ORLANDO, Fla. – Jim Kelly’s health challenges never seem to let up.
On Wednesday, the Buffalo Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback is scheduled to undergo surgery for the removal of a cyst in his back. He said he has been in excruciating pain the past two months, and at the urging of his wife and two daughters, he finally relented to have the procedure.
“They found a cyst between my L4 and L5 vertebrae and they’re going to take it out,” Kelly said, while here to serve as an honorary captain and coach for the AFC in Sunday’s Pro Bowl.
“My family’s been yelling at me for a long time, but I kept putting it off, putting it off putting it off. And I got to a point where I can’t put it off anymore. I just can’t wait for a day where I’m pain-free. Right now, my back’s killing me. Hopefully, nothing else is wrong.
“I already have two plates and 10 screws in my back now. I’ve got a plate and six screws in my neck. Now I’m having another back surgery. I go, ‘Come on, Lord! Please, no more.’ It is what it is. You just have to keep fighting through it. I pray every day that one of these days, I will be pain-free. So far, that hasn’t been my case in many, many years.”
The operation means he won’t be making his annual trip to the Super Bowl. “It’s the first Super Bowl I’m going to miss in so, so long,” Kelly said. “But, to be honest with you, I’m looking forward to being at home with my family.”
Otherwise, Kelly, who turns 59 on Feb. 14, is “feeling pretty good.” He continues to be treated for the cancer that required reconstructive surgery on his jaw last year. He looks thin and his speech is still a bit slurred because of his prosthetic teeth. He also remains on a diet consisting mainly of soft foods that are easy to chew. Kelly said he’ll have monthly checkups “for the next couple months to get things ready for when I do get my full set of teeth.”
In the latest edition of “One-on-One Coverage,” The Buffalo News spent some time with Kelly during a Pro Bowl practice at ESPN Wide World of Sports. He talked about his health, the state of the Bills, his plans to meet with Josh Allen during the offseason, the career of lone Bills Pro Bowl player Kyle Williams and how the Pro Bowl has changed since Kelly was a regular participant.
Buffalo News: Why do you choose to be so public about your health issues?
Jim Kelly: I don’t choose. My wife does, my daughters do. You won’t believe how many times I told my wife, “No, do not put that out there. No, don’t do that. No, Erin, don’t do that.” Because I don’t want everybody knowing my business and I’ve always been that way. But I do understand now, by being a Christian, how important it is to have people praying for you and how important is when I travel to hear people tell me that they are praying for me. I mean, I’m not talking a couple of people. I’m talking thousands. I mean, I go through the airport and people come up to me and say, “Jim, we’re praying for you.”
Jim and Jill Kelly on the ESPYS red carpet (Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)
I know why I’m still here. It’s because, number one, when I talk about my four Fs, number one is my faith (along with family, friends and fans) and knowing that the good Lord has other plans for me. I just got awarded the Legendary Award by the National Quarterback Club. Jalen Hurts (who recently transferred from Alabama to Oklahoma) was one of the award winners and he mentioned a verse, John 13:7. It says, “Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ”
I said, “This is exactly what I’m looking for.” I made sure that I put it down because it’s definitely me. One hundred percent me. It’s amazing, because there are times where I don’t understand. I don’t understand why I had to go through four Super Bowl losses. I didn’t understand why I had a son born on my birthday that winds up being diagnosed with a fatal genetic disease. I don’t know why I’ve had to go through two plates, 10 screws in my back, plate and six screws in my neck. And just within a year after that having cancer not once, not twice, but three times. And now I have to go back for another back surgery. Sometimes I wonder, “Lord, what’s your plan?”
But as I keep my faith, I can understand that He’s doing it for a reason and that’s that’s why my family has chosen to make sure it’s public because my wife said, “You need as many people praying for you as possible.” I get it now.
BN: You continue to do things like go on big game hunting trips, as you did recently. How much of that is simply your refusal to stop doing what you love and how much of it serves as a distraction from your health issues?
JK: A little bit of both. They’re things that I already committed to with friends, with people (to whom) we’ve auctioned off (the the trips for charity) that I said I will be there. Another great example, I have a speaking engagement five days after my back surgery that I’ve already committed to and I said I will be there. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. So, for me, a lot of it is to take my mind off it. I don’t do anything that I know will jeopardize my health, especially from my back standpoint.
BN: What’s eating like for you?
JK: Still no steaks, still no chicken, still no pork. I have soup, pancakes — everything that’s really easy and soft to chew, I can eat. And I’m on a lot of vitamins. Everything I can do to keep my energy level up.
