Q&A: Jim Kelly on fighting cancer and why these 2021 Bills are ready to win a Super Bowl
Also, does he see himself in Josh Allen? The Hall of Fame quarterback sits down with Go Long.
Jim Kelly is doing just fine.
It’s been a battle. He sure knows that much. Originally diagnosed with cancer in 2013, at one point, the Buffalo Bills legend was given less than a 10 percent chance to live. After several surgeries and more rounds of radiation and chemo than Kelly can probably count, his wife announced in January 2019 he is cancer-free. Now, he wants to help others.
As Kelly says, if he would’ve seen a doctor earlier than he did, his life would’ve been much different.
These days, he’s trying to share the story of his fight with as many people as possible. He’s also on the edge of his seat, eager to see his Bills finally… maybe… once and for all bust through to win a Super Bowl, too.
With the 2021 season incoming, Kelly sat down with Go Long to discuss the Bills’ 2021 outlook, if he sees himself in Josh Allen and how he’s trying to help others through Merck and YourCancerStory.com.
You can read our conversation below or watch the video above.
I imagine you’d love to tell people what you’re up to, how you’re feeling. What’s life like for you right now?
Kelly: A little hectic but whose lives, nowadays, are not hectic? When you look at what’s going on all over the world, I try not to stay to in-tune to everything that’s going on. With all the fires out west, all the flooding, the hurricanes, all that, it’s time for football season. So I’m excited about that. I continue to travel through the United States speaking on behalf of Merck and, of course, my life. My talk is called “a journey of perseverance.” So I continue to do that, which I enjoy, because I get to share all the things that I’ve been through in my life with other people to make sure they don’t give up on their lives. I’ve been very blessed to have the life I have now. I guess the bottom line is to just try to be a difference-maker.
I’m having fun. Two beautiful daughters. A beautiful wife. And we’re looking forward to those Buffalo Bills.
Dive right into it, then. What are we going to see this season? The expectations around here are palpable. They’re thinking Super Bowl. Real expectations of “Super Bowl” for the first time since you were quarterback. So what says Jim Kelly?
Kelly: I think everybody all over the country understands how good of a football team we have. The Buffalo Bills understand how good of a quarterback they have, who they just gave $40 million a year! That’s double what I made in my whole career. But I’m excited for Josh. I’m excited for Coach McDermott and what the Pegulas have done to bring everybody together. What we did last year was a stepping stone. It almost reminded me of when I was playing in 1988. We made it to the AFC Championship Game against the Cincinnati Bengals. We didn’t win but it was a stepping stone toward where we were going. Especially with the offense we were running. So, I’m pumped. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I grew up a Steelers fan. Now, we’re opening up with Big Ben, who’s a very close friend of mine. I pull for the Steelers except for this Sunday.
The overall excitement here from Bills Mafia and the whole city of Buffalo is amazing. I can’t wait.
I feel like for, what, 20 to 25 years, people like myself are constantly asking you about the next quarterback. “What do you think about EJ Manuel? What do you think about JP Losman?” One after another. “Tyrod Taylor?” You’re going to hope for the best with all of that. But, with Josh Allen, when did you realize this was different? That this was real? And he was not just an MVP candidate but someone who could really win a Super Bowl in Buffalo?
Kelly: Two years ago, he stepped onto the scene. You could really tell he was learning. And, also, even with what Tom Brady told me before. Everybody always wonders why he’s so good at doing what he’s doing. He had the same coaches all the time and the same offense all the time. Even though some of his players came in and came out—some come, some leave — the thing is, the continuity that he had (in New England), the leadership in that locker room helped him, and now I see that with Josh Allen. He has the right tools around him. They brought in another receiver. They have Cole Beasley. They have people around him that will help him. The key is giving him time to throw the football. We have a very good offensive line. You’re only as good as the people around you, especially with that offensive line that gives you that protection. So, Josh Allen is the quarterback we’ve been looking for, for many, many years. All he’s got to do now is stay healthy. We can’t afford any injuries, especially at the quarterback position.
