This Sunday, as Rock the Lakes begins around 4 p.m. in Buffalo, two people will stand onstage and welcome the day’s events.
When Jim and Jill Kelly — honorary chairs for Rock the Lakes Buffalo — take the microphone, they’ll share from a place in their hearts that neither could have imagined when Jim retired as the Buffalo Bills quarterback in December of 1996.
Neither had experienced Christ in their lives. Both thought life was as good as it could get.
A strong marriage. Two beautiful young daughters. Their first son due in two months.
“Jim and I had everything,” Jill remembers. “But everything we thought was the foundation we built our life upon came crumbling down.”
Jill, as candid about her faith journey as anyone come across, can only look back in awe and wonder at how God change their heart through the death of their son.
“We’re both so thankful that God chose to rescue us,” she said. “Although it was our greatest heartbreak that led us there.”
Born on Feb. 14, 1997 (the same day as his father Jim’s birthday), their son Hunter was every bit the bundle of joy the Kellys had hoped for. But by four-months of age, they received gut-wrenching news.
Hunter was diagnosed with Krabbe Leukodystrophy, a rare and fatal genetic disorder of the nervous system.
Approximately 1 in 100,000 children are born with Krabbe disease and — most don’t make it to their second birthday.
“All the things, the celebrity, the money, all of it was absolutely worthless,” Jill said.
Unable to turn to anything else to save her son, Jill started a soul-wrenching pilgrimage that led her to accepting Christ as her Savior a year and a half later.
“For selfish reasons I wanted Heaven,” Jill said of what initially drew her to the Lord. “But I wanted to seek after Christ.”
The Cove’s Influence
There was no way to know how long Hunter would live, but every new day Jill got to spend with her son was a precious gift.
And at the same time, there was a new life inside of her.
Jill was on fire for Jesus, but what now?
“When I was a new Christian, my parents sent me to the Billy Graham Training Center (The Cove in Asheville, N.C.),” Jill said.
Her parents, Jacque and Jerry Waggoner, were also new believers, and her mother, a successful businesswoman at the time, quit her job to help take care of little Hunter. Jill went twice to retreats at The Cove — once with her mom — and remembers one weekend with James MacDonald as particularly critical in her early walk with Christ.
“I remember just wanting to know everything about the Bible right away,” Jill said. “I was on fire. I’m still on fire. But I remember being there and I was putting pressure on myself to learn as much as I could and God had to slow me down.
“He said ‘Hold on, hold on, I’m going to teach you one step at a time.’ “
And at the same time, Jill was eager to share what Christ was doing inside her with Jim. But quickly she realized that her faith journey wasn’t going to be his.
“God’s timing is perfect.” Jill looks back now and sees exactly how His plan unfolded. “Jim had his own cross to bear and road to take to get face-to-face with God.”
‘A Complete Disaster’
During Hunter’s remarkable 8 ½ years of life, Jill spent much of her time on her knees. Praying for Hunter and strength to get through each day was the norm. But she also wanted more than anything for Jim to have what she had.
The peace, comfort and joy found only in a relationship with Christ.
“It’s interesting how you pray for something so desperately,” Jill said. “I remember even praying to God to save Jim, to open his eyes and change his heart.
“It got to the point where his salvation was more important than my comfort.”
Funny how God answers prayer sometimes.
“Our marriage was a complete disaster,” Jill said. “Jim did some things — it was very difficult. It involved me, but there was a pivotal moment for him.
“It was so hard when I was going through it, but not only did we survive but God saved our marriage.”
Jill can testify to the power of a praying wife as it took nearly a full decade for Jim to come to Christ, but after he finally did in April of 2008, he was all in.
“We’re very vocal about our faith,” Jill said. “Jim just came out with a book called ‘The Playbook for Dads,’ where he shares all the hopes he had for his own son and the things he learned.”
The Kellys’ Impact
Most people remember Hall of Famer Jim Kelly as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, who are the only NFL team to ever make four consecutive Super Bowl appearances (1990-1993).
Two decades later, he’s still involved with the Bills football community. But more than a football legacy, Jim wanted to use his celebrity to impact fathers spiritually.
“The Playbook for Dads,” released earlier this month, talks about what it means to lead a Christian home and follows up Jill’s stirring book, “Without a Word,” which is a memoir about how Christ sustained the Kellys through more than eight years of living with a terminally ill son.
It also hit the New York Times Best Seller list in October of 2010.
“It was such a struggle,” Jill said of writing the book. “It felt like God strapped me down to write it. He kept lovingly nudging me to write. I had to treat it like a calling.”
But still, it was easy to open up.
“So much happened because of my getting in front of my computer and pouring this stuff out. And Jim sitting next to me and sharing,” said Jill, who is also a public speaker who shares her testimony of God’s faithfulness. “There’s so much healing that happened in the writing.”
Jill has also authored books “Prayers For Those Who Grieve,” and “Prayers of Hope for the Brokenhearted,” and along with her two daughters — Camryn and Erin — published a teen/tween journal/devotional “Hot Chocolate with God.”
It’s all been part of the healing process and has given Jill purpose for going through so much pain.
“Thank God that He allowed people like David in the Psalms to cry out like He did,” she said. “That has given me liberty to cry out to God, to tell Him how I feel and not worry about trying to sound like a Christian.”
Through all the pain and sorrow, the Kellys have been intentional about using this for good.
Hunter’s Hope was started in 1997 as a foundation to give hope and encouragement to other families going through what the Kellys went through. And in 2008 they established the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute.
The Kellys are strong advocates for hospitals to require additional newborn screenings — the state of New York has recently increased from 11 screenings to more than 50 — as there is treatment with early detection in certain cases, including a change of diet. With Krabbe, for instance, a Cord Blood Transplant may give a child a chance at a healthy life.
And while that research won’t bring back her son, Jill is mindful that that was not God’s plan for Hunter.
And after years of struggling, she’ learned to be OK with it.
“My greatest joy is that I’ll see Hunter again,” Jill said. “But it’s my greatest pain that I miss him so much.”
Can’t make it to Buffalo? Watch Rock the Lakes live, streaming online from 4 p.m.—9 p.m. (Eastern) both Sept. 22 and 23.