A Hall of Famer's Greatest Loss

CBN.com Tim Branson, a 700 Club senior producer recently spoke with NFL quarterback Jim Kelly and his wife, Jill.

Toughness and perserverance – two words that describe former NFL quarterback Jim Kelly. In his 11 seasons with the Buffalo Bills, number 12 took his team to 4 consecutive superbowls. By the time Jim retired in 97, he was married, had a 2 year old daughter, and a baby on the way. This time it was a boy. A little fact his wife Jill kept secret.

Tim: “You held back.”

Jill:  “Yes”

Tim: “But you didn’t tell him. You wanted it to be a surprise. You knew it was a boy.”

Jill: “I cannot even believe I kept that secret. And I was so happy.”

On Febuary 14, Jim’s birthday, Hunter James Kelly was born.

Jim: “I was the coach, I was right there and I saw the little boy being born right infront of my eyes and the excitement.… words cannot describe it, really seriously, because I was already in the back yard showing him how to grip the football, showing him how to throw a curve ball…”

Jill: “The look on his face. The excitement. The tone of his voice. The shout of cheer. He was – I had never seen him that happy, ever. Ever.” 

But Jill had other hopes. Since their marriage, the couple had begun drifting apart.

Jill: “I was at home taking care of our youngest, and I was very focused on her care, so I was being ‘mommy.’  Jim was carrying on working for ESPN and NBC and all those things, and he was always away. So there was an element of distrust there on my part because I always wondered, ‘Well, what is he doing? And where is he?’ I really thought that once he gets this boy, that maybe he’ll be home more and maybe he’ll look at me even with more love in his eyes.”

But when Hunter was barely two weeks old, he became irritibale and had trouble eating. It took three months and numerous doctor visits to find out why.

Tim: “So you met with the neurologist and she announces to you that Hunter has Krabbe Leukodystropy, a disease you’ve never even heard of.”

Jill: “She’s telling us, ‘There’s no treatment. There’s no cure. Your son probably will not live to see his second birthday.’”

They learned that Krabbe Leukodystrophy is a fatal genetic disease that affects the central nervous system.

Jill: “It’s very hard to put words to the wave of devastation that goes through you as a parent when you’re given that diagnosis.”

Jim: “I was angry. I was mad. I was mad at everybody. I didn’t know who to push the blame to.”

Tim: “Did you blame God?”

Jim: “I don’t know if it’s to blame God, but really mad at God, more than anything.”

Hunter would need 24 hour care the rest of his life.

Jill: “There was a – definitely a shroud of darkness for the first year and a half of his life, in our household.”

Jill loved her son deeply. But after a year of watching him suffer and struggling with her marriage, she reached out to God.  

Jill: “I just wanted heaven so bad, for selfish reasons. Because I thought, ‘If my son Hunter’s going there, I want to go there.’ So I was seeking after this God with all that was in me. I needed hope. I needed heaven. I was so afraid to lose my son. Every day I lived with that fear that it could be the day, and that was very hard.”

Jill went to her aunt and uncle for help.

Jill: “I remember them saying, ‘Jill, you need Jesus. God knows what you need.’ And I prayed with them, and I know in those moments that God took all that I was giving, which I felt at the time was everything I had, and He saved me and everything changed.”

It was then they learned to treat Hunter as someone who was living, not dying.

Jill: “And then he did reach his second birthday, and his third, and his fourth, and his fifth, and eventually, because God taught us how to treat him like he was living, because he was… because God had still given him life and breath, we all started living.”

Although physically disabled, Hunter was fully cognizant. Everyone, including Hunter’s sisers Erin and Camryn helped with his care. Of course Jim shared with Hunter his love for football.

Jim: “I’d say, ‘Hunter, we’re going to watch some exciting games.  We’re going to watch what daddy played.’  So I’d bring up all the games that I played and we’d watch those together.”

Hunter defied the odds and lived long enough to see two of his dad’s proudest moments. The first was when the Buffalo Bills retired Jim’s number.

Jill: “All of us were there together. I knew that Hunter was going to walk out onto the field that Jim had walked out onto for so many years and all the fans, and electricty and excitement of what that means. “

Hunter was also at Jim’s induction into the NFL Hall of Fame.

Jim (on podium):  “It has been written throughout my career that toughness is my trademark. But the toughest person I’ve ever met in my life is my hero, my soldier, my son, Hunter. I love you, buddy. Thank you Canton. Thank you Buffalo and God bless!”

Despite the good times, their marriage was still strained. Hunter was the lynchpin that kept them together. Then on August 5th, 2005, Hunter, who was now 8½, stopped breathing. He was rushed to the emergency room, and given continuous CPR.

Jill: “The only thing that kept coming out of my mouth was, ‘No! No God, no!’ I started to pray with him, and I was talking to him saying, ‘Mommy’s here, Mommy’s here, you’re going to be okay.’”

Finally, Jill realized Hunter was gone.

Jill: “And then I looked up at the first nurse that I saw and I said, ‘I need you to stop. You have to stop.’ And they did. And that was it and that was horrible.”

Jim arrived moments later.

Jim: “I was met by a couple doctors who said, ‘We’re sorry, your son is gone.’ And I didn’t have the opportunity to say ‘bye’ to him, but I got to spend many minutes with him, after, by myself talking to him. I do not think we said too much to each other on the way home, and that’s when it really hit rock bottom. Jill sought God. I went further away.” 

With Hunter gone, they moved closer to divorce. They started counseling with Jill’s pastor. But it wasn’t until Jill’s mother confronted Jim about his behavior that he realized he could lose everything.

Jim: “The ultimate was knowing that if I wanted to see my son again, if I wanted to come home and look at my two daughters in the eye with respect, and love my wife the way I should have to begin with, I was going to have to change my ways.”

Jim went to his pastor, and surrendered his life to Christ.  Afterwards, he made a confession to Jill.

Jim:  “I told her that I wasn’t happy with, you know, the way I was acting, that I wasn’t faithful and that I needed to change my ways. I said, ‘I can’t go on living like this.’ After I confessed, after I asked for forgiveness, it was like a huge weight lifted off me and I was free. It was like; it’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there.”

Jill: “…and when he said ‘I don’t even know how to explain this, I feel free. I feel free.’ ‘And those whom the Son has set free, are free indeed.’  So it was just a crazy day of emotion all wrapped up into the fact that God had saved Jim. He’d captured his heart, and that neither of us were going to be the same and now our marriage was going to be different because God alone was going to be the lynchpin now that was going to hold us together, instead of Hunter.

Jill wrote about their journey in Without a Word, How a Boy’s Unspoken Love Changed Everything. One thing that keeps Jim busy is ‘Hunter’s Hope’, a foundation the Kellys started to raise awareness about Krabbe disease.  Jim also plans for the day he’s reunited with his son.

Jim: “Probably more than anything is just to hold him. Hold him the way that daddies and sons hold each other. The hug, the embrace, and then what I was taught as a kid growing up; how to give a good, firm handshake. That’s what I want my son to be able to do.”

Jill: “God is able to do the impossible. He did it. We’re living proof of that. And he did this through a little boy who suffered and never spoke a word. God used our one-and-only son Hunter’s suffering to bring us to his one-and-only son Jesus, and His suffering. That has made all the difference. And that’s awesome.” 

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