This weekend, the Buffalo Sabres organization and its fans will honor the greatest goaltender in franchise history when Dominik Hasek will be inducted into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame. It’s the precursor to being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame this summer, and it’s also a certainty that his number 39 will be hoisted to the First Niagara Center rafters to join 7,11,14, 2, 18 and 16. I’m looking forward to Hasek’s moment Saturday, but he’s not the Buffalo sports icon I’ve been thinking about this week.
Ralph Wilson’s passing on Tuesday was sad news for all of Western New York. Mr. Wilson, as we are all discovering, did more for this community than most thought. He gave us the Bills before we had the Sabres, and thus an introduction into the “big” leagues.
I had a few memorable interactions with him during my years covering the Bills’ beat and working on the radio network. I remember him welcoming me to training camp my first year on the beat in 1995. It was classy, especially since I was a wide-eyed reporter fresh out of college. Mr. Wilson was considerate each time I spoke or interviewed him. He was a treasure to pro football, and to WNY. May he rest in peace.
But Ralph Wilson is not the person I’m thinking about. My heart is heavy for “our” hero, Jim Kelly. His cancer has returned, and according to many accounts, very aggressively. Doctors have decided not to operate this time, other methods are needed. Former teammates, fans and the community have put #12 in their daily prayers.
That’s because we rally like no other community when one of our own needs us, with Blue 4 Ben being the most recent example. But with Jim Kelly, it feels different. How could our hero be in jeopardy? He’s been a pillar, a rock, a constant in our lives.
Why I am referring to Jim Kelly as “our” hero? Because every town needs a hero, someone to save the day, or in our case, bring hope. Jim Kelly was, and still is, that guy. The Bills were our identity throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. He gave credibility, recognition and hope to a rust belt city with a declining population and stagnant economy.
Kelly led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, and even though his team didn’t win any of them, he kept coming back for more. Think about the mental toughness it took to carry on. The further away those four trips become in the rearview mirror, the more remarkable they are.
As impressive as Kelly’s gridiron feats were, his work in honor of his late son, Hunter, is even more incredible. Jim and his family took a private battle public to raise awareness for Krabbe disease. He used his status to raise funds, lean on lawmakers, and help implement testing of newborns to prevent other families from suffering the heartache he probably experiences each day. I was a huge Jim Kelly fan (even when I covered the team), but I’m more impressed and proud of what he’s accomplished for our children, and those to come. It’s a fight he continues to this day.
We needed Jim Kelly here in Buffalo, and we still do. He’s ours. It’s comforting seeing him at a Sabres game, dining at the next table, or just being a father and husband. Jim’s a man of strong faith, and I’m sure he knows the plan was for him to stay in Buffalo all along. Heroes go where they’re needed. Every time I see Jim Kelly, I see someone special. It’s special that he lives here. And even in the face of his battle against cancer, he is giving hope to many others with this horrible disease. His wife, Jill, recently wrote a blog about Jim giving some flowers to a young man who didn’t have much time left. The fellow was absolutely thrilled that #12 stopped by his room to make him feel special. That’s what a hero does: they think of others first.
Now it’s our time to be there for Jim Kelly. Number 12 needs The 12th Man. Buffalo, put your Bills jersey on, dust off the Super Bowl seat cushions, and maybe even wear the Zubaz pants. Now is the time to show our hero we’re still his biggest fans.
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