BATAVIA — This year’s Jim Kelly Celebrity Golf Classic was unlike the 27 previous Kelly tourneys.
Normally, the former Buffalo Bills great is ever present, running the festivities, joking with the golfers, giving a welcoming address, and generally just holding court.
Kelly, who is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for sinus cancer, wasn’t able to be at Terry Hills Golf Course on Monday for his signature event.
That didn’t mean his presence wasn’t felt among the celebrities, current and former NFL players, volunteers and staff at Terry Hills Golf Course for Monday’s 28th annual Kelly Classic.
“This is like a reunion, not just a team reunion but a family reunion for a lot of guys who have known each other for a couple of decades,” said Steve Tasker, a teammate of Kelly’s on the great Bills teams of the late ’80s and early ’90s who is now a broadcaster for CBS Sports. “The tournament has been going on for 28 years. These guys are lifelong friends. The fact that Jim can’t be here today won’t change that.”
Tasker recently spent time with Kelly near the end of his radiation treatments.
“He was upbeat. He’s still himself. He’s doing good, and his spirit is still there. He’s still very positive,” said Tasker, who like Kelly, still resides in Western New York. “(Kelly’s wife) Jill’s there, and you can’t go in there when one of his brothers isn’t there either. He’s got a huge support group. It was great to see him. ... I’m looking forward to the next few months and him getting better.”
Actor Daniel Baldwin has become a regular at the event, which kicked off with the Charity Gala at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in downtown Buffalo on Sunday.
“I came here today because Jim is somebody who understands how when you’ve had the opportunity to drink from the well, it becomes your responsibility to replenish the well. Jim has always been that way, and we love him for that, and we believe in him, we believe in the things he believes in as a man, as a Christian. So we’re excited to be here for him today to tell him how much we love him,” said Baldwin, one of four famous acting Baldwin brothers. “If anybody can beat this it’s that tough son of a gun Irishman. We’re remorseful that he won’t be with us today, but his spirit is here.”
ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman was a good friend of the late Bills owner Ralph Wilson, as well as Kelly and several other Bills from their Super Bowl era.
“Jim already knows, but this is a group hug from quote, ‘celebrities’ and everyone in Buffalo and Western New York. A lot of us believe that a positive spirit is helpful. I’m fortunate to say he’s one of my best friends. He’s here, he’s just not physically here, and he’ll be here next year,” said Berman, famous for his “nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills” quote.
“We knew a long time ago that Jim Kelly was one of the toughest people that we’ve ever met. I’m not sure if this is the ultimate test or why. He’s going to beat it, damn it, and we’re all going to be there saying, aha, ‘he told us so.’”
The day was a bit bittersweet for Andre Reed. The former Bills great, Kelly’s favorite receiving target, will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. He was getting congratulations on that accomplishment while at the same time worrying about his former teammate.
“This is his tournament, this is his whole deal, what he’s done the last 28 years is documented for sure. I say family, and I mean that every time we talk about it,” Reed said. “The guy will give you the shirt off his back.”
Reed compared the preparation for the contingent who will travel with him to Canton, Ohio, for the Hall of Fame celebration to preparing for another momentous occasion in life.
“The last four months have been very hectic. It’s like planning a wedding for like six people, and put six on top of those six people. But I’m planning this (Hall of Fame induction) not only for my family, but all of Western New York and Bills fans everywhere. It’s going to be a nice celebration,” Reed said.
Thurman Thomas, who like Tasker and Kelly also resides in Western New York and is often in Batavia attending 34 Rush, the sports bar at Batavia Downs he’s associated with, also missed having Kelly on hand.
“We knew there could be a chance he wouldn’t be here. But I think with all the players showing up, his presence is here, his presence is missed,” said Thomas, himself a Hall of Fame running back and one of the key players on the Bills’ Super Bowl teams. “He’s done a lot for the community, but he’s also done a lot outside the community.”
Dan Kelly, who was filling in for his brother, was sporting a new haircut late Monday morning. Jim Kelly was losing his hair because of the chemotherapy, and shaved his head on Saturday. That gave them an idea for a new source of charity fundraising revenue.
“I vowed to Jim that I would get my head shaved if he did. I hope my wife likes my new look. It will grow back — I’m confident, not sure, but it’s for the kids. The money goes to Camp Good Days for this,” Dan Kelly said after those in attendance watched him get his mane shaved off. “We already have guys getting their heads shaved. All day today you’re going to see guys leaving here a little differently than when they showed up today.”
The tournament has raised more than $5 million for local charities since its inception in 1987. The amount raised at each tournament seems to grow every year.
“I would say that between $250,000 and $300,000 will be distributed to Western New York charities (from this year’s event),” Dan Kelly said.
Which adds to Jim Kelly’s legacy off the field.
“He’s really had a special place in his heart for children’s charities. It’s always important for him to do whatever he can to help others,” Dan Kelly said of his brother.