What Jim Kelly told an astonished crowd in Boca Raton three years ago still applies in facing down cancer

  Three years ago this month Jim Kelly gave a speech at an Inspiration Breakfast benefiting the YMCA of South Palm Beach County.
  A large crowd was on hand to hear him at the corporate headquarters of Office Depot in Boca Raton. Not just because Kelly is a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, inducted in his first year of eligibility back in 2002. Not just because he starred at the University of Miami during Howard Schnellenberger’s foundational work there, either.
BLOOMINGTON, MN – NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly does a show on Super Bowl LII Radio Row at the Mall of America on February 1, 2018. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

What drives people to Kelly’s side more quickly than any of that is his very public battle with oral cancer and the bold and hopeful attitude he brings to the mission.

  Cancer touches every family at some point or another. No, “touches” is the wrong word. Cancer pulverizes.
  So when Kelly gave that speech here in 2015, one like so many others he has given nationwide, it was to build as much immunity as possible against the despair that is this killer’s specialty. He spoke of the strength he derived from all the encouraging cards and promised prayers he had received. He spoke of faith as the armor to be worn in this personal struggle and any other.
  And now, in a statement released on Thursday, Kelly is announcing that his cancer, beaten back for a time by extensive surgery and chemotherapy and radiation treatment, has returned.
  It’s not an unusual story in terms of recurrence and the need to ramp up for another scary wave of certain punishment with uncertain results, but fortunately Kelly is an unusual man, and his family is every bit as impressive. No doubt, in time, they will be back before another large group, summoning courage from all who are there and inspiring all to stay “Kelly Tough.”
  Until then, the best I can do is return to my column from that Boca Raton appearance three years back. There is inspiration here, and it comes with no expiration date.
(Here follows a column from the Palm Beach Post on March 25, 2015)
by Dave George
Palm Beach Post Columnist
 It pays to be sitting down when Jim Kelly runs through the menu of surgical procedures he has gone through, and much of it in the last few years since cancer was discovered in his upper jaw.
“In two years’ time, I had a plate and six screws put in my neck, and then six months before that I had two plates and 10 screws in my back,” Kelly said Tuesday at the YMCA of South Palm Beach County’s Inspiration Breakfast. “I had double hernia surgery. I had six root canals. I was diagnosed with cancer and I had my jaw removed.”
There were gasps in the audience at the Office Depot corporate headquarters as the former University of Miami and Buffalo Bills quarterback rattled through that daunting list as rapidly as if he were calling out plays in the huddle.
Then came the clincher. Just a few months ago, with the gravest danger behind him and MRI cancer scans becoming less frequent, Kelly, 55, learned for the first time that doctors had given him less than a 10 percent chance to survive in the midst of his most aggressive cancer treatments.
Why did it take so long for him to hear that? Because his wife and daughters and friends wanted to keep Kelly’s psyche safe while his body was under attack.
“People that walked into my hospital room, even though I was having some of the worst days of my life, for those minutes and hours that those people were in my room, they made a difference,” Kelly said. “Hey, I grew up in a family of six boys. I had physical toughness. Where I needed it was the mental toughness. I needed people to tell me and show me with their smiles that I could do it, and don’t ever give up.”
Not a bad lesson to all of us who struggle with knowing what to do or say when someone close is critically ill. Keep the energy positive. Recycle a few giggles from sillier times. They might still have a little charge left in them.
Imagine, for instance, how often Kelly has heard about his great Bills teams losing four consecutive Super Bowls. Howard Schnellenberger, his old Hurricanes coach, even spent a few light minutes on that topic Tuesday while inviting Kelly up to the stage.
That didn’t even faze Kelly, who used a few squirts of mouth spray before his speech and explained that it’s not because of bad breath. Truth is, he no longer is able to produce saliva.
Can’t believe how good he looks, trim but not gaunt. Can’t believe he worries about lisping ever so slightly as a result of the prosthetic jaw and teeth that followed surgery. Nobody at the YMCA event noticed that. They were too busy coming up to Kelly to tell survival stories of their own and to thank him for the inspiration.
“So good to see you,” many of them said.
“Better to be seen than viewed,” Kelly regularly shoots back.
There are many appearances like this for Kelly, who still lives in Buffalo and in October will speak before a group in Rochester that provides services for the mentally ill. As always, his charitable activities center around the Hunter’s Hope Foundation, established to aid research on Krabbe Disease, the genetic disorder that ended the life of Kelly’s son, Hunter, in 2005 at the age of 8.
At Kelly’s induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, he dedicated his speech to Hunter, an exceedingly brave little boy.
To spend much time with Kelly, however, is to laugh a lot, and eventually to talk about the Bills, who are trying to rev it all up again under new coach Rex Ryan.
“I love it,” Kelly said in the VIP reception room after posing for photos with a long line of YMCA donors. “The biggest question is whether it’s going to be EJ Manuel or Matt Cassel, but I just hope that one of the quarterbacks steps up because that’s all we need.”
Just a whiff of hope and the tank is filled once more.