I’m pumped. I’ve liked what I’ve seen. People go, “What about him breaking all of your records?” I go, “If he’s breaking my records, we’re winning football games.” To me, that’s all that counts. I never was about records because — as you saw, as some viewers out there probably didn’t know this — we were always 50/50 when I played. Fifty run, 50 pass. And I called all the plays. I called every play. And the thing is, if I really wanted to throw touchdowns all the time or have my statistics be the No. 1 thing, it would’ve been 60/40. But, no, in the system where I called the plays, it was 50/50. So, I’m excited that he’s out there and playing the way he is. If he’s going to break my records, I hope he breaks the one of going to four Super Bowls in a row — and I want him to break that one of winning one.
In what ways do you see yourself in Josh? You hear a lot about the toughness, the intangibles. Do you see yourself when you watch Josh?
Kelly: Oh yeah. His athletic ability. No, I’m not even in that ballpark. He’s got such great athletic tools. He can run. He can throw. He can move on the run. He can pretty much do it all and that’s what you want in a quarterback, especially in today’s world. He has a coordinator in Brian Daboll that is amazing. He’s not scared to throw the football whether you’re backed up on your own 1 or going in to score. It does not matter. So that is something I think defenses struggle with because you’re not sure what he’s going to do. But you have to be able to get pressure on him, and so far — that one preseason game two weeks ago — they came out throwing. I don’t think they even ran the ball one time in that first quarter. That is amazing. Especially in a preseason game.
I just love what he brings to the table, not only on the field but off the field and what he does with OiShei Children’s Hospital and he is what Buffalo has needed for many, many years.
The message you really want to get out with your story, what is that? What would you really like people to know when you’re going all over the place?
Kelly: No. 1, I signed up with Merck three years ago. To make a long story short, boy, it all goes back to when my son, Hunter, was born. He was diagnosed with Krabbe's Leukodystrophy. Me and my wife had no clue what it was. We were lost. So it took us a while to figure out what it was, who we had to go see, who we needed to talk to — whether it was doctors or families because there weren’t many people out there. Then, fast forward to my cancer when I was diagnosed in 2013, with my first one. Squamous cell carcinoma, I never heard of it. It affects your jaw. And I’ve had so many surgeries, I hope everybody can understand me who’s listening because I literally… I guess I never really put my foot in my mouth but what they did was take my fibula bone from my left leg, took the whole bone out, broke it into four pieces, completely removed both sides of my jaw, broke the bone in four pieces, screwed it in and here I am today. Thank the good Lord that I’m still here.
I teamed up with Merck and it’s called YourStoryCancer.com if people out there want to log on. If you want to learn more about what a friend or family or you are going through and which avenues to check out, log on. We have answers for a lot of your questions. If we don’t have them, we will make sure we find somebody who does. Because I know I was completely lost — my wife and I had no idea where to turn, who to talk to and we teamed up with Merck. A few years ago, it was called My Cancer Game Plan. I lived by a game plan my whole life from midget football all the way through the NFL. I teamed up with them, I came out and talked and knew how I could be a difference-maker for so many people out there.
My phrase, as you well know, is “make a difference today or someone fighting for their tomorrow.” Because there’s so many people out there whose days are gloom. They don’t want to be around. I’m trying to make them feel better to know to “Keep pushing, keep fighting, never, ever give up.” I just want all of your listeners out there to log on to YourCancerStory.com and find out more how we can be a difference-maker in your life.
You mentioned those moments where you were completely lost. I wouldn’t even know where to start with everything you’ve been through from Hunter to the cancer to the relapse to the surgeries. Through it all, when were those moments and how did you persevere and plow through those moments to be sitting here, talking about this all, sharing your story?
Kelly: I live by the four F’s. No. 1 is my family. When I was in the hospital, not one time did they ever walk into my hospital room with a frown on their face. They walked in with an attitude that they were going to change my day. Never a frown. Always a smile. “Daddy! How are you doing today!? You look great!” And then my brothers, when they walked into the room, it was, “Bro, get up! Let’s go for a walk.” I’d say, “I don’t feel like walking.” And it was, “Get up! We’re going for a walk!”
