BATAVIA, N.Y. — Dan Marino left his Dolphins’ colors behind in exchange for a Buffalo Bills’ blue T-shirt with the words “Kelly Tough” printed on the front.
Anything for a dear friend.
“Everybody loves Jim. I love him too, man,” Marino said Monday, before the start of Jim Kelly’s annual charitable golf tournament. “I just can’t wait for him to get better and get back out here with us.”
Marino, the former Dolphins star quarterback and Kelly’s longtime rival, was on hand in what was one of the largest turnouts of the tournament’s 28-year history. The only one missing was Kelly, himself.
Too weak to attend, the Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback is recovering in a hospital in Buffalo less than a week after completing radiation and chemotherapy sessions to treat sinus cancer, which spread from his jaw.
Though absent, Kelly’s presence resonated on the golf course about a half-hour outside of Buffalo.
“He’s here in spirit,” said former Bills general manager Bill Polian, who joined Marino in visiting Kelly on Sunday. “And everybody is here to not only aid his charity endeavors, but to show their support for him and our affection for him.”
Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas had to stop in mid-sentence to choke back his emotions. Thomas was nearly overwhelmed while attempting to assess the impact Kelly has made beyond football, through his Kelly for Kids Foundation, which has distributed more than $5 million to charities across the region.
“He’s truly missed by not being here, but we all understand the circumstances,” Thomas said. “To me, this turnout just shows the power of how much people care about Jim, and what he means.”
Dan Kelly provided an update on his brother’s recovery, saying the initial prognosis looks promising.
The pain Kelly was experiencing has subsided, though he will spend about another week in the hospital. Kelly will then need between six and eight weeks of rest before having tests to determine whether the cancer cells have been eliminated.
“We’re so excited to know that it’s over and he can now start the healing process,” Dan Kelly said. “We’re hoping it’s on an upward trend from here on out.”
As difficult as it was for Kelly to miss his tournament, there was never any doubt about it being held.
“One of the things that Jim said is, ‘The show must go on,'” Dan Kelly said, estimating this year’s event will raise more than $250,000.
It was before the start of last year’s tournament when Kelly announced he was diagnosed with cancer. He then had a portion of his jaw was removed and rebuilt.
Kelly recovered before follow-up tests in March revealed the cancer returned and spread to his sinuses.
The most recent pictures and videos released by Kelly and his family show how frail he has become as a result of the treatments. What they also reveal is Kelly’s fighting spirit.
Last week, his wife Jill posted a picture of friends and family members cheering alongside Kelly, who held up a sign reading: “Last radiation.”
Kelly recently released a statement: “I’m not out of the woods by any means, but we think the treatments are going well, and I’m going to beat this!”
Despite the recurrence of cancer, Kelly has also been involved in talks to partner with ownership groups interested in buying the Bills, who are on the market after owner Ralph Wilson died in March.
“Kelly Tough” and “Prayers For JK” have become catch phrases and hashtags on Twitter by those voicing their support for Kelly.
“A lot of us who have known him and admired him and love him have been walking on eggshells for a year about what the outcome is going to be,” said actor Daniel Baldwin, one of numerous celebrities attending the tournament. “We’re confident that if there’s anybody that can pull this off, it’s going to be this tough (guy) named Jim Kelly. He’s an Irishman, now, c’mon.”
Former Bills receiver Andre Reed needed only to point at the blue sky above as a positive sign.
“Look at this. Two years ago it was raining,” said Reed, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August. “He’s here. There’s no doubt about it. … And we’re there for him. As long as I’m breathing, I’m never not going to be there for him.”