From the time he was named by the Selectors as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2002 in February of that year, Kelly was praying. He was praying that his son Hunter would be in attendance at Hall of Fame weekend that August.
“I prayed every night that it would be God’s will that he would be there to see his dad get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Kelly said. “And I know that was part of my speech, but that jumps out more than anything else that he was there with me. Of course having my daughters Camryn and Erin there along with Jill and all of my friends and family as well as the all the Bills fans was great too. But as I said in my speech that guy is my hero.”
For Kelly the weekend began with an experience that left him awestruck. The Ray Nitschke luncheon the day before the ceremony was a veritable who’s who of Hall of Famers.
“It was probably one of the most mind blowing experiences I’ve ever had,” Kelly said. “With the exception of a couple of media members it’s solely Hall of Fame players in that room. To walk in there and look around the room and see Roger Staubach, the now late Merlin Olsen, Gale Sayers, Deacon Jones. To see so many of the players that you admired growing up, players that you never thought that you would rub elbows with because you had them on such a pedestal based on what you thought of professional football.
“I’m in that room and I’m standing next to Franco Harris. It was crazy. Having those guys in that room and being able to say that I was one of them, that probably was the most amazing thing for me.”
The night before the enshrinement ceremony on Saturday, the incoming Hall of Fame class is presented with their gold Hall of Fame jacket again with only Hall of Famers in attendance.
“When I received my Hall of Fame jacket that’s when it hit me that I was a Hall of Famer,” he said. “I remember the chills going through my body. It was emotionally moving for me. I was choking up inside and was holding those tears back.
“Just slipping off your own jacket and putting on that gold jacket the feeling that you get is indescribable. There’s not a person that can understand that feeling. Unless you are a Hall of Famer you don’t know what that feels like. I wish that my family and my mom, my dad and my brothers could’ve been there to understand what I felt that night. Words can’t really express how unbelievable that feeling was.”
Speaking of family, Kelly made a point of making that the driving force in his Hall of Fame induction speech. With help from veteran NFL journalist Vic Carucci and Bills VP of Communication Scott Berchtold, Kelly revised his speech several times over to make sure it was delivered in a conversational way.
“I wanted the speech to come across not so much like reading,” Kelly said. “Even though I had to read it I wanted it to still sound like me. I still get compliments on my Hall of Fame speech. People tell me it was one of the best speeches they’ve ever heard and that means a lot to me because in my speech I talked a lot about family and fans and Buffalo, so that makes me feel proud. I represented not only the Kelly family, but the Bills organization and the city of Buffalo.”
It was also important to Kelly that he mentioned the people that meant a lot to him on the way up, long before he was a professional.
“To play professional sports is not just when you played that game. It started when you were a little kid,” he said. “Art Delano was a midget coach of mine that told me back then what sacrifice really means and what I had to do to watch my weight because I was a big kid. I wanted to make sure I remembered people like him and Terry Henry, my high school coach. He was a mentor and a guy I looked up to and listened to. Just like any kid you want to hear something that doesn’t come from your mother or your father that’s there all the time. Terry Henry was one of those guys that I looked up to and every time he talked to me and advised me I took it to heart and applied it.”
What most may not know is Kelly was more panicked about his speech after he gave it than he was in preparation for it.
“When I was done with it, it went so smooth that I was convinced that I had skipped a page when I was done,” he said. “In my mind I knew I skipped over a page. So when I went backstage afterwards and before I took pictures, the first thing I did was count all six pages to make sure I had not skipped one. I was relieved. To me it went so quick I thought for sure I missed something.”
Now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a decade, Kelly admits his perspective on the Hall has changed a lot.
“It is different because when you first go there you’re in such awe of being there and remembering where you came from and how you dreamed of being a professional football player and you’re so shocked that you’re suddenly a part of it as an inductee,” Kelly said. “Then all of a sudden you’ve been there five, six or seven years in a row as a Hall of Famer yourself and you just look at it all different on Hall of Fame weekend. It’s a big fraternity.”
Unfortunately Kelly isn’t attending this year’s festivities in Canton. He takes his membership as a Hall of Famer seriously, but this weekend he’s serving as host for the Hunter’s Hope Family and Medical Symposium in Buffalo where 50 families dealing with leukodystrophies come together to meet with world renowned doctors and scientists for information sharing on support, research and medical care.
“Visiting with these kids and their families that are dealing with leukodystrophies it’s important for me to be there and spend time with them,” Kelly said. “Both things are hugely important to me so I’ve got to make sure they don’t fall on the same weekend in the future.”