Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly returns every year to East Brady, the small Western Pennsylvania town along the Allegheny River where he grew up. He visits former high school coach Terry Henry, his old friends, and checks in on the longtime supporters of the football program there who are now in their 80s to make sure they are doing well.
One place the legendary Buffalo Bills star had not been in more than 20 years until Friday was the East Brady High building, which is now a community center. The school closed more than two decades ago because of dwindling enrollment and students from East Brady attend former rival Karns City. The trophies earned by East Brady sports teams, including from Kelly’s era, remain on display at the community center.
“There are just so many great memories seeing all those trophies,” Kelly told USA TODAY Sports of returning to the school. “Even though our teams merged and it’s once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog, I am pulling for the Gremlins (of Karns City). It was hard for me to say back then, but now we’re all family. That’s what we do in the is part of the country and this part of Pennsylvania. We’re all one here.”
Kelly’s visit was part of the NFL’s Super Bowl High School Honor Roll program, among the league’s initiatives to mark the celebration of Super Bowl 50. Each of the 3,000 players and coaches who have taken part in a Super Bowl get the opportunity to present their high school with a special golden football with a Super Bowl 50 logo.
Kelly is among those who chose to present the ball personally. The ball was given to Karns City coach Ed Conto in front of the team. Highlights from his visit will air on CBS This Morning on Nov. 12, the day of the Buffalo Bills-New York Jets game on Thursday night football.
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Kelly, 55, gave a pep talk to the team in advance of its game Friday night against Central Tech (Erie). He also had the players riveted to the screen as he watched and broke down film with them.
As he makes appearances these days, Kelly delivers a message of hope and inspiration and urges everyone to “make a difference today for someone who is fighting for tomorrow.”
“I am so proud to be from East Brady, Pennsylvania,” Kelly said of the town 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. “For a small-town country boy to make it where I am and be able to share all I’ve accomplished with my hometown buds and see my high school coach, I’m honored.”
Kelly said he is fortunate that his health allows him to make these visits and participate in these types of events. He was diagnosed with oral cancer in May 2013 and had a portion of his upper jaw and several teeth removed, followed by aggressive chemotherapy. Cancer returned last March and had moved to his face and sinuses. Kelly went through another grueling regimen of chemotherapy. After further testing, he was deemed cancer-free in August.
“The No. 1 thing is my cancer is gone and I’m cancer-free now,” he said. “My next MRI will be in January in New York City. I feel good.
“The more I travel, the more I speak, the more I realize that I don’t have it that bad. If I can be an inspiration to people by them sending letters and emails to me, I want them to realize that they need to continue to fight. They have been a blessing for me, I want to be a blessing for them.”
Kelly says he is blessed to have grown up in an area with such a strong work ethic. His father worked in the steel mills and was a machinist. He would come home for lunch around the same time Jim would be home from school and they would throw the football in the yard or Jim would throw through a tire, and Jim would practice his punting and kicking.
Kelly is among six Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks from Western Pennsylvania, along with George Blanda, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino. Others such as Jeff Hostetler have played in the Super Bowl.
“It’s the work ethic that our parents instilled in us and I am sure that is something a lot of people say,” Kelly said. “The mentality was you wanted to be the best, not just in football or basketball, but I always wanted to do well for one reason and that was to make my mom and dad proud and my brothers proud.”
Jim is one of six brothers who all played for East Brady. His brother Danny was with him Friday. Kelly threw for 3,915 yards and 44 touchdowns and was named all-state as a senior in his high school career. The school has retired his No. 11.
You can’t miss that East Brady is Kelly’s hometown. Signs are proudly posted at the two entrances to town on Route 68, the main road.
“Any time Jim comes back, people are so glad to see him,” said Barb Mortimer, the president of the East Brady borough council. “After his health ordeal, everyone is so happy that he’s doing well …
“Jim Kelly is a very big deal in this community. There were a lot of folks who made trips to Buffalo and flew Buffalo Bills flags and flew Bills colors (during the Bills’ Super Bowl years). This is a Steelers town, but it became a Bills town.”
As for his former team, Kelly is optimistic about the direction the Bills are heading.
“I love what (owners Terry and Kim Pegula) stand for. I love their attitude and the fight in them. And the hiring of Rex Ryan is awesome. We’ve just got to stay healthy. All the stars have to stay out on the field.
“I like what we’re doing. Talk is one thing and doing it is another. I love Rex Ryan’s attitude. He’s a players’ coach, the community loves him. Now we have to go out and win.”