Jim Kelly’s story is told in this book with his wife, Jill:
Memoir looks inside private lives of Kellys
For years we’ve known Jim Kelly as a gridiron hero — old No. 12. His wife, Jill, has long been the beautiful blonde smiling by his side.
Both a little larger than life. Both a little one-dimensional.
Western New York is about to get an eye-opening look at the private lives of the Kellys: from details of the heartbreaking death of their son, Hunter, to the problems, including Jim’s infidelity, that have plagued their marriage.
A new memoir by Jill Kelly, with passages by her husband Jim, is scheduled for release next month. The forthright, wide-ranging book tentatively titled “Without a Word” draws back the curtain that has obscured the private lives of the Kellys during the 20-odd years they have held center stage in Buffalo’s celebrity spotlight.
The Buffalo News reviewed an advance reading copy of the memoir from the publisher, FaithWords. The book, set to appear Sept. 9, is subject to editing and other changes in the final weeks before publication.
According to the advance copy, the book covers topics including:
* The infidelities committed by Jim throughout much of the couple’s marriage. Jill writes about how, within months of their 1996 wedding, she had to clean out reminders of other women from Jim’s past from his closets and drawers. Jim writes in the book that his wayward activities with other women almost killed his marriage — and that only his confession and rebirth in Jesus Christ saved him.
This change, he writes in the advance memoir, was precipitated by a meeting with his mother-in-law, Jacque Waggoner, in which she told him she knew of his unsavory actions and that she would tell Jill if he didn’t.
* A look at how Jim and Jill grew apart during their marriage, due to his constant travel for sports events and her absorption in Hunter’s exhaustive routine of daily treatments. On the day in 2005 that Hunter died, Jill writes, she rushed to one hospital to be near him; while Jim, as he tells it, was far away, having gone to the wrong hospital in confusion.
* A detailed picture of the vibrant Christianity of Jill, a faith she found in 1998, and which sustained her through Hunter’s death and her marital crisis. The book also describes Jim’s more recent commitment to Christianity, a process in which he apologized for his behavior and promised to live a new life.
Today, both wrote in the advance of the book, the couple is closer than ever.
“There has been a heart change,” said Rich George, the Amherst pastor who worked with the Kellys when their marital problems reached a climax in 2007. “When a person entrusts their life to Christ, a life change starts to take place in their soul. Jim was different in those days than he is now.”
The pastor thinks Jim’s conversion is authentic — and of great value to the Western New York community, as an example.
“In telling the story, there’s a catharsis for Jill and Jim, but there’s also a catharsis for people who are without hope,” said George, at The Chapel at CrossPoint. “I think Jill’s message is, there’s always hope. That’s where Jim and Jill have found their solace — and their peace.”
Spokeswomen for Jill Kelly said she is waiting to speak publicly about the book until the publication date nears. But already, supporters of the couple are praising the Kellys’ willingness to share their personal lives with the public.
“It’s quite a story,” said Marv Levy, former coach of the Buffalo Bills and the man who led the Kelly-era team to four Super Bowls, of the couple’s journey.
“It’ll be great, because it will give the public a real look inside the human nature of [Jim],” said Levy, who has not yet read the memoir, from his Chicago home. “People will get a tremendous insight into the kind of a guy Jim Kelly really is. He’s not just a football player. This is a genuine guy.
“Certainly he isn’t flawless; who is? But genuinely respected, genuinely liked.”
Poignant opening scene
The story told in the book, however, is Jill’s.
The former Jill Waggoner writes in the 252-page advance of the memoir that she discussed many aspects of it with Jim on long walks through their neighborhood in the Town of Aurora, and that he helped her decide on the title — which is meant to capture the spirit of Hunter, who loved those around him without being able to speak.
The story is told from Jill’s point of view — except for passages written by Jim from his perspective.
Close friends of Jill say the 40-year-old former model worked long and hard to figure out what to say about her life, and how to say it.
“In my mind, I guess I could see that some people might be like, ‘Wow,'” said Patti Thomas, the wife of Jim’s former teammate Thurman Thomas, and a close friend of Jill’s since they were both models at 13. “[But] she didn’t twist Jim’s arm. Jim willingly put his part of it out there.”
“If these two people that I love want to tell their story, then I’m for it,” Thomas said.
The story begins with Hunter’s illness. In a poignant opening scene, Jill describes staying with her son in a Buffalo hospital room on one of his frequent trips to the emergency wards for help with breathing or to fight off sickness.
When she looked up for a moment, Jill writes, she saw a child covered with a sheet being rolled through the hallway on a gurney. The sight nearly broke her heart.
When Hunter James Kelly was diagnosed with Krabbe disease shortly after his birth in 1997 — on Jim’s 37th birthday — it was a death sentence. Krabbe, an inherited enzyme disorder that affects 1 in 100,000 children born in the United States, usually only gives a child a few months, perhaps one or two years, to live.
