CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Jim Kelly still has good days and bad days, health-wise. He insists that he feels the effects of prayers, even those offered by people he will never meet. His fingers are crossed that an MRI exam scheduled for next week will provide more good signs.
In short, Kelly is still fighting.
What he hears on Saturday may help that fight immeasurably.
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Before he was a Miami rival in his NFL days, Kelly was a Miami hero as a collegian. The former Hurricanes star is the headline attraction at Miami’s homecoming game this weekend, with the university planning to honor Kelly for both what he’s done on the field and how he’s tackled a daunting series of personal challenges, including cancer.
"It’s humbling. Overwhelming, without a doubt," Kelly said, of the outpouring of support he’s gotten in recent years. "You don’t realize how many people really care about you. It’s humbling. It makes you feel good and I know I need the prayers. It does mean a lot."
The Hurricanes have plenty of special events planned to coincide with Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference game against North Carolina, including the addition of Russell Maryland and the late Jerome Brown to the school’s football Ring of Honor.
But the star attraction will be Kelly, who got a letter from this year’s Miami team in a show of support over the summer. And current Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya said he’s eager for the chance to play in front of one of the school’s legends.
"It makes the game that much more, I don’t know how to explain it, but … trying to put words to it, that much more special of a game because we’re honoring him," Kaaya said. "Just about every game, I look up and see all the past greats who played here and it makes me, it really makes me want to play better. It makes me focus up. I know who came before me and who’s watching."
In turn, Kelly — who played for Miami from 1979-82 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the Hurricanes’ Hall of Fame — said he can’t wait to meet Kaaya, whose play he raves about.
"To see a young kid, a true freshman, come in and be able to handle things the way he’s done, it’s amazing," Kelly said. "You see little mistakes here and there, but overall I’m very impressed with what I see and I hope he just continues to get better."
The Hurricanes have paid tribute to Kelly throughout the season.
For home games at Sun Life Stadium — Kelly was a Miami Dolphins opponent there when he was with the Buffalo Bills, with the now-demolished Orange Bowl his home in college — the Hurricanes have included an image of Kelly and the words "We Are KellyTough" as a tribute to his fight with cancer.
Kelly’s battle with cancer began in June 2013, when he had surgery to remove cancerous cells in his upper jaw. The cancer then spread to his sinus in March, and a few weeks ago he was told no signs of the disease are currently present.
Miami coach Al Golden said Kelly getting honored is "well deserved."
"He’s one of the guys that started this great tradition we all have now at the University of Miami," Golden said. "Whether it’s him being a leader or not afraid to be different, being a pioneer if you will coming to the University of Miami and setting the stage here, going to the USFL, doing what he did there and going to the Bills. And now as he tackles his next challenge he’s done it with courage, integrity, dignity and class."
Kelly came to Miami because he wanted to be a quarterback in a pro-style offense, something Lou Saban promised him during the recruiting process and that Howard Schnellenberger delivered. Penn State wanted the native Pennsylvanian to play linebacker in college.
The Hurricanes have reaped the benefits of that decision ever since.
"It doesn’t matter if there’s 30,000 people there or 50,000 people there Saturday," Kelly said. "I’m just excited to be going back."