they have in store for all the Bills Mafia wackadoodles.”
Kelly is used to a rabid fan base. He had one in Buffalo, certainly, but also in East Brady back in the day.
He knew that every time he walked down that narrow road from the high school and onto Graham Field, adoring fans yelling in full throat.
“I never forgot where I came from,” Kelly said. “I’m proud to be an East Brady Bulldog.”