Damian Strohmeyer/SI

A slight setback kept Jim Kelly from beginning chemotherapy Monday, but the legendary Bills quarterback and his family are keeping it in perspective. Meanwhile, readers respond to the story of Kelly's second battle with cancer

By Peter King
April 01, 2014

Had a few things left in the notebook from the weekend visit to a New York City hospital to see Jim Kelly battle cancer of the face and jaw for the second time. But first, this bit of additional sobering news first reported by Tim Graham of the Buffalo News on Monday night: Kelly's chemotherapy and radiation regimen, scheduled to begin Monday, has been put off a week while the patient gets rid of an infection that surfaced Saturday morning.

Dan Kelly, Jim's brother, texted Monday night to say: "One more slight setback. God has a funny way of getting our attention. Must keep the faith."

Doctors have to be sure before beginning a round of debilitating treatments that the patient is totally healthy. And though Jim Kelly feels okay and has a good appetite right now, they won't take any chances. So it goes.

Other Kelly notes from the weekend visit:

• Some of you asked in the wake of Monday's column about why the Kellys are being so open about his life-threatening illness. "We want to share his story," wife Jill said, "as a way to spread hope to people who might be sick too.'' Faith has a lot to do with it, too. This is a religious clan. The waiting room on the floor where Jim is housed at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan is full of inspirational Bible verses, and Jill and her daughters are fervent in their belief that Jim's fate is in God's hands. The more they share about his story, the more they feel they can shine a light on their faith and hope others can draw strength from it.

• Jim believes his toughness might have hurt him sometimes in his career, and maybe now. "In our family,'' brother Dan said, "if we were crying, lots of times my Dad would say, 'I'll give you something to cry about.' Then the crying would stop. You have a pretty high tolerance for pain in my family." Jim thinks by not saying much to doctors until late last fall, when the cancer was probably surging inside his head, he might have given it a head start. But he's probably being too tough on himself. The first few examinations after he said his head was killing him, doctors found nothing. So it's unlikely earlier notice would have stopped the spread of the microscopic cancer cells.

Bruce Smith and Jim Kelly in 2009 (Mike Groll/Getty Images) Bruce Smith and Jim Kelly in 2009 (Mike Groll/Getty Images)

• So ... how did Jim Kelly look? Better than I thought. Saturday, after his fever began to go down, was one of his good days. He was fairly lively in conversation, though it was apparent after a while he wanted to take a nap. What I took from the visit most of all: Kelly is not anxious. I think he is resigned to the fact that his life is in the hands of the best cancer-fighting professionals and medicine in the world, and whatever happens, happens. He's not afraid, and he's not mad at the world, I can assure you that. I found his attitude excellent.

• Bruce Smith visited Saturday morning, sat in a chair by Kelly's bed, and for an hour, they both napped. "I didn't care who was here,'' Kelly said later in the day. "I needed a nap."

• Eeriest thing I saw, other than the patient taking out his faux bone-and-six-tooth retainer from the first jaw surgery last June: Kelly showed me the large rectangular scar his on his left leg where a skin graft was done so he could have real skin on the roof of his mouth where surgeons removed part of his jaw. He was matter-of-fact about it, like he was showing a cut on his finger.

Thanks for your reactions to the story on Monday. And, of course, thanks for your kindness in the wake of my brother Ken's death Sunday. Now onto your email:

TWENTY-ONE YEARS LATER. Wanted to share a Jim Kelly story with you. When I was 7, I wanted nothing more than a Buffalo Bills Starter jacket. My 9-year-old brother and I saved what we could and put our change in a 5-gallon water jug. We thought we had hundreds of dollars, but we only had about $100 between us. When we realized we wouldn’t have enough for our own jackets, my mother asked if we would consider donating our money to charity. We brought our change to “Operation Sunshine” and thought our dream of owning Buffalo Bills Starter jackets was over. A local newspaper wrote a story about us, and a few days after it was published, we got a call from New York Senator Ray Meier. He invited us to his office to commend our generosity. When we got there, he surprised us. Jim Kelly, Marv Levy and the Buffalo Bills organization had sent two Buffalo Bills Starter jackets, along with autographed hats, pictures and personal letters. As a 7 year old, I was on top of the world and Jim Kelly was my hero.

As we grow older we begin to realize that nothing lasts forever, not even a superhero QB. But as a 28 year old, I realize that Jim Kelly has become a hero not just for his struggles and triumphs on the football field but in life. I’m sure Jim Kelly doesn’t even remember me, but I remember Jim Kelly as much more than a football player. 

—Rob Reynolds

Thanks for your story. That should be Exhibit A for anyone who asks why a sports franchise is so important to the fabric of a community.

THE BIGGER STORY. I find it refreshing that you pause from time to time to remind us that we are all a part of a bigger story that transcends football through stories like Jim Kelly and Kenny King. Mr. Kelly is in a serious battle, yet he has compassion for the other patients going through similar battles by taking time to visit with them and provide encouragement. His deep concern for the lady who seems to have no one visit her is touching, because he wants her to know that she is cared for and cherished by sharing some of his flowers with her. This is a powerful portrait of how we can rise above our circumstance and still make a small difference in someone’s life.

Your brother’s thirst to continue to learn new things even after retirement reminds us that we should never stop being amazed by our world. He reminds us that there is wonder all around us and we should take time to be dazzled like a little child. Both stories touched me in the same way. Mr. Kelly and Mr. King both remind us in their own way that life is a gift to be cherished, and there are many ways we can accomplish that in our journey. Thank you for sharing this with us.

—Ken, Covington, La.

Got a question for Peter? Send it with your name and hometown to talkback@themmqb.com and it might be included in next Tuesday's mailbag.
Thank you for writing. I’ve always thought that one of the things that we in the media can do the best is to show athletes as human beings with the same problems that we all have. I really didn’t know how this weekend was going to go. I certainly had no premonition about my brother dying, but in our business, I think what we try to do is try to illuminate what happens to people and make you, the readers, feel what we feel. Sometimes that’s emotion after watching a great play; sometimes it’s emotion because of human tragedy. I just hope that I don’t have much more human tragedy to cover in the rest of my career.

BILL PANCAKE CHECKS IN. Your column this morning really moved me. The way you communicate about Jim Kelly is remarkable. I was also moved by the loss of your brother and I am praying for you and your family as well as the Kelly family. America needs more writers like you. (And thanks for mentioning my bus bench today!)

Bill Pancake, State Farm Insurance Companies

Bill, thanks so much for writing. I have to say that as a lover of all things Americana, I had to stop by the side of the road when I saw your bus bench. That was one of the coolest sights I’ve seen on my many trips to Florida. Good luck in the insurance business, and thanks for being a reader.

FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE. I've admired one thing about you—your passion. Your passion about your job, your passion about your Red Sox, even your passion about the beer and coffee you drink. But seeing your passion come through as you wrote about your dog a few months ago and now your brother was truly touching. My thoughts go out to Kenny and the rest of the King family and thanks for putting a smile on my face on such a bleak day in the Big Apple.

—Steven W., New York City

Thanks very much. Often times I wonder about the balance between sports and life in this column. But then I figure, using Monday as an example, that if people don’t want to read about my brother, they still got 6,000 words about things related to football. So I hope the balance I try to strike is a good one and draws both football fanatics and casual football fans to the column every Monday. I appreciate your kind words.

SPEAKING OF HEROES. Could you put up the address for the fund for the two firefighters who died?

Lieutenant Walsh - Firefighter Kennedy Memorial Fund

Boston Firefighters Credit Union

60 Hallet Street

Dorchester, MA 02124

—Ed, Worcester, Mass.

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