So, my faith in the good Lord. He has reasons why I’m still here and that’s to make a difference. My family. My wife, my daughters, my brothers have always been there.
My friends. I can name so many. My former teammates that were there for me. And of course the fans. Can you believe it — I had fans from the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots and the Jets sending me well wishes? Really? So, it takes everybody. The bottom line is, in my heart, I knew I did not want to give up. There are days you’re not feeling good but then you look out your front door and realize you don’t have it that bad. There’s so many people out there that have it a lot worse than you do. So never give up and try to be that difference-maker. That’s what I try to do each and every day.
And your purpose in life now is really to inspire. You’re literally out talking to as many people as you can about what you’ve been through to help somebody with their “tomorrow.”
Kelly: Here’s the thing: I have a Vac machine hooked up to my ankle. I just had ankle replacement surgery. Everybody’s like, “Ankle replacement? I’ve heard of shoulders and hips. Ankle?” For the second time in 2 ½ years. My first one didn’t take. Figures. So I’m on No. 2 and I have a Vac machine hooked up to my right ankle. But you know what? Oh well! It slowed me down, but it didn’t stop me. I’m still ready to rock and roll and have a little fun. And I’m ready to cheer those Buffalo Bills on.
If that was the stepping stone, getting to that AFC Championship Game, we have to hear it. What’s going to happen in 2021 with the Buffalo Bills?
Kelly: I’m looking forward to it. As a player, you focus on — and Marv always taught us it very, very well — focus on the game at hand. Focus on your division, the AFC East. And our division is getting better and better each and every year. Look at the young quarterbacks in there now we’ll be playing against year-in and year-out. But this year, there’s no doubt we’re favorites. The key is we have to stay healthy. And I don’t think it’s going to take much for this team to stay focused because Sean McDermott has done an unbelievable job getting these guys prepared for Week 1. And they’re playing against my Steelers.
I’m excited. How can you not? You saw what they did last year. You saw what Josh Allen was able to accomplish. We got some defensive help which is what we needed—a pass rush. We will find out in these next couple of weeks. Three out of these first four games are at home. I hope we give Bills Mafia something to cheer about. And I feel pretty good that we will.
Guaranteeing a Super Bowl then? That’s what you’re doing?
Kelly: No. My name is not Joe Namath. I guarantee we’ll be competitive every week and we will fight til the end because that’s what Bills players do.
There are probably moments where you’re like, “Just bring the K-Gun back.” Is that something they could do with this offense? Just let Josh do his thing?
Kelly: It’s pretty close, except they don’t run the no-huddle all the time. They do it at times. But he has a lot more four and five wides than I did. I always had the K-Gun with Keith McKeller there at tight end. We motioned a man with three wides and Thurman in the backfield. I loved those days because I knew what plays I liked. I knew where I wanted players. I knew the defense on the other side of the ball, whether it was nickel or dime or regular. So I knew who to go to on most plays. Not all of them. You’ll have people out there say, “Why didn’t you do it in the Super Bowl?” I still wonder those things, too.
For anybody out there who hasn’t heard from you or been in touch with you, your health right now, how are you feeling right now and what’s your outlook?
Kelly: I feel pretty good. I’m doing what I love to do, and that is go travel around the country to speak to different companies. Merck has been very good. I’ve been with them a number of years now. The thing is, with my life now, I’m focused on football and hunting season. Right now, just staying healthy. And I’ve been very blessed. One of the things I want to end on is for all of the people out there—especially the men—that, a lot of times, if they’re not feeling good and they keep holding back and holding back and want to be that tough father, tough husband. If you’re not feeling good, reach out to your doctor. It only takes a few minutes to reach out to them. Get checked. Because that’s the way I was. My mouth hurt for so long before I went and had a biopsy done. I did the biopsy and I was diagnosed with cancer. Maybe if I went to the doctor sooner, we could’ve gotten it diagnosed and I wouldn’t have had to go through the four bouts of it.
If you feel something’s not right, get it checked. It doesn’t take that long.
I can’t wait to be a difference-maker for people out there. There’s no doubt about it.