Aug/Sept 2010 The Hunter's Hope Clay Meyer
Very few people know what it’s like to play in the NFL. Even fewer know what it’s like to play in a Super Bowl. Only one knows what it is like to be the starting quarterback in four consecutive.
His name is Jim Kelly, and he is a football legend. From 1986 to 1996, as the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, Kelly led his team to four consecutive Super Bowls, was selected to five Pro Bowls and passed for more than 35,000 career yards. Years before he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, his poster graced the bedroom walls of kids nationwide, and his football cards were placed carefully into thousands of collectors’ albums.
Now, at the age of 50, Kelly knows that, while his fame might lie in football, his legacy will be about so much more. To him, it’s not about the Hall of Fame or the historical statistics; it’s about conveying the love of Jesus Christ to the world, specifically through two things very near to his heart: nature and parenting.
After experiencing the loss of a child, Kelly, along with his wife, Jill, has dedicated himself to making a Kingdom impact through their Hunter’s Hope Foundation, which is named after their late son. In addition to the foundation, Kelly is also using his passion for hunting and fishing to share the truth of Christ through the FCA Outdoors ministry.
“I understand the purpose of my son’s life and of my life... This is what the good Lord has chosen for me.”
Yes, Kelly knows that things like the Hall of Fame enshrinement are special ways of recognizing his decade in the NFL. But when it comes down to it, Kelly knows that no earthly trophy could be greater than that which awaits him in eternity: the lasting rewards in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Born and raised in East Brady, Pa., Kelly was a highly decorated quarterback at East Brady High. He considered attending nearby Penn State University, but, after being told he would have to move to linebacker, Kelly opted to attend the University of Miami. From 1979 to 1982, he thrived as the Hurricanes’ quarterback and helped build the program into a national power.
Following his years at Miami, which included overcoming a careerthreatening shoulder injury, Kelly was drafted 14th overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 1983 draft. But, after evaluating his prospects, Kelly opted instead to play in the United States Football League (USFL). In 1984, he earned league Rookie of the Year and MVP honors as a member of the Houston Gamblers. When the USFL folded a year later, he rejoined the Bills and immediately became their starting quarterback.
While he wasn’t aware of it at the time, Kelly now looks back and sees how, through each season, God was working out the details of his life.
“There are a lot of ‘God things’ in all of my life experiences,” Kelly said. “I know that I have been tested all my life and have been very, very blessed. Even though I wondered why things happened certain ways, there was always a reason behind them, and that was God.”
Another “God detail” that fell into place for Kelly took place in 1991 when he met his future wife at a post-Super Bowl party. According to Jill, while she was impressed by Kelly’s status as an NFL quarterback, she refused to throw herself at him.
“When he initially asked for my number, I didn’t give it to him,” Jill recalled. “But later, he found out where I worked and pursued me, so I knew he was genuinely interested.”
It was also during this time that Kelly and the Bills were making their historic run to four consecutive Super Bowls. From 1991 through 1994, the Bills reached the NFL championship game every season but came up just short of victory in each.
Kelly with his late son, Hunter
“I still don’t know the reason why we had to lose four Super Bowls,” Kelly said. “But I know it taught me that it takes a total team effort and involves everyone pressing along to achieve goals.”
Following the last of the Bills’ four Super Bowls, Jill gave birth to their first daughter, Erin, and they married the following year in 1996. As Jill shared, “We were both not living for the Lord at the time. But, since becoming Christians, we know that God has restored our lives in all areas.”
On Valentine’s Day 1997, the Kellys celebrated Jim’s 37th birthday with the birth of their second child, a son named Hunter. Within four months Hunter was diagnosed with Krabbe Leukodystrophy, a fatal nervous system disease, and was initially given 14 months to live. It was a blow to the entire Kelly family.
“I was so filled with fear,” Jill said. “Even though I didn’t know God personally, He was where I turned in desperation. God also put Christians in our lives who spoke truth to us from His Word.”
While Jill found solace in God’s presence, Kelly wrestled to accept the fact that his son wouldn’t be able to do the things he dreamed for him. Instead of comfort, Kelly’s feelings toward God turned to bitterness and anger.
“I was pretty much ticked off at the world and wondered why God would do this to me,” he said. “But my wife did her best to turn it into something positive. She said that, if there ever was a time for us to use our name, this was it. So, we decided to make a difference for other people.”
Soon, the Kellys established a foundation called Hunter’s Hope in order to fund research to treat and cure Krabbe Disease, increase newborn screening standards, and to encourage parents to thank God for and cherish their children.
Within their own family, the Kellys focused on living out the foundation’s mission with their kids, and, in 2002, the world witnessed this love in a powerful televised moment. As a first-ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Kelly used his induction speech to pay tribute to his young son.
“It’s been written that the trademark of my career was toughness,” Kelly said, choking back tears. “The toughest person I ever met in my life was my son, my hero, Hunter. I love you, buddy.”
Just three years later, at the age of 8, Hunter passed away.
