GROWING UP KELLY
Erin Kelly is the older daughter of Jill and Jim Kelly, NFL Hall of Famer who is historically known as the toughest quarterback in the NFL. His trademark was being “Kelly Tough” and never giving up — a motto his family eventually adopted. Growing up, Erin remembers her dad would read to her, brush her hair, and even let her paint his face with makeup. As a Kelly, sports soon became a part of Erin’s world. She was eight years old when she started playing basketball. Her dad trained her during the summer to prepare for each season and she quickly learned the importance of hard work, respect, and discipline.
One of the most powerful life skills modeled by her parents is a triple threat she likes to call admitting when you’re wrong, owning your choices and learning from and making the best of the repercussions and consequences. Jim and Jill were not married when she was born. Yet God has radically and graciously redeemed their choices. When Erin was a teenager, Jim was unfaithful to Jill. He asked Jill and Erin for their forgiveness. Jill says, “When God began to reveal to me how much He had forgiven me, it allowed room in my heart to fill up on His forgiveness so that that same forgiveness could flow out of my life into the lives of others.” Erin is extremely grateful for the example of humility, honesty, and forgiveness her mom and dad have lived out in front on her.
“Kelly Tough doesn’t mean that we don’t cry. Kelly Tough is a selfless toughness. It’s not about being strong in your own strength. And it doesn’t mean being strong for the sake of your own suffering. Being Kelly Tough means that you press on because there’s someone else out there who needs you to be strong,” shares Erin.
AN UNEXPECTED DIAGNOSIS
Hunter was born in 1997 with a fatal genetic disease called Krabbe leukodystrophy (crab-AY leukody-s-tro-phy). “We were told that Hunter would not live to see his second birthday,” shares Jill. Feeling desperate, Jill searched for help, hope and heaven. She began to pursue God for selfish reasons. “She wanted heaven because she believed Hunter was going there, and although she had no idea what that meant, she wanted it with every fiber of her being,” shares Erin. God in His mercy and grace opened Jill’s eyes to the Creator of heaven and His love for her and Hunter. At the same time, Erin’s grandmother found Jesus. Jill and Grammie took care of Hunter’s every need around the clock for the first ten years of Erin’s life. “Through word and deed, these two women helped point me to the life and sacrifice of the only One worthy of my very life,” reveals Erin. Despite his health challenges, the Kelly family chose to treat Hunter like he was living rather than dying. They took him horseback riding, swimming, sledding, and even snowmobiling. When Hunter died in 2005 the family was heartbroken. “It was never about Hunter showing us love; it was about him being filled with God’s love and living to make His extraordinary love known.” Jim did not become a believer until about a year after Hunter went to heaven. Together the Kellys established the Hunter’s Hope Foundation in 1997 to bring awareness to Krabbe disease and provide support for other families who are faced with these devastating diseases.
JIM’S BATTLE WITH CANCER
Jim was diagnosed with squamous-cell carcinoma of the upper jawbone (sinus cancer) and had extensive oral surgery in June 2013 to remove the cancer. The doctors felt certain they had removed all of it , but in early 2014 the cancer came back. Jill and Erin were in Israel when they received the devastating news. When they arrived back in the United States Jill and Erin’s phones were inundated with voice messages, texts, tweets, and Facebook comments regarding Jim’s health. It was all over social media as well as local and national news. They were comforted by the sincere love and prayer support they were receiving, but it was also heart wrenching to hear the word “cancer” and Jim’s name yet again. They learned the cancer had spread to the point where surgery was no longer a viable treatment. “It seemed like every time a doctor walked into my father’s hospital room, more bad news was delivered,” shares Erin. During this time, Erin and her younger sister, Camryn, received a message from a Twitter bully on their cell phones which said, “I hope your dad dies.” It was one of the cruelest things that happened to the family as Jim was fighting for his life. Instead of tweeting back a hurtful message, Jill encouraged the family to forgive the hurtful words of this stranger and pray for him. Erin says praying for the Twitter bully was one of the toughest things she ever had to do. “Yet as I did, in my weakness I grew immeasurably stronger as forgiveness began to fill my heart, replacing anger and hatred,” shares Erin. The definition of being Kelly Tough could well be an expression of how God uses what the enemy means for evil to strengthen a family for good.
When Jim’s health deteriorated, he had a feeding tube placed in his body due to the pain and sores caused by radiation. Although Erin knew death was a possibility she tried not to think about it for fear of losing her toughness, bravery and hope. “And yet, that was exactly what I needed. I needed to lose all the mental and emotional toughness I thought I had. Because the moment it was gone, it wasn’t my fight anymore; it was God’s,” shares Erin. She then relied on God’s strength completely which would carry her through the next few months because ultimately it was not about her dad; it was about Jesus.
As a result of the cancer and treatment side effects, Jim lost over sixty pounds. He still has a lot of pain in his sinus cavity due to the radiation and chemotherapy, but in September 2014 he was declared cancer free. He continues to get scans each month since the cancer was so close to his brain. The Kelly family is grateful for Jim’s good report and continues to trust God with the future. Today the Kelly family allows God to use them in the midst of their suffering to encourage other families who are also hurting. “Don’t wait until you are okay to extend comfort to others,” shares Jill.