SEC Media Days just aren’t the same without Mark Richt, a fixture there since 2000

The SEC Media Days carnival sure has been weird without Mark Richt.

This is the first time since 2000 that he hasn’t been there to represent the Georgia Bulldogs, a team that he led to a .740 winning percentage and an average of 9.6 wins per season.

CORAL GABLES, FL - DECEMBER 04:  New University of Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt makes the 'U' sign after he was introduced at a press conference at the school on December 4, 2015 in Coral Gables, Florida.  (Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL – DECEMBER 04: New University of Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt makes the ‘U’ sign after he was introduced at a press conference at the school on December 4, 2015. (Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images)

Would you take nine wins as an acceptable debut for Richt as Miami’s head coach? Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Butch Davis didn’t get there in their first years with the Hurricanes. There are no guarantees, no matter the quality of the coaching.

As Richt makes the transition, however, from SEC to ACC competition, he’s getting some nice tributes from his old league.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, for instance, took time during his turn at the SEC Media Days podium to call Richt “one of the better coaches in all of college football, I think.

“He’s one of the true professionals. I think he’s a great example for young guys getting into that profession of how you’re supposed to act, how you’re supposed to go about your business. So I’ll say that first, and it was an honor for me to coach against Coach Richt.”

Malzahn lost two of his three matchups with Richt’s Bulldogs. The lone victory was a 43-38 shootout in 2013, the year that Auburn made it all the way to the BCS Championship game against Jameis Winston and Florida State.

The only Georgia coach to last longer than Richt was Vince Dooley, who ran the show in Athens for 25 seasons and stepped down at the age of 56.

Now, at 56, Richt will attempt to begin another long run as Miami coach.

[Confident Jim McElwain is remaking the Gators again]

[Rate the Adam Gase buzz against other Dolphins coach debuts]

[If renovations miss deadline, it won’t be first rocky debut for Dolphins stadium]

The Hurricanes haven’t had much of that, either because coaches are fired or because they get stolen by the NFL. Beginning with Schnellenberger in 1979, the average tenure of a Miami head coach is 5.2 years.

The only one in Miami history to stretch well beyond that was Andy Gustafson, who lasted 16 seasons beginning in 1948. How different was the job then? Well, Gustafson kept it that long despite a career winning percentage of .587 and one postseason victory, the 1951 Gator Bowl against Clemson.

Larry Coker was fired in 2006 with an overall winning percentage of .800 as Miami’s coach, plus a national championship and three major bowl appearances.

Richt is ready to give it a shot with the Hurricanes and he’ll be talking about it next week at a new venue, the ACC media day event in Charlotte.


What Schnellenberger saw coming in 1998 almost happened for FAU at the Swamp

They probably don’t want to hear it right now but it needs to be said.

Congratulations to the Florida Atlantic Owls for pushing the No. 8 Florida Gators to the absolute limit Saturday.


GAINESVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 21: Head coaches Jim McElwain of the Florida Gators and Charlie Partridge of the Florida Atlantic Owls shake hands after the game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
GAINESVILLE, FL – NOVEMBER 21: Head coaches Jim McElwain of the Florida Gators and Charlie Partridge of the Florida Atlantic Owls shake hands after the game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

What could have been the greatest game in Owls history turned into just another close call, this time in overtime, but you know what? I’m calling it the greatest game anyway, or at least a close second to that landmark 2007 New Orleans Bowl victory over Memphis.

When Howard Schnellenberger birthed FAU football, it was with moments exactly like that thriller at the Swamp in mind.

It seemed silly when Howard popped up in Boca Raton in 1998 with talk of a team that didn’t yet exist competing one day on a straight-up basis with the Gators and FSU Seminoles and Miami Hurricanes for control of Sunshine State loyalties.

College football, however, is built for dreams and dreamers.

If you had just dropped in on the Swamp Saturday with no prior information on these teams, it would have seemed impossible that the Gators are playing for the SEC championship in a couple of weeks. They didn’t look up to winning the Conference USA title.

[Better find a coach who majors in defense because all of UM’s title teams sure did]

[FSU won’t play for the ACC title this year but do you realize just how rare that is?]

[Learning from the Big Three and the Heat’s ugly 9-8 start five years ago]

As for the Owls, 2-9 is the last record you would have guessed. Coach Charlie Partridge has done everything with this team but teach it how to win. It’s got to be coming soon, right?

This weeks Florida-FSU game may be an entirely different matter, with all the emotion that the Gators didn’t bring to their meeting with FAU. For now, though, it doesn’t make much sense worrying about where Florida winds up in Tuesday’s new College Football Playoff rankings.

Without a reliable quarterback and a serviceable kicker, there can be no national championship run. It’s a tribute to coach Jim McElwain that Florida has squeezed 10 wins out a team with such obvious flaws.

Now wait and see if the Owls don’t go out and lose their season finale at Old Dominion and have us all scratching our heads again.

