East Brady keeping close watch on ailing Bills legend
EAST BRADY — Terry Henry was polishing off a cheesesteak at All-Stars, a local bar and restaurant, one day last week when a woman approached and asked about “Jimmy.”
That would be Jim Kelly, the former East Brady High School standout and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback with the Buffalo Bills who has a rare form of oral cancer.
Henry, Kelly's close friend and former high school coach, gave a quick, honest update — the bad and the less bad.
He gets asked about Kelly a lot in this working-class, no-stoplight Clarion County town about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.
People here are concerned and worried about Kelly. Many watched him grow up and become famous while never taking himself too seriously. They supported and grieved with Kelly and his wife, Jill, during the illness and death of their 8-year-old son, Hunter, who was born with a rare genetic disorder, Krabbe leukodystrophy.
Kelly is beloved, less for being a famous athlete (although a sign on the edge of town proudly proclaims it) and more as a generous and garrulous father, son, brother, husband and friend.
“I've had more people come up to me in the last few months with prayers for Jim,” said Dave Kerschbaumer, Kelly's quarterback successor at East Brady. “It's amazing how many people he's touched and reached.”
Kelly moved away when he finished high school but never left.
“I'm proud to say that I'm from East Brady,” Kelly wrote in an email. “I loved growing up there. It's a close-knit community in which everybody became friends. It's a small town with great people. I go back home every year and look forward to going back again this year.”
“He's been very generous and very kind with the people in the area,” said Tracy Tolbart, 44, the woman in the restaurant who asked Henry about Kelly.
Henry said, “He cherishes his friendships. He treats everybody with respect.”
Kelly's cancer was diagnosed in May. Doctors removed several teeth and part of his jaw, and he was pronounced cancer-free. Then it came back and spread. Several tiny tumors are growing close to his brain and carotid artery. Until moving to a New York hotel Friday, he was being treated in New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, relying as much on faith, he has said, as his doctors.
Kelly attended a New York Knicks game on Friday night at Madison Square Garden with his daughter, Erin, and received a standing ovation.
Nearby are those closest to him: Jill, Erin and another daughter Camryn, and the other Kelly boys, who include his father, Joe — raised at the Holy Family Institute orphanage in Emsworth — and Jim's five brothers.
Joe wanted to get his sons out of the city, so they moved to the tranquility of the country and a two-story house on Purdum Street.
Joe, now 85, was a machinist; he taught Jim how to throw a football.
Alice, his late wife, worked in the high school cafeteria, but her main job was running the expansive household and keeping the brothers, free-spirited to varying degrees, in line. She was known as “St. Alice.”
Joe Kelly and his sons have moved on, but another Kelly boy, by every definition except birth, remains in East Brady. Terry Henry coached all of the brothers except Pat, the oldest. Jim Kelly's turn came in the late 1970s.
The 54-year-old Kelly has called Henry, 10 years older, “my brother” and “my best friend.”
Kelly has taken Henry to 28 Super Bowls, including the four straight that Kelly's Bills played in — and lost — from 1990 through 1993. Henry attended plenty of regular-season games, too, as well as the parties afterward in the Kelly home. (Henry said he once found himself tending bar alongside Thurman Thomas, another Hall of Famer.)
“He didn't have to do any of that for me,” said Henry, who later coached at Seneca Valley High School. “It's just the way he is. The giving back, I mean.”
Henry was there for Kelly's 2002 Hall of Fame induction. He and Kelly have hunted game from South Africa to South Dakota and points in between. At Kelly's lavish hunting camp in upstate New York, Henry helps organize — as a