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Tuesday, March 4, 2014
The patience of Jim

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

Jim Kelly
Jim Kelly, shown after multiple surgeries to reconstruct his jaw, was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.

Next time you're running about two quarts low on hope, or feel like you're on the wrong end of God's Whac-A-Mole game, think of Jim Kelly and be glad you're not him.

Jim Kelly is sport's Job. If it's raining anywhere, it's raining on Jim Kelly. He's as unlucky as a one-legged dog.

The former Buffalo Bills QB has endured more pain, grief and disappointment than many nations, and it's only getting worse. "Jim has had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows," says his brother Pat. "Lately, it's been some really low lows."

And yet when you see Jim Kelly, he acts as if he just won Publishers Clearing House.

"I've been blessed," says Kelly, 54. "I wouldn't change a thing."

Really? Because I wouldn't wish what has happened to him on a tax collector.

He's in 24-hour pain. He can't feel the skin on the left half of his face. He says his lip feels like it's constantly on fire. He has had his upper left jaw removed and all but two of his teeth -- and those two have had six root canals. He admits he hasn't been able to sleep in years without taking something.

"I honestly can't remember Jim sleeping through the night," says his wife, Jill. "I'm not sure he ever has."

Kelly carries around more hardware than a Home Depot. His back has two plates and 10 screws in it. His neck has a plate and six screws. He just had double hernia surgery. One day, he had to have a cyst removed under his nostril without Novocain. "I think they heard me three office buildings over," he says.

He should really be dead by now, but nothing seems to do the trick, not a plane crash, cancer, more operations than he can remember, a lifetime of disappointment nor bottomless grief.

He never wanted to play in Buffalo. He played 11 years in Buffalo. He ached to win a Super Bowl. Nobody got closer without winning one. He yearned for a son. He had a son, who suffered from Krabbe disease and died before his ninth birthday. He lives to hunt, yet hunting has nearly killed him.

Jim Kelly
Jim Kelly and wife Jill lost their son, Hunter, in 2005, yet Kelly keeps trying to help other children with similar conditions.

"And yet he never complains," Pat says. "He's the toughest person I know."

Jim Kelly shrugs and says, "Yeah, sometimes you just want to say to God, 'OK. I give. Uncle. Just give me some time where I don't feel any pain anymore.' But nobody wants to hear about my problems."

Only once has he let himself feel a spoonful of self-pity. He turned to Jill and said, "Is this how it's going to be the rest of my life? Because I don't know if I can handle this the rest of my life."

But he will. He has handled more bad breaks than an orthopedist. He is the undisputed champion of Sucking It Up and Smiling.

Four straight seasons he took his Bills to the Super Bowl, and four straight times they lost. He still has never watched tapes of those losses, but last weekend, for the first time in his life, he watched a highlight tape of his 1990 season, which ended with the Wide Right loss to the New York Giants.

"I'm never going to watch it again," he says. "It only made it hurt worse. I don't like to think about any of them."

What bugs Kelly is that the Bills get no love for being the only team in history to make four straight championships. "You talk to John Elway or Dan Marino. They're amazed at how we were able to do that. ... But I know now why the good Lord did that. He was preparing me for what was coming."

What was coming was more heartache than a year's worth of Super Bowl losses could dump on him.

There was the 2000 bear hunting trip in Alaska, when the single-prop plane he was flying in went down in the Bering Sea. Kelly, upside down, kicked the window out and swam for shore in 39-degree water, then thawed himself with a Bunsen burner. "I thought I was a goner," he says. He came back 23 pounds lighter.

There was his 37th birthday, when his son Hunter was born.

Jim Kelly and Andre Reed
Jim Kelly had hoped that one day his son would wear his number and his nephew would wear Andre Reed's No. 83.

"I dreamed about coaching my son in football," Kelly says. "Hunter would wear No. 12, and his cousin Chad [Kelly] would wear 83 [Andre Reed's number]. That script was written."

Hunter would be 17 today. Chad -- now 19 and Jim Kelly's godson -- was the first New York high school QB to pass for more than 2,000 yards and run for more than 1,000 in a season and signed with Clemson, where he'll compete as a sophomore for the starting job when spring practice begins this week.

Jim, meanwhile, went on to devoting his life to keeping other fathers from feeling the hole he's had in his gut ever since Hunter's death. He works every day to pass legislation that would fix the state-by-state flaws in infant-disease screening -- screening that could've saved Hunter's life.

"Thousands of babies are dying because they're born in the wrong state," Kelly says. "Some states test for eight diseases and some for as many as 60. Why can't every state test for the max amount? We give so much money to other countries and yet we're robbing our own kids of a quality of life."

After that came crippling back problems, murderous neck troubles, and then the jaw cancer, even though Kelly never smoked or dipped. It has ravaged him, leaving him with a prosthesis for his upper jaw and a pain that tucks him in nightly.

"I worry about him," Pat says. "I really do."

And yet what does his brother do for a living? He crisscrosses the country giving motivational speeches that bring tears to faces, goose bumps to arms and perseverance to hearts.

"His ability to lose, and lose big, and yet handle it, is so impressive to me," Jill says. "This has all made him an even better person than before, more patient even. It's made him want to help even more people than before. ... People hear him speak and think, 'How can I get some of this hope, this hope beyond circumstance that he has?' I've seen it. What he's been through is a curse, yes. And it's a trial, yes. But, really, when you think of how much good it's brought others, it's a gift."

Fine. But you wish this gift would just stop giving.