In the years that followed, Kelly experienced a new desire to make changes in his life. One specific change involved spiritual lordship. It wasn’t long before Kelly, largely through the witness of his wife, recognized his own internal need for God.
Born: Feb. 14, 1960
Hometown: East Brady, Pa.
NFL Career: Quarterback, Buffalo Bills (1986-96)
•2002 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee
•2001 Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame inductee, which retired his jersey number (12)
•Led Bills to record four consecutive Super Bowls and eight playoff appearances in 11 seasons
•5-time Pro Bowl selection (1987-88, 90-92)
Mother, Speaker, Author
In her recent and upcoming book releases, Jill Kelly shares her family’s story of overcoming hardship through the power and love of Jesus Christ. If you or someone you know needs to be encouraged in their faith and assured of God’s presence in times of trouble, check out one of Jill’s titles:
Prayers for Those Who Grieve – (Available Now)
Without a Word – (September 2010)
Prayers of Hope for the Brokenhearted – (Fall 2010)
And for more information on the Hunter’s Hope Foundation, visit huntershope.org.
“I really started looking at myself and the things that I had been doing,” said Kelly, who was by this time also the father of his and Jill’s second daughter, Camryn. “I was just living the life that I wanted and not really what God intended for me. When my wife had nowhere to turn, God was right there every step of the way. It took me a little longer than it took her to understand this, but in April 2007, I became a Christian, too.”
As a result of this decision, the Kellys experienced a stronger marriage and family through the power of the Holy Spirit. And, for Kelly himself, it also brought clarity to the past.
“I understand the purpose of my son’s life and of my life,” he said. “This is what the good Lord has chosen for me. My focus now is on my family—on my wife and two daughters. I am totally devoted to my wife, what she believes in and is all about. I’m closer to her now and love her more now than I did the day we were married. I’ve never been happier.”
Operating out of a place of spiritual peace and understanding, Kelly is taking the opportunity to share his life and faith with others. One new outlet for Kelly is the recently established FCA Outdoors ministry.
As an experienced outdoorsman, Kelly has loved hunting and fishing since he was young. Thus, when FCA’s Tim Eason approached him about being a part of the ministry, Kelly saw it as God’s way of opening a door for him to encourage fathers to spend time with their kids enjoying God’s creation.
“I want to be able to reach out to fathers and children and have them realize how important it is to have Jesus in their lives and to cherish that time with their God-given families,” Kelly said. “The outdoors is also something God gave us to see: the beautiful countryside, being in the middle of the woods, hearing the birds chirping, and being able to see the animals. It’s all His, and we should experience the blessings of those creations.”
It’s clear that Jim Kelly’s legacy goes beyond the stats and Super Bowls. He’s allowed the path God chose for him—heartache and all—to make a difference outside the game and in the lives of families, fans, and now, outdoorsmen.
His friends tell Jill that he is a changed man. While he’s still the passionate leader he always was, there’s now an element of true humility that wasn’t there before—one that was passed on to him by God through a painful journey. To this day, Kelly wishes he could still hold and hug Hunter, but he is at peace knowing that his son is enjoying his time with his Creator and that one day Kelly will be there, too.
For now, though, he will keep building his legacy of faith and family, knowing that it will last when everything else—including posters and football cards—fades away.
For many outdoorsmen and women, there’s nothing more tranquil than a flowing river or a quiet forest far away from the busy city. It can be an ideal place to connect with the Lord and others without distraction. And it’s exactly where Tim Eason and the FCA Outdoors ministry hopes to unite fathers, kids and friends with Christ.
“Our mission is to inspire sportsmen to use their passion for the outdoors as a way of sharing the challenge and adventure of receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord,” Eason said. “Coaches and community are our primary focus because of the love for the outdoors that so many coaches, donors and volunteers share.”
Eason with Jim Kelly at an FCA Outdoors event in March.
The mission of FCA Outdoors has previously been put to use in local FCA ministries via outdoor events, fundraisers and even hunting excursions, but, in the past two years, Eason has helped develop it into a unique ministry of its own. Eason has recruited several athletes-turned-outdoorsmen and has struck a chord among outdoor industry leaders such as bass fishing legend Hank Parker, former Buckmasters Editor-in-Chief Russell Thornberry, and author/entrepreneur David Morris to share their love for Christ, athletes, coaches and the outdoors. So far in the ministry’s young history, Eason has assisted FCA staff around the entire country in coordinating FCA Outdoors events and has facilitated ministry at outdoor expos. Currently he is also developing partnerships with organizations including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that hope to deliver a message promoting “good stewardship of the creation.”
The next event on the calendar for FCA Outdoors is the Night of Champions Gala on August 28 in Atlanta, which will feature Thornberry, Hall of Fame athletes Jim Kelly and Bobby Richardson, and former wrestling champion Lex Luger. For more information, visit fcaoutdoors.org and accept their invitation to “Share the Adventure.”
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy Buffalo Bills, Jim Kelly, Tim Eason