Kelly's Hall of Fame day with son is extra special

Five-year-old Hunter, battling Krabbes disease, will see QB's induction

Pro Football

August 03, 2002|By Sam Farmer | Sam Farmer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Five-year-old Hunter Kelly has had 15 bouts with pneumonia and a blood transfusion. He needs a ventilator to breathe, a machine to eat. His parents have to suction his throat 100 times a day. Lately, he has been having seizures. He has outlasted his original life expectancy by more than four years.

And today, he will watch his father be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Ever since I was selected, I've prayed every single day and night that Hunter could be there to see it," said Jim Kelly, who passed for 35,467 yards and led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls. "Now, it's so close and I'm still praying."

Hunter was born with Krabbes disease, a fatal inherited disorder of the central and peripheral nervous system. Infants stricken with the rare, degenerative syndrome eventually become blind, deaf and paralyzed. Hunter can't speak; he communicates by blinking.

Jim Kelly was at the Super Bowl in New Orleans when he learned he was headed for Canton, Ohio. His first call was to his wife, Jill, who then told their two daughters and held up the phone to Hunter's ear. Hunter was blinking like crazy.

"We know in our hearts that he knows what's going on," said Kelly, who shares a birthday with Hunter, born on Valentine's Day in 1997.

Kelly is a control freak, something he freely acknowledges. Not only did he run the K-Gun offense, he called every play. No other NFL quarterback had that type of leeway. He even designed his own wedding cake and tried to direct his groomsmen until the minister stepped in, telling him, "I'm the quarterback here, Jim."

So it is especially frustrating for Kelly that he has very little control over his son's condition. He can provide Hunter little more than love and prayer. But he can help in other ways. Kelly and his wife have formed Hunter's Hope, a foundation that has raised more than $3 million to combat the effects of Krabbes disease and fund research to find a cure.

Like so many people touched by life-threatening circumstances, Kelly's sense of priorities have changed dramatically. Former Buffalo center Kent Hull, who handled more than 12,000 snaps to Kelly, saw that right away.

"Jim always wanted a son, and when Hunter was first diagnosed with cerebral palsy, that just crushed Jim," Hull said. "But cerebral palsy isn't terminal. Then, when they figured out it was Krabbes - which is terminal - I saw Jim shift gears. Jim's a fighter, and so, obviously, is Hunter.

"Jim immediately took over and said, `I can't do anything to help my son. But I'm going to make damn sure that I do something to help make sure another parent doesn't have to go through this.' "

On the field, the Bills were wickedly effective. They were led by the square-jawed Kelly, who had grown up in East Brady, Pa., an area that produced Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath and George Blanda.

Although he was a first-round pick of the Bills in 1983 - a quarterback class that included Dan Marino and John Elway - Kelly played his first two seasons for the Houston Gamblers of the United States Football League. He then spent 11 seasons with the Bills, from 1986 though 1996, threw 237 touchdown passes and essentially became the identity of the franchise.

The Bills won four AFC championships in a row, from the 1990 through '93 seasons, but never won the Super Bowl.

"Do I worry about that? Aw, hell no," Kelly said. "We accomplished a lot. If I watched one of those games again, yeah, it would hurt. But I don't even think about it."

Sam Farmer is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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