Jim Kelly, who has fought cancer, still strives to make a difference

NFL great Jim Kelly's cancer battle chronicled in 'Kelly Tough: Live Courageously by Faith' by wife, daughter

Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, battling cancer for a second time, came up with a personal motto that has become his guiding principle throughout his illness:

Make a difference today for someone who is fighting for tomorrow.

Kelly, 55, is doing both. He was in Los Angeles this week to promote "Kelly Tough: Live Courageously by Faith," a book co-written by his 20-year-old daughter, Erin, and his wife, Jill. They chronicle Jim's fight against oral cancer, which included surgery last year to remove part of his upper jaw, part of the roof of his mouth and numerous teeth.

There is little evidence of his illness, though. He simply looks like an older version of the famously rugged passer who directed Buffalo to four consecutive Super Bowls from the 1990 through '93 seasons, with the Bills coming up empty each time.

"At the beginning, I didn't know if I wanted the disease to be a tool," Kelly said. "I didn't want to share it with anybody. But my wife said, 'We need as many people praying for you as possible.' As time went on, that kept me going."

Although Kelly said his scan two weeks ago showed no sign of cancer, he is by no means in the clear. He still has severe pain on the left side of his face, and his doctors are trying to determine why. He frequently wipes his eyes, where tubes were inserted to replace his failed tear ducts.

"The doctors are still trying to figure out everything," he said. "It's always something. But you know what? It is what it is, and you keep moving on."

That is a hallmark of the Kelly family, both when Jim was growing up as one of six boys, and now with his wife and two daughters, the younger being 15-year-old Camryn. They live in Orchard Park, N.Y., southeast of Buffalo.

"I remember when I was growing up, my dad would tell me to be 'Kelly tough,'" said Erin, heading into her junior year at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. "As I was watching him going through cancer, and being physically weak, I started rethinking what Kelly tough actually means. It was through that that I started writing the book."

The Kellys already endured the heart-shattering experience of losing a child. Jim and Jill's son, Hunter, was diagnosed as an infant with Krabbe leukodystrophy, a fatal disease that in 2005 claimed his life when he was 8. Their devout faith has shaped how the Kellys view their current battle.

"When Hunter was diagnosed, I knew — or thought — that there was something beyond this life," Jill said. "I didn't understand what that was, but I needed to understand it. Because if Hunter was going to die, I'm his mom, I wanted to go wherever he's going. So just in my search for understanding all of those things, my faith just changed everything."

Jim has received thousands of get-well cards, letters and mementos. His stoic struggle is reflective of his hard-edged, blue-collar reputation.

"I didn't realize the amount of people who loved my dad when he played, or love him now," said Erin, who was born the year before her father retired. "People have gravitated to our pain and suffering, and they've just caught onto our story. They want to encourage us and pray for us. It's amazed me. Even non-Bills fans, the Patriots fans who are like, 'I hated your dad back then, but I'm rooting for him now.'"

Although he played quarterback at the University of Miami, and later for the Houston Gamblers of the USFL, Kelly had the sturdy build of a hitter, and in fact was recruited by Penn State to play linebacker. So he looked gaunt last year when his weight dipped to 193, the lowest he had been since high school.

He's now back up to 215, and able to make it through light workouts despite a list of other ailments, including two plates and 10 screws in his back, one plate and six screws in his neck, and a double hernia.

"When I was in the hospital a year ago, I didn't know how bad I was," he said. "I just thought, 'I'm going to do my radiation, I'm going to do my chemo, I'm going to beat it.' That was my attitude the whole time. But the reason why is every time my wife or my daughters walked into my hospital room, or my brothers or friends, they walked in with an attitude that they were going to make me feel better that day. Never once did they walk in with a frown on their face, crying or feeling bad."

One enduring memory came on May 18, 2014, the Kellys' wedding anniversary. Jim had been fitted for a feeding tube that day, an unquestionable low point. That's when Jill showed up at the hospital in her wedding gown, using her phone to play their first-dance song, "Kiss of Life" by Sade.

All part of cherishing the small moments.

"We have a start and an end in this life," Jill said. "So to not be afraid of that, you have to have a belief in something greater than yourself. So even though it was hard for us to hear when [Jim] was going through everything, at the same time it was so encouraging to believe that this isn't the end of our story."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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