Jim Kelly greets fans at New Era Field on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)
BN: How do you feel about the Bills entering their third season under Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane?
JK: I can’t wait to see what Brandon Beane does to build this franchise. We need a few players in different positions to take us to the next level. And when we have that, I think that we’ll be our way. We need Brandon to, in the next couple years, get us the people we need to have. And I have faith in him, I really do.
BN: What do you think of Josh Allen?
JK: I think he’s the real deal. He needs the quarterback coach, the offensive coordinator to get in his mind. I have already talked to him and told him we need to sit down this offseason. … I need to tell him some things that I saw that he was not doing that he needs to make sure are instilled in his mind, that I don’t know if he’s been told.
I never want to tramp on anybody’s feet right, but we’ll sit down, I’ll go over some things with him. (Kelly said he intends to give the specifics to Allen rather than making them public.)
I’m excited about him because his personality is what you need in Buffalo. He’s a hardworking SOB. It’s everything I love to see, but he can’t do it alone.
BN: How do you feel about the comparisons that have been made between Josh and you as a quarterback?
JK: I wish I had his athletic ability. I mean, early on my career I wasn’t bad, but I was never like that. And I think, as the season went on, he realized that he cannot take those big hits, that he’s got to start learning to slide, get out of bounds. And he’s learning. He’s young, he’s a kid. But I love what I see and I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring to the Buffalo Bills for the future.
Jim Kelly talks to Josh Allen at rookie minicamp in 2018. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)
BN: What’s it mean to be here as an honorary captain and coach for the AFC squad?
JK: It’s awesome. Being able to meet the young guys, having them come up and call me, “Mr. Kelly.” I’m like, “Hold on a second. My dad is in heaven. My name’s Jim.” They go, “No, Mr. Kelly.” And one of them would say, “Hey, Coach, I need to talk to you.” It’s fun.
Big (Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro) Villanueva came up to me and said, “You understand how much Big Ben (Roethlisberger) talks about you and what you mean to his life.” You know what? That makes me feel good. You talk to Patrick Mahomes and Andrew Luck coming up and saying, “Hey, my dad (former NFL QB Oliver Luck) thinks the world of you. Blah-blah.” It’s pretty cool.
BN: What’s your take on Kyle Williams’ career with the Bills?
JK: He’ll be on the (Wall of Fame). I can’t wait for a day that he’s put on the wall. I hope I’m here for it. He definitely will be there. He is one of the best motivating speakers in the locker room I have ever heard. I would rank him number one.
I’ve heard everybody talk. I’ve heard players talk, I’ve heard coaches talk, including Marv (Levy). The most energetic, the most excited, most determined, most focused guy I’ve ever heard in the locker room is Kyle Williams. I mean, amazing. You ask any of his teammates about Kyle Williams’ speeches before games, after games, at halftime, they’ll say Kyle Williams is the best. Put it this way, I would love to have him in my locker room, start to finish.
BN: How cool is it that Kyle gets to play his final NFL game in the Pro Bowl?
JK: That’s a great way to end it. Of course, you’d like to end it like a John Elway or somebody like that with a Super Bowl win and all that. But to do it and not only for what he’s not only meant for the Buffalo Bills, but what he’s meant to the Buffalo area. And it’s just amazing that he gets to end his career here, have his family at Disney World and be able to come here and represent the Buffalo Bills and to have me to be a part as a coach and captain.
BN: Does being here bring back any thoughts of the Pro Bowls you played in in Hawaii?
JK: Totally, but I also say it’s totally different. These guys, they do their thing, but back when I played, we all just did things together. Everybody had to go in their own direction, but we’d get 10-15 guys together at the Hilton Hawaiian Village around the swimming pool having our margaritas, having our cold beers and just laughing, enjoying ourselves.
And we had practices in pads. We had full pads, we were hitting. These guys, if they see a helmet before the game, it’s going to be surprising. But you know what? This is good for players with families. They get to go to Disney, they get to share that experience with their family.
And here’s something that a lot of people might not know, even though I’ve talked about this before (publicly). After all four Super Bowls that we were in, all the guys who were in the Pro Bowl, the guy that drove us every Monday morning from the hotel to the airport was Roger Goodell (an intern with the NFL at the time). We needed a beer, Roger was there for us. It was pretty cool.
BN: Did you ever think, during one of those rides to the airport, that he would become commissioner?
JK: No, not at all. God bless him. I love Roger. He’s flown my family and I back from New York City when I know that I did not want to be seen in public because of my face because of all the surgeries I went through. So he’s always been there for us.
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