It’s a library, right?
Well, Jim Kelly knew better than that. But until he experienced the Billy Graham Library‘s Journey of Faith tour on Friday night, he really had no idea.
“Never in a million years thought it would be like this,” the former Buffalo Bills player told a crowd of hundreds waiting to meet the Hall of Fame quarterback on Saturday morning. “This is so much more than a library. You walk through this tour and it changes your life.”
And really, if anyone could speak with authority of life-changing events, Kelly’s got the résumé.
Forget all of the on-the-field heartbreaks losing four straight Super Bowls, including one on a missed last-second field goal—Kelly’s story off the field will bring almost anyone to tears.
Losing an 8-year-old son over a decade ago of Krabbe disease. Multiple surgeries, plates and screws put in your back and neck. And then having to fight an aggressive oral cancer twice within two years, losing your jaw and teeth and nearly your life.
But here the Kelly family sat—Jim, Jill and Erin—engaging with everyone who came to the Library, signing autographs, laughing, joking and giving out a bevy of high fives.
You would have no idea what this family has gone through.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” said Carolyn Fitzsimmons of Charlotte, a lifelong Bills fan from Syracuse, New York. “Very honest. It’s just really cool that they’re willing to share their story and their faith.”
Their story, summed up in the book Kelly Tough, is self-described by Jim’s daughter and co-author Erin as “our heart on paper.”
And while the title suggest the exact thing Jim taught Erin growing up, “that you’ve gotta be tough, no matter what,” the guts of the book are far more. It’s about finding joy in the midst of suffering, hope during heartache.
“Ultimately, it’s not about what the Kelly family’s done,” Jim’s wife, Jill, said, “but what’s been done through Christ alone.”
That humility spoke to many who have read Kelly Tough.
“They’re superheroes. They never have any faults,” said Mooresville resident and Bills fan Becky Snyder. “And then you find out how human they are.”
Snyder, raising two daughters, Dottie, 12, and Clara, 8, had trouble finishing her thought, wiping her eye. “You’re going to make me cry.”
“I bought the book on Amazon this week and read half of it last night,” she continued. “I thought I knew [Jim Kelly] but I really didn’t know him.”
The honesty of the family’s struggles was refreshing to so many who have read about their journey in Kelly Tough, a book which started as a simple journey entry by Erin in March of 2014, before expanding to a blog post.
“I wouldn’t believe a 19-year-old would be able to put those words on paper,” said Jim, who got emotional reading just the first two chapters. “The words that were used in the book helped people understand, we as a family are just like anybody else.
“It’s seeking your faith. It’s praying and hoping and praying … where you are humbled as a family and know there’s only one way to getting where you want to go and that’s through the Lord.”
There were also a few surprises on Saturday morning.
- After not seeing each other for more than 30-plus years, running back Gary Breckner—Jim Kelly’s college roommate from the 82-83 University of Miami team—showed up to reconnect. “It was emotional,” said Breckner, now a Concord, North Carolina, resident. “I was a little nervous about it, but he’s completely the same guy. When they found his cancer on the second time, I really had a question in my heart if I would ever see him again. It would’ve been like losing someone in your family.”
- Eight-year-old Riley brought a football and decided to step back and fire it at Jim, who channeled his prime NFL days by snagging it cleanly. “He said I had a great arm. That’s an awesome compliment from a Hall of Famer,” Riley said. “He was really, really nice.”
- One of the last families through the line brought their daughter who is diagnosed with Krabbe disease, the same disease shared by the Kellys’ son, Hunter. Hunter passed away in 2005 at age 8, and now his memory lives on with the Hunter’s Hope Foundation, established to help research this rare disease. The two families were able to spend some time connecting with each other.