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 Class of 2002
Jim Kelly had plenty of support during his Hall of Fame career.
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Saturday, August 3, 2002
Bills quarterback a champion after all
By Amy Chou

The ultimate game that eluded him finally gave Jim Kelly his greatest honor as an athlete. The road to Canton, Ohio, has gotten increasingly shorter since the February announcement of his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at, ironically, the Super Bowl.

Kelly, the Buffalo Bills quarterback who was unable to lead his team to victory in four Super Bowl appearances, is anxious to share his greatest football honor with his greatest joy, his son Hunter.

"I said I would love to have my son with me when this day does happen," Kelly told ESPN. "And I will keep my fingers crossed and pray when it comes to Hall of Fame day that he will still be with me."

Five-year-old Hunter, whom Kelly calls his "little buddy," has Krabbe's disease, a crippling, enzyme disorder of the central and peripheral nervous system. The hereditary ailment generally yields a life expectancy of 14 months. Because an essential enzyme cannot be produced around the white matter of the brain, mobility and bodily functions start shutting down, leaving most youngsters with the disease paralyzed, deaf or blind and prone to infections like pneumonia.

"He's such a tough fighter," Kelly has said. "He's my hero."

Krabbe's disease has no known cure. Risky cord blood and bone marrow transplants can stop the disease's progression, but since Krabbe's strikes at infancy in 90 percent of cases, the procedure of transplantation carries a high mortality risk.

It is an inherited disorder, where both parents must carry the defective gene. When they do, their children have a 1-in-4 chance of being affected and the same chance of becoming a carrier. Kelly's youngest daughter, Camryn, carries the recessive gene.

Through Hunter's Hope, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and funds for treatment of Krabbe's and other related diseases, Kelly has brought in more than $5 million in grants and donations since his retirement from pro football in 1996. He and his wife, Jill, have used their experiences and celebrity to lead the drive against the disease. And though Kelly fights a different type of fight now, his career has been defined by challenges and he has never seemed daunted.

In his 11 seasons with the Buffalo Bills, Kelly led the team to eight playoffs and an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990 to 1993. Though he never walked away with a ring, Kelly left an indelible image of leadership, toughness and tenacity so strong that it earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame's Class of 2002, his first year of eligibility.

"He was tough physically, he was tough spiritually," former Bills coach Marv Levy told ESPN. "If he was banged up he'd shake it off and grit his teeth and come back."

Drafted in the celebrated quarterback class of 1983, which included John Elway and Dan Marino, Kelly was selected in the first round by the Bills. He opted to first spend two seasons with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL, earning the MVP award before the league folded.

Then Bills owner Ralph Wilson stepped back in.

"Ralph Wilson, our owner, he guaranteed me that he would get players around me," Kelly said. "Fortunately for all of us, he got some players in here to build around me and build around that defense, and the rest was history."

Not often has a single athlete transformed the history of a franchise the way Kelly did, when he joined the Bills in 1986. But the people of Buffalo also envisioned that Kelly would bring something special, an era of winning to a team that had hit the trenches with back-to-back 2-14 seasons. Banner-waving fans lined the streets on the day of his arrival.

"They were starved for good football," he said. And befitting of his philanthropic nature, Kelly fed Buffalo what it needed.

Kelly logged 35,467 yards passing and 237 touchdowns during his NFL career, leading the league in passing in 1990 and the AFC in 1991. The Bills perfected the "no-huddle" offense under Kelly's leadership and maintained one of the most successful football teams of the 1990s with a supporting cast that included wide receiver Andre Reed and running back Thurman Thomas, a three-time AFC rushing leader.

"I thought that the guy commanded respect from day one," Andre Reed told ESPN. "You looked in his eyes and you knew that something was going to be done, regardless of what the odds were he (exuded) that confidence and that's what he got through to the whole team."

Thousands of Bills faithful are expected to converge on Canton to honor Jim Kelly, the quarterback who steered Buffalo on a wild and, yes, winning ride. With the Class of '02, the number of Hall members will extend to 216, a representative thread compared to the 17,000 players who have played professionally.

It is the highest individual honor in the sport, one of the proudest and sweetest moments for every famed football hero.

But best of all for Kelly, it will be an especially sweet moment for a football Hall of Famer and his own little hero.

Amy Chou is an intern at She can be reached at

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