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Jim Kelly's battle with cancer adds to anguish for Buffalo Bills

ORLANDO, Fla. — The death this week of Ralph Wilson, founder and sole owner of the Buffalo Bills, was but half the heartache of the NFL franchise and its fans.

Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who led the Bills to four Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s, found out two weeks ago that the oral cancer he was originally diagnosed with in June has returned. His wife, Jill, wrote on her blog that "the cancer's back, aggressive, and starting to spread." The 54-year-old Kelly, an icon in western New York, is hospitalized in Manhattan, and has been visited by a steady stream of Bills teammates.

Jill Kelly had written on her Instagram that surgery on her husband was "tentatively scheduled for Thursday," but those plans changed Wednesday. Instead, Kelly will undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

His wife provided an update via Facebook: "There's been a lot that has been said so we thought it would be best to clarify," she wrote. "At this point and time surgery is not the best option for Jim. Because of complexity and aggressive nature of this cancer and after more scans and tests, the plan has changed. At this point, Jim will not be having surgery. The cancer is in areas that surgery cannot successfully eradicate. Therefore, the medical specialists here in NYC along with our Buffalo team believe that chemotherapy and radiation are the best option."

Kelly had part of his jaw and teeth removed as part of a surgery when he was first diagnosed.

The latest developments were sobering news at the NFL owners meetings this week in Orlando, Fla., where friends and admirers of Kelly struggled with the reality that he's now fighting for his life.

"This is a hard time for the Bills family," said Bill Polian, former team president, his eyes welling. "The good part about it is it's a big family. We'll mourn Ralph's loss, and we'll pray for Jim. But there's a lot of people doing that."

Making the rounds on the Internet is a heartbreaking shot of Kelly lying in a hospital bed, watching the NCAA tournament with his daughter, Erin. She is hugging his arm and resting her head on him. Her Instagram caption reads: "Watching the Syracuse game with daddy - he's my buddy! Love him so much!! #daddysgirl #prayersforjk #Kellytough."

At the conclusion of the three-day meetings Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke of his friendship with Kelly and said he hoped to see him Friday, if Kelly is up to having visitors. Goodell spoke to Kelly's brother twice Tuesday night to get updates on Jim.

"Jim's such a wonderful man, a special guy," said Goodell, standing with a reporter in an otherwise empty hallway at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Orlando.

Years before he was promoted to commissioner, Goodell oversaw the Pro Bowl, and had the responsibility of escorting the Pro Bowl players from the losing Super Bowl team to Hawaii. He got to know the Bills well, as they lost the league's marquee game four years in a row, from 1990 through '93, and he routinely would pick up Kelly and a handful of his teammates at their hotel at 5:30 the morning after their Super Bowl defeat.

"Every single one of them was extremely respectful and professional," recalled Goodell, who is from Jamestown, N.Y., 70 miles south of Buffalo. "It was, 'Hey, this is disappointing but I'm privileged to play in the Pro Bowl.' You'd see them at some of the most difficult moments, and Jim was always top of the class. Just a super guy. Treated you the same, always respectful."

Kelly's blue-collar toughness is legendary and universally respected in a league that saw him inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002. He was part of the famed quarterback class of 1983 — one that included John Elway and Dan Marino — and spent his first years with the USFL's Houston Gamblers before a Bills career that stretched from 1986 to '96.

"He was one of those guys who was the toughest quarterback you could see," said Jay Gruden, a former Arena Football League quarterback and new coach of the Washington Redskins. "He took a beating. He'd stand in there, and you could tell he was a great leader, one of those guys you wanted to pattern yourself after.

"The Joe Montanas, the Jim Kellys, the Dan Marinos, those are the kind of guys who were in a class by themselves. He played at Miami, too, and I played for [coach Howard] Schnellenberger, so I was a huge fan of Jim's. To see him struggle like this is terrible news, and we hope and pray that he gets well soon."

For some at the meetings, the one-two punch of Wilson's death and Kelly's cancer was overwhelming.

"There are two iconic figures in Buffalo right now," said Joe Horrigan, vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his voice trembling. "One's gone, and now the other one's sick too."

He lowered his head, wiped his eyes and looked away. His throat was too thick to keep talking.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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