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From one 12 to another, on conquering cancer

Posted Jun 5, 2013

Joe Ferguson and Jim Kelly each battled at quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, and now face similar off-the-field battles.

As longtime NFL quarterbacks, as Bills greats, as number 12’s, Joe Ferguson and Jim Kelly have much in common.

This week, that list of commonalities grew by one when Kelly announced he’s been diagnosed with cancer.

“When you have the mentality of a football player, we think we can battle things and stay in shape and work out and not get sick, but that’s not the case,” said Ferguson in an interview with John Murphy.

Acceptance of his own vulnerability was part of a forced hand when Ferguson was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma in 2005. Curing the illness was beyond his personal capabilities, though the quarterback in him yearned for some type of control. 

RELATED: Kelly's teammates rally around him | Kelly: "We caught it in time"

“I knew there was something wrong, but I kept saying, ‘okay, I can work through this,’ as I had done in the past with working out and trying to stay stronger and eating better, and as athletes we do that,” he said, anticipating Kelly’s mentality. “We think we can work through the pain, or work through the down feeling, or the weakness, and build back up and it’ll go away, but cancer is not that situation.”

After chemotherapy to treat the lymphoma, the Bills wall-of-famer found out he’d developed another type of blood cancer. Leukemia was at his door, sending him from his Arkansas home to Houston, Texas, for treatments. Miles from Buffalo and years after he played for the Bills, he said the support from the community he called home for 12 years during his 17-year NFL career was overwhelming.

“The outpouring of emails that we got from fans in Buffalo was unbelievable,” he said. “Once our website got out there, we had 1,500 emails in three days. I bet 70 percent of them were from people in Buffalo, or that I had been acquainted with in Buffalo over the years.”

Well-wishers sent Ferguson messages of prayers, thoughts, and luck, all sentiments the Buffalo community has echoed toward Kelly in many ways since he announced he'll battle cancer of the upper jaw. Ferguson has now been cancer free for over five years.

RELATED: Bills join in support of Kelly | Kelly's announcement

“I think Jim Kelly, as we all know, is a true competitor and is determined to do things right,” he said. “Not knowing what he had, he probably thought, ‘well it’ll probably go away, it’s just something I’ve got and I can beat it on my own for a while.’ And you come to find out you can’t. So I think with his competitive nature, he probably did think that he could just get through whatever it might be, not knowing what it was.”

Though it’s a similarity these two undoubtedly wish they didn’t share, Ferguson has no doubt he and Kelly will yet again find common ground as cancer survivors.

“I’m disappointed and worried about him, but I know he’ll fight it, so on the other hand I’m not worried about it because I know he’ll be fine,” Ferguson said. “Jim Kelly will be so determined to whip this thing because he’s such a competitor. If there’s any way to whip it, he’ll whip it.”

Listen to Ferguson's full interview on the John Murphy Show this Friday night on WGR 550, Sportsradio 950, or on your Buffalo Bills Mobile App.