Off-field battles forged UM and NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly, who will serve as grand marshal for UM’s 2014 Alumni Weekend and Homecoming festivities, faced some of the NFL’s fiercest defenders as a quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. His toughest battles, however, would be fought away from the field.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (October 17, 2014) — It was the game that put Miami Hurricanes football on the map—a November 1979 road matchup against powerful Penn State.

Making his first collegiate start at quarterback for Miami was Jim Kelly, a kid from East Brady, Pennsylvania, who grew up dreaming about playing for the Nittany Lions.

“I went into that week as the backup QB,” recalled Kelly. “Coach [Howard] Schnellenberger told me after the pregame meal that I was going to be the starter. I was shocked. But I knew it was an opportunity to show that I could play. Coach gave me that opportunity, and I made the best of it.”


In front of more than 77,000 fans packed inside Beaver Stadium, Kelly, who was so nervous before the game that he threw up, passed for 280 yards and three touchdowns to lead unranked Miami to a 26-10 victory over a Penn State squad replete with future NFL stars.

“When I look back on that game,” said Kelly, a four-year letterman at UM from 1979 to 1982, “I think to myself, ‘Maybe that’s what the Miami program needed.’ ”

Kelly’s heroics continued. During the 1980 season, the 6-foot, 3-inch field general led Miami to its first bowl game in 14 years—a Peach Bowl victory over Virginia Tech in early January 1981. He would go on to defeat Penn State again, knocking off the then-No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions 17-14 in the Orange Bowl on October 31, 1981—a matchup, incidentally, that was UM’s homecoming game.

Kelly finished his Miami career with 406 completions, 5,233 passing yards, and 32 touchdowns, proving to doubters that he could be an exceptional quarterback. Penn State had offered him a scholarship to play linebacker, but Kelly, who won all-state honors as a high school signal caller, knew he was meant to be a QB. So he came to UM, and under the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Earl Morrall, helped resurrect the Miami program, turning it into Quarterback U.

“Jim Kelly to me is as much responsible for rescuing the University of Miami football program and athletic department as anyone,” said current UM offensive line coach Art Kehoe, who played on the 1979 and 1980 teams with Kelly. “So many people have been important to this program, but Jim Kelly was a guy that took us from being ready to drop football to being a national championship contender and having prominence again. He was such a tough guy and such a leader. That’s how he was the whole time he was here. He always wanted to fight and scrap.”

For the past year and a half, Kelly has fought a different kind of battle—one that has posed a challenge unlike any of the stout and sturdy defenses he so expertly dismantled as the star quarterback of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills from 1986 to 1996, and before that, of the USFL’s Houston Gamblers for two seasons.

In March 2013, the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback was diagnosed with oral cancer and later underwent surgery to remove part of his upper jawbone. The cancer returned, and Kelly endured several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Today, he is cancer free—and “Kelly Tough,” a phrase he coined and has lived by.

Long before his battle with cancer, Kelly’s fortitude had been tested—two plates and ten screws in his back, a plate and six screws in his neck, a double hernia.

But that all pales in comparison to the 2005 loss of his son, Hunter Kelly. Born on Valentine’s Day like his father, Hunter suffered from Krabbe disease, a rare degenerative disorder of the nervous system.

“I saw what he went through on an everyday basis,” said Kelly. “To see a little boy fight and live to be 8 when he was given no more than 14 months to live, I can’t complain about anything I’m going through. It doesn’t compare.

“I admired his strength, his courage,” Kelly continued. “Even though he never spoke a word, he spoke volumes. He’s made me the man I am today. Each day I wake up, I know I probably wouldn’t have been able to fight this battle (against cancer) had it not been for a little boy named Hunter James Kelly.”

In honor of their son, Kelly and his wife, Jill, established Hunter’s Hope Foundation, which has raised millions for research on Krabbe disease and other neurological disorders.

Throughout his battles, Kelly, who led the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances, has relied on his family’s support. From his wife to his daughters Erin and Camryn, “they’ve been there every step of the way,” he said.

In conjunction with Kelly’s successful fight against cancer, the Homecoming game against the North Carolina Tar Heels on November 1 has been declared a Kelly Tough Green Out. ’Canes fans are encouraged to wear green to show their support in the fight against cancer. Fans can get Kelly Tough by purchasing and wearing to the game Kelly Tough T-shirts, which are being sold at the UM Bookstore, on, and at allCanes on 5831 Ponce De Leon Boulevard. allCanes is donating $5 to Hunter’s Hope with the sale of each T-shirt.

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