Here’s the list of all-time FAU landmark games that tonight’s UM visit is sure to top

We keep telling you how big tonight’s appearance by the Miami Hurricanes in Boca Raton is for Florida Atlantic football.

Epic, in a word. Enormous, in a longer word. Kardashian, in the mother of all words.

Former Owls head coach Howard Schnellenberger talks with Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Charlie Partridge after FAU football practice in Boca Raton, Florida on August 7, 2015. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Former Owls head coach Howard Schnellenberger talks with Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Charlie Partridge after FAU football practice. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Thought it might be fun, meanwhile, to list the top 20 landmark games in FAU history to this point. None match the symbolic and psychological significance of having the ‘Canes on campus, but the Owls never wouldn’t be where they are tonight without experiencing each and every one of them.

  1. First game ever – Sept. 1, 2001: FAU falls 40-7 to Slippery Rock at Sun Life Stadium. Disaster of several players academically ineligible. Small crowd. Still, got to start somewhere.
  2. First win ever – Sept. 8, 2001: In a driving rainstorm, Owls prove themselves a real football team by winning a real football game, 31-28, at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach. Break up FAU!
  3. First win over Div. I opponent – Aug. 28, 2003: FAU goes on the road to beat Middle Tennessee of the Sun Belt conference 20-19. Was just 22nd game since Owls started program from scratch.
  4. First in-state splash – Sept. 13, 2003: Playing as a Div. I-AA independent, the Owls give UCF a scare before falling 33-29 in Orlando. The Knights haven’t played FAU since. Next meeting 2018.
  5. First winning season – Oct. 18, 2003: Owls beat Northern Colorado 31-19 at Lockhart Stadium for sixth win of year. That clinches winning record with three regular-season games to go.
  6. First 50-point game- Nov. 15, 2003: Owls crush Siena 51-3 at Lockhart Stadium. It was the best-attended home game of the season with a crowd of 6,159.
  7. First national TV game – Dec. 13, 2003: Owls lose 36-24 to Colgate at Lockhart Stadium but ESPN2 was there to broadcast the game, a Div. I-AA national semifinal. Crowd is 12,857.
  8. First overtime win – Sept. 4, 2004 – Owls go all the way to Honolulu and then go a little bit more, topping Hawaii of the Western Athletic Conference 35-28 in overtime.
  9. First visit from team in a BCS league – Sept. 8, 2005: Oklahoma State of the old Big 12 beats FAU 23-3 at Sun Life Stadium. Crowd of 16,421 turns out for Owls and Cowboys.
  10. First game against team ranked in AP poll – Oct. 1, 2005: Owls lose 61-10 at No. 11 Louisville. One of three games that season in which the Cardinals scored 60-plus points.
  11. First bodybag game – Sept. 2, 2006: Owls go to Clemson for big guarantee and get clobbered 54-6. Trips to Kansas State, Oklahoma State and South Carolina immediately follow, all big losses.
  12. First home win over team in a BCS league – Sept. 15, 2007: Owls beat Minnesota of the Big Ten 42-39 at Sun Life Stadium. Again, the building’s too big for the event. Crowd of 10,759.
  13. First game against Top-10 team – Oct. 6, 2007: South Florida comes to Lockhart Stadium as the No. 2 team in the BCS rankings, having upset West Virginia the week before. Owls lose 35-23.
  14. First game against one of state’s Big Three – Nov. 17, 2007: Owls take a pretty good team to Florida and lose 59-20. Better things were coming, though, as FAU built to a finish of 8-5.
  15. First bowl win – Dec. 21, 2007: Owls beat Memphis 44-27 in the New Orleans Bowl. Shortest amount of time ever needed for a start-up program to reach a bowl game.
  16. First back-to-back bowl win: Dec. 26, 2008: Owls beat Central Michigan 24-21 in Detroit’s Motor City Bowl. This was the last of Howard Schnellenberger’s four winning seasons as FAU coach.
  17. First game at FAU Stadium – Oct. 15, 2011: Owls lose 20-0 to Western Kentucky but their on-campus stadium shows off well in its debut. A near sellout announced at 29,103.
  18. First game against No. 1 team – Sept. 22, 2012: Owls lose 40-7 to top-ranked Alabama. The usual crowd of 101,821 shows up in Tuscaloosa but the game is available only on pay-per-view.
  19. First game against Miami – Aug. 30, 2013: FAU loses 34-6 to Hurricanes at Sun Life Stadium but it could have been worse. Miami let off the gas, never scoring after the third quarter.
  20. First winning record at FAU Stadium – Nov. 30, 2013: Owls beat FIU 21-7 to finish 3-2 in games played on their own campus. Interim coach Brian Wright got all the wins after Carl Pelini’s firing.


If you ask me, the biggest game to this point was that New Orleans Bowl win over Memphis because it came, shockingly, in the program’s seventh year of existence.

Now comes Miami at FAU, which is guaranteed to be far more impactful, for the good or for the bad, when it comes to establishing the Owls’ credentials with recruits and with South Florida’s hard-to-impress fan base.