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Jim Kelly

“Records Are Made to be Broken…”
They know their legacy isn’t what they did on the field. They are well-rounded.

I’ve not always been a fan of the Buffalo Bills. I don’t dislike them, but I’ve just never “circled the wagons” like so many others. I felt bad for Jim Kelly when he lost four straight Super Bowls, but that he had a chance to play in four is a bigger achievement than losing them is a setback.

After spending some time talking to Kelly, however, I have become a huge fan of Jim as a person. His selflessness is astounding. The former Bills quarterback has a new book out called The Playbook for Dads, in which he discusses some of his own parenting experiences. If you don’t know the story, Kelly’s son Hunter was diagnosed with Krabbe disease when he was four months old. Krabbe is a rare and almost always fatal genetic disorder of the nervous system. Hunter fought hard, but his fight came to an end in August of 2005. I have a son and the thought of losing him is unbearable to me, so when I spoke with Kelly, I expected him to talk about the pain and the sense of “why?” that seems to me must be natural. Instead, I was amazed and humbled at Kelly’s commitment to helping others better understand how they can and should giveback.

kelly2“I’m a better father because of what happened to Hunter,” Kelly said, “I traveled a lot when my son was here and did not accept his illness well. I was mad at the world and mad at God. He was the son I’ve always wanted and was diagnosed with a fatal disease; I was bitter. I wasn’t around in the early years not only for my son but for my wife. As a little guy, we treated him like he was dying, we were so scared it would be the last day and treated him like he was frail. But one day we thought, why are we doing this? So we decided to begin treating him like he was living; we put him on a horse, went snowmobiling, and experienced life.”

"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand." -Woodrow Wilson, 28th U.S. PresidentThere are so many days when the world treats you unfairly and you struggle to know how to respond–but what if you knew it was your last day on earth? How would that change your perspective in life? Jim Kelly readily admits that he lived a selfish life until he began to understand that his life is about more–much more–than what he did on the field. When he shifted his focus from pouring himself into his career to escape the hurt of his son’s condition, Kelly started to see life through a different prism. Sometimes it takes a tragic event to change the way you think, and for Kelly, his son’s illness forced him to look at the world differently and treat it as such.

“I saw his suffering,” Kelly remembers of his son Hunter. “How could I complain about things when he fought back time and time again? I was told never to give up. Sometimes things won’t go your way but it’s what you do about it that counts.”

Tips from the Great Ones

kelly4What have you done that gives your life meaning beyond the four walls of your office? Jim Kelly could have easily punted an opportunity to raise money and awareness for Krabbe Disease; no one would have faulted him for it. As a grieving father, his heart was broken. But that’s not what Hunter taught him. So Kelly started Hunter’s Hope, a foundation that offers assistance to families going through what Kelly and his family experienced. Kelly didn’t choose this fight–it chose him.

Sometimes you don’t pick your roles, they pick you. “You learn to understand why the Good Lord picked me to have a special boy named Hunter–I didn’t want to hear that in the beginning,” Kelly told me. “A couple years ago a young couple came up to me holding their baby and the mother said, ‘I want you to meet Samantha. Through money from our foundation, we got legislation changed to help with screening for the disease, and if we didn’t, she might even be dead now.'”

Apply this characteristic: Devote two hours this week to a cause you care about that has nothing at all to do with your professional life. Kelly was a good leader of his team, but he’s accomplishing something so much Greater off of it. The lesson a sick little boy taught him about how to live his life is now impacting thousands of other people in a much more real and tangible way than a win on the field. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to the record book of life, Jim Kelly is at the top.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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