Jim Kelly upbeat in return to host charitable golf tourney

BATAVIA, N.Y. (AP) Walking past a stationary football target positioned off a tee box at his own charitable golf tournament, Jim Kelly couldn't resist a chance to test his arm.

Swish! The Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback raised both hands in celebration after his spiral-perfect pass landed square in the mesh pocket from 10 yards out.

Even at 55, Kelly has still got it.

''I never lost it,'' he replied with a wide grin.

Kelly had many reasons to be upbeat on Monday. After all, he was back in his familiar place as host and master of ceremonies of the 29th Jim Kelly Celebrity Classic a year after a battle with cancer left him in a weakened state in a hospital bed.

''To be able to come back here and see how many people showed up, and how many people continue to rally ... it's so unbelievable,'' he said. ''It's overwhelming.''

The feeling was mutual among current and former NFL players, celebrities and fans who eagerly showed their support despite cloudy skies and a persistent drizzle that fell on the golf course about a 45-minute drive outside of Buffalo.

''Tremendous relief,'' said former Bills star linebacker Darryl Talley, a member of the Kelly-led teams that won four consecutive AFC championships in the early 1990s. ''For him to still be here and doing what he's doing, it's truly, truly a remarkable thing.''

Longtime rival and fellow Hall of Famer Dan Marino also made his usual appearance.

''For him not to be here last year was tough. But at the same time, a lot of us got to go over to the hospital and see him,'' the former Miami Dolphins quarterback said. ''It puts things in perspective pretty quickly. And now that he's here, it makes it all worth it.''

New Bills coach Rex Ryan thought the event was so important, he canceled practice and had his players and staff pack three busses to honor Kelly as part of an impromptu team-bonding experience.

''He's one of the toughest guys that you'll ever meet and obviously an inspiration to probably millions out there,'' Ryan said. ''I know he inspires me, and I'm sure he inspires our team.''

Beloved during his playing days, Kelly's status as a Bills icon has continued long after he retired following the 1996 season.

Maintaining his home in suburban Buffalo, the quarterback has raised millions of dollars through his Kelly for Kids charitable foundation. More recently, Kelly has become a source of inspiration for the perseverance he's shown during a public battle with two separate forms of cancer.

Two years ago, Kelly announced at his tournament he was going to have surgery to remove cancerous cells in his upper jaw. The cancer eventually spread to his sinus, forcing Kelly to undergo radiation and chemotherapy treatments last spring.

The good news finally came in September, when follow-up tests revealed Kelly showed no signs of cancer.

Kelly still has difficulty putting on weight, and his mouth tends to get dry after he had his jaw surgically reconstructed. He also acknowledged that there are days he doesn't feel well.

And yet, Kelly said he couldn't have succeeded in his battle without his family, friends and the large outpouring of support from fans. Now he wants to return that favor.

''Because of people that helped me get through my fight, it makes me want to continue that fight so I can inspire other people because I want people to understand how much it means to me,'' he said. ''It makes you want to live harder and push to make a difference.''

Kelly has no intention of slowing down, and is already looking past next year, when he intends to host his 30th golf tournament.

''My next goal is 50,'' Kelly said. ''I'm looking ahead. Why not? I can do that because I don't know what tomorrow brings. And I'm just going to enjoy myself.''

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AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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