PITTSFORD, N.Y. - None of the youth football players huddled at Jim Kelly's knees were born yet when the Buffalo Bills were tearing up the National Football League in the early 1990s on their way to appearing in a record four consecutive Super Bowls.
Yet when Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback, asked if they could tell him the jersey numbers of Andre Reed, Kent Hull and Bruce Smith, "83, 67 and 78" were rattled off with ease. And when Kelly asked, "OK, what was my number?'' the whole group erupted in unison, "12, 12, 12."
"They remember because of their daddies," said Kelly during a break in his one-day football clinic at St. John Fisher College on Tuesday. "Maybe a few watched some video of our games."
Or maybe it's because Jim Kelly has been as much a part of the fabric of western New York in the 17 years he's been retired as in the 11 years he starred for the Bills. And that he's just as big an inspiration as a dad, husband, coach, motivational speaker, tireless philanthropist and now — cancer survivor — as he was as the toughest quarterback to ever play.
Resilient on the field, resilient off it.
Less than seven weeks since doctors removed most of his left jaw and his teeth to sack a cancerous tumor, Kelly, 53, was in typical high spirits throwing passes to campers and barking out orders. His cancer battle follows back, neck and double hernia surgeries, all in the last two years.
Don't tell Kelly that 50 is the new 40. For NFL retirees, 50 is more like 70.
"I don't know if it's more special but it's always good that I'm able to do (this), especially with all the things I've been through the last couple of years," Kelly said. "I felt pretty good out there. My arm feels good – the rest of my body, it's getting there."
Kelly was fitted with a prosthetic jaw and teeth that allows for him to eat, drink and speak. He said you don't want to see him with it out, and I believed him. Doctors did not prescribe follow-up chemotherapy or radiation, a positive sign that he's cancer free, but regular checkups will be necessary.
As a player, Kelly could take a licking and keep on ticking. But as a man, we've seen another kind of toughness from Jim, something better, forged in the furnaces of faith, family and friendships.
Yes, life has been kind to Jim Kelly but also cruel.
He was a Heisman candidate in college but a shoulder injury ended that. He led the Bills to four Super Bowls, only to lose them all. He was given wealth and fame, and daily pain in his post-football life. He was blessed with a son, Hunter, only to lose him to a rare neurological disease.
It's during those quiet times when self-pity may creep into Jim's day, he thinks of Hunter, who died in 2005 at age 8, and the courage he displayed fighting to live.
"He encouraged me as a father," Jim has said often. "I look at that and say, 'I wasn't that tough.'"
He thinks of his wife, Jill, who ran to her faith while he ran from his, only to be saved in the end. He realizes now that perhaps he is being chosen due to his celebrity to bring attention to worthwhile causes. His son's Krabbe disease, now his cancer.
"We are all faced with challenges and unfortunately I've gone through more than the average person, but oh well,'' Kelly said. "Ups and downs, that's my life. But it's what you do about it that matters. No matter what I did in football, my family life, you never give up. ... You move on and make tomorrow a little better than today."
Kelly's book, The Playbook for Dads, is a tribute to his dad, Joe, now 84, and to 25 years of teaching kids a game plan for life at his football camps. He cares that they learn how to throw, block and catch. But he cares more that they put down their cell phones, pay attention, and learn the meaning of a firm handshake and two special words, "Thank you."
Tuesday, a little boy spotted by my colleague Tina Yee ran up to Kelly and asked, "Did you get my letter I sent you while you were sick?"
"Yes, thank you," Jim said. Kelly then thanked all of the Bills fans who sent him prayers, letters and e-mails.
"Words can't describe how that makes me feel inside."
Next week, when Kelly attends ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, he won't bring up his aches and pains with his fellow greats.
"One thing you don't do is complain to another Hall of Famer because they all have their own problems,'' he said. "The good thing is that I'm able to go down there to enjoy myself."
It's a Kelly comeback to top all comebacks.
Roth also writes for The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, a Gannett property.