Hunter Kelly lived to be 8, and constant care was partly to thank for that.
In her memoir, Jill provides a detailed look at the intensive schedule of care Hunter received every day: medicine and vitamin doses, cold compresses, whirlpool sessions, chest massages, temperature readings.
Jill’s mother, Jacque, and the many nurses and aides who filled the Kelly home to help care for Hunter over the years emerge as heroes in Jill’s telling of her son’s story.
And, she writes, her husband Jim, now 50, always had a special and beautiful relationship with his only son.
Hunter’s death, which Jill describes midway through the book, took place in Warsaw Hospital in the early-morning hours of August 5, 2005, after an overnight stay the boy had made at his grandparents’ house. Jill rushed to Hunter’s side after a 4:45 a.m. phone call awakened her and Jim. Unfortunately, as Jim writes in his account, he got mixed up and went to a hospital in Buffalo — only to be turned around and sent, with police escorting him, to where Hunter lay.
The Kellys suffered terrible devastation at Hunter’s death, Jill writes.
But, as she tells it, the event was also a turning point in their lives. It fixed their minds on the connections between mortality and the life the Kellys expect to live after death in heaven — with “Hunterboy.”
And it also focused them on positive things they could do to help others dealing with illness — especially Krabbe disease.
“If you spend time with them now, they’ve been transformed,” said Thomas, a writer who lives in Colden with her husband, Thurman. “They’ve always been wonderful — but they’ve been transformed.”
Ruben Brown, another former teammate of Jim who lives in Western New York, said that the story of Hunter’s life is an important one to tell.
“It’s important, because it makes Jim and Jill become very real people,” said Brown, who has three children slightly younger than the Kelly children. “Western New York is not the Park Avenue of the United States — it’s a blue-collar town, and a blue-collar place. At the end of the day, though, we are all very similar in a lot of ways. Jim and Jill aren’t much different than me and you.”
The other half of “Without a Word” is the story of a young, country-bred woman who met a famous NFL quarterback at a house party after a preseason Bills game in 1991 — and married him.
Part of the Kellys’ love story, as told by Jill, is a fairy tale: as when Jim hid a three-carat diamond solitaire ring in a dessert at Ilio DiPaolo’s Restaurant, as a way of proposing to her.
Then there are the not-so-glamorous parts.
Jill, who grew up in a Catholic family, writes about her terror at finding out she was pregnant while the couple was not married. When she told Jim, she writes, he was understanding and supportive. Their first daughter, Erin Marie, was 1 when the couple wed. A second daughter, Camryn Lynn, was born in 1999.
Jill writes of cleaning the couple’s house in the summer after their wedding and coming across tokens of Jim’s past flings. That hurt, she writes — especially as it was so different from the public image of the couple, who had been featured in People magazine as having one of the “weddings of the year.”
But the worst moment for them as a couple was more recent than that.
In April 2007, during a marriage counseling session with Pastor George, as Jill describes it in her book’s advance copy, Jim — prompted by the meeting with his mother-in-law — nervously confessed to her and the pastor that he had been unfaithful during their union.
Jim’s revelation stunned her, Jill writes, even though their marriage had been through rocky times and at one point soon after Hunter’s death seemed destined to break apart.
Jim, in a passage written in his own words, takes responsibility for his infidelities and said that Jill’s forgiveness of him that day lifted an enormous weight from his heart.
In love again
The couple, according to Jill’s perspective at the end of the memoir, has been weathered by time and experience. But they are also newly in love again, and recommitted to making their marriage work.
They even went through a renewal ceremony of their wedding vows in the fall of 2008.
Does the idea of a newly reborn Jim Kelly, Hall of Fame quarterback, jar too sharply against the image of him that many Western New Yorkers remember fondly? Will people believe this latest turn No. 12’s life has taken?
The memoir’s answer is yes. It ends on a note of hope, and optimism, for the future.
Jim’s former teammates said they support the Kellys in their new path.
Mark Kelso, a former teammate from the Super Bowl-era Bills, said that the Kellys have been an inspiration in their belief that everything — up to and including Hunter’s death — happens for a reason.
“From Day One, [Hunter's life] altered their lives completely,” said Kelso, who works with Jim at his sports camps for kids. “I just know the faith that they have — the belief that they have that everything happens for a reason. It makes Jim a normal guy. People want to think of him as a normal Buffalonian.
“But things happen in life; just because you’re an outstanding player and it seems you have everything you want — there’s a person in control, and it’s not you.”
Thomas said she and her husband see the change in the Kellys, and are moved beyond words.
“As friends of theirs, to see them — and how much they love each other — it is just a testimony to Hunter’s life,” Thomas said.
“Jill is an absolute inspiration.”