Jim Kelly had a great career in the NFL playing for the Buffalo Bills. He helped lead the team to four straight Super Bowls, a feat that no other team in the NFL has ever done. Jim threw for a total of 237 touchdowns and 35,467 passing yards in his NFL career. Kelly also played in the USFL right after college before going to the NFL. The Bills organization retired his number and Jim was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
Jim and his wife Jill created the Hunter’s Hope Foundation to honor their son Hunter. The foundation helps to raise money and awareness for their son’s disease Globoid-Cell Leukodystrophy, known as Krabbe Disease. He also participates in an annual walk called Every Step to aid children with that disease.
Jim was kind enough to chat with me about his football career, fatherhood, and his great foundation.
Art Eddy: Before we get into your great career and foundation, what is your take on the Buffalo Bills releasing Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Jim Kelly: Well with the new coaching staff I had an idea that might happen. I think he was due $3 million so that in itself they had to make a decision. The new coaching staff will implement a different offense they had to make a move they thought was best for the franchise.
I love Ryan Fitzpatrick. I got to know him very well. He is a good leader. He didn’t get to where the Bills wanted and didn’t really have a good last two seasons. It wasn’t a surprise for me, but when you get to know a guy and being around for a couple of years now I really like the guy. Overall it was the best move that they could make because now they can focus on this draft and see what the future holds.
AE: You came out of the NFL Draft in 1983, which is also known as the quarterback class of 1983. Besides you there was John Elway, Dan Marino, and Tony Eason. When you were drafted by the Bills was there any more pressure on yourself with all those guys coming out the same year?
JK: No not really because I really didn’t know a lot about them. You heard of John Elway. You heard of Dan Marino. For me there was no pressure because even like today you see how many great players that come out of college that not end up doing anything in the NFL. For me it was I got to go and do what I have to do.
Fortunately I went to the USFL for a couple years prior to making it into the NFL. I learned more in the USFL by throwing the ball 40, 50 times before I came to the NFL. As time went on you develop a relationship with those guys. They become friends of yours. Especially with us since the majority of these guys were in the AFC.
You look at every single quarterback that came out of that draft we were all AFC guys. So that in itself became fun and having Dan Marino in our own division we knew we were going to play him two times and sometimes even three times a year. It was exciting. It was something that I loved and I thrived on it. It got me motivated.
AE: You and the rest of the Bills team from the late ’80s and ’90s were a dominate team and went to four straight Super Bowls a feat never done by any other team. How much fun did you have playing with those guys?
JK: Put it this way I don’t think there is any team in the NFL, even in the history of the NFL that had as much fun as the Buffalo Bills did. If you go to the Super Bowl and don’t win you have to have the mental toughness to be able to put that aside and focus on what is coming up in front of you. We did that four times in a row.
I looked around the locker room and the guys that we had and the head coach we had in Marv Levy. Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Kent Hull, Will Wolford and a bunch of Pro Bowl players had all the same work ethic. We all mentally knew what we had to do to get us a chance to get back there. I know that there is not going to be anybody to be able to ever do that again.
Once we got away from the locker room we drank beers together. We had fun together. We laughed together. We had tears together. Parties after every game was at my house so I could bring everybody closer together. It was a blast win or lose. We celebrated that we are family.
AE: With everything you put into playing in the NFL how much of an honor was it getting elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
JK: My situation may be different than most people. When I retired from the NFL my son, Hunter was born. For me that was a blessing. What father wouldn’t want his son being born on his birthday? He was diagnosed with a fatal disease at the age of 14 months. As time went on when I was picked in 2002 to be part of the 2002 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot words can’t express the excitement that I had.
I remember praying to the good Lord that if it was His wish and things worked out that my son would be there the day that I was inducted and I was granted that blessing. My son was there when I was inducted when I was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002. What an exciting day it was.
When you walk around you see Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Gale Sayers, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, and Terry Bradshaw. You walk into that room and you see these guys that you looked up to that you thought were held up on a pedestal so much greater than you were. To all of a sudden pinch yourself and say I am on their team. I can’t believe this coming from a small town in Pennsylvania to get to where I ultimately got and that was the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I was very fortunate. I was also blessed to have great players around me and a head coach and owner like Ralph Wilson that allowed me to be myself. Allow me to be the leader that I was to be able to pull the team together when things weren’t looking well. Then the ultimate when you were done playing and be able to make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and I was. I was blessed to have great players to help me achieve that goal.
AE: You and your wife Jill created the Hunter’s Hope Foundation. It is great foundation you started for your son. Tell me how you started that up and what events you have going on this year?
JK: My son is now in Heaven. He passed away at the age of eight. Even though my son never spoke a word, never moved a muscle in his body he didn’t have to. He made me a lot better person than I was, a lot better man today than I was many years ago. Even though he did not say one word he taught me so much.
I thank the good Lord every day for my son even though he was almost like a sacrifice through him and through me to make a difference in other kids. When you see that in every appearance that you make and you see families walking up to you and holding their children in their arms and thanking you then you understand why the good Lord picked me as a special father with a little special boy named Hunter that we can make a different for other families.
We do a walk every year not only here, but I think we got 14 other states that are participating in our walk. Most of them are families from other states that had children die or have children with the Krabbe Leukodystrophy.
AE: With everything that has happened to you as a father what advice do you have for other fathers out there?
JK: Faith, I grew up a Catholic. When my son, Hunter was born I totally went the other way. My wife sought the Lord and I didn’t. I was mad. I was mad at everybody that tried to tell me that I was a chosen father with a special little boy that could make a difference. I didn’t want to hear that.
Until I really sat down and I really understood that this was God’s will and to also stay strong for your spouse. Too many men forget to check their ego out. They let the macho part take over instead of really understanding what the wife and the mother goes through and understand what can I do to help this.
Mothers and fathers look at different things different ways. Me and my wife Jill we handled it totally different. She handled it like a mother would. I handled it like what I thought a father would. I needed to get a little closer to the situation and humble yourself to know that you got to be able to communicate.
I don’t know what the divorce rate is for families with a special needs child, but I know it is not great. You just have to be able to talk things out and if you need counseling go to counseling. Me and my wife needed it. I didn’t think I needed that. I know what I am doing. I played football. Bull. You need to be able to talk things out. If you need counseling go get it. It helps. I had to humble myself to understand that there were things that I was doing wrong. Communication between mom and dad, husband and wife is so crucial of keeping a happy family. Until you talk it out you will never get to where you need to be.
AE: What do you want your children to always remember about your teachings as a dad?
JK: Number one is work ethic. Just what my father instilled in me all the time. I have two daughters and really no matter what you do if you work at it things are possible. If you don’t you are going to get what you put into it. I always try to instill that into my two kids.
For my son knowing what he went through and you look at some of the things going on in your life, look at what your little brother did and really learn from it. The compassion that my two kids have and the willingness to not only be very faithful to what they do, but when they need to is get on your knees and pray. That is something me and my wife instilled into our children. I thank the good Lord because I am a lot better person today than I was many years ago. I owe that a lot to my faith and to my son Hunter.
AE: I spoke with Andre Reed recently and he mentioned that you will be the first person he mentions when he gets into the Hall of Fame. What is your reaction on hearing that?
JK: Andre is one of the main reasons why I made it into the NFL Hall of Fame. His toughness, his resiliency, and his way of attacking every day at practice and game time. He was just phenomenal. It bums me out that he is still not in the Hall of Fame, but with Cris Carter going in this year I think that opens it up for Andre to go in next year. I hope so because he definitely belongs there. He will get in there I just hope it is sooner than later.
To listen to the entire interview with Jim Kelly click here.