By Jason Keidel
To the world west of the Hudson, we have three teams in New York. And while we indeed have three NFL clubs named after the Empire State, only one actually does business within state lines.
That would be the Buffalo Bills, whom we Big Apple, city slickers consider Canada, a frosty outpost of pro football, a white wasteland where snowfall is measured only after a foot has fallen.
But the Bills matter. For four years they owned the AFC with a rabid pass rush and a matrix-style offense that had defenses spellbound every Sunday. Those of us over 35 remember those teams with horror or fondness, depending on your allegiance. And if you hear the local fervor to keep the club in Buffalo, you know they mean something to millions of fans. Yes, the Buffalo Bills matter.
And their patron saint is hurting.
He was from The U, migrated to the Houston Gamblers, then planted his Hall of Fame flag in Buffalo, where he ran an offense that bordered on algorithm. The K-Gun attack rivaled the Air Coryell Chargers and the Bill Walsh 49ers. He had so many targets, threw the ball in so many directions, you wondered if he were ambidextrous.
And if you stopped watching sports for 15 years and saw Jim Kelly in Canton a few days ago, you were horrified.
Most of you gawked at the Hall of Fame ceremony, with Kelly pushing himself out of his seat, limped up to the stage, where he found his old target, Andre Reed. It looked like a yellow jacket draped over a scarecrow. Watching the almost skeletal Kelly toss the rock to Reed was one of those rare tear-jerkers in an industry that tries too hard to create them.
We brood over sports sections and frown over sports stations. We think our favorite and fantasy teams actually affect commerce, that our provincial pride makes its way into world news. But somewhere between those autumn orgies, when we scowl at our screen and assume the rest of the world is watching with equal fervor, life happens.
And life hasn’t been so friendly for Jim Kelly, who’s faced avalanches of chemo and radiation to fight the most feared word in our lexicon – cancer. To see the suddenly bald and frail former QB, a man we only viewed through heroic hues, is a reminder that sports are indeed a hobby, a speed bump in the race of life.
Then word dripped down this week that Kelly’s cancer is gone. But what does that mean? Is it gone today only to make its interminable, terminal march back to his enervated frame? Or is it really gone, as in he won?
Men love football for myriad reasons, too many to note here. But high among them is the finality of the final score. Men need things simple. We can metabolize scores and wins and losses. We absorb our favorite team’s success like a filet mignon. We take endless, vicarious thrill in victory. It makes us king of cubicles, gives us bragging rights over our relatives on the other coast. We march down the streets swathed in the jersey du jour.
But cancer we can’t understand. We can’t measure it, label it, or fix it. And thus it makes us afraid.
We talk about compassion in the abstract, but do we donate to charity? Do we change the channel when we see a sick person wheeled around with tubes jammed into all their appendages and orifices? Do we run from the reality of death and the fight for life?
Jim Kelly isn’t tossing touchdowns anymore. He isn’t bracing for bitter days in Buffalo, ducking rabid rushers or peeling himself from the turf after yet another thunderous hit from a 300-pound behemoth. He isn’t the Sunday hero you remember. Yet he’s shown more talent, toughness, and temerity this year than he did all those years in pads.
He’s a middle-aged man in repose, ravaged by cancer and tortured by the very pollutants designed to cure him. And yet he’s more alive now than he’s ever been. You met and admired Jim Kelly on TV. But he became Kelly Tough far away from the gridiron.
Sundays don’t seem so relevant anymore. Because some victories don’t have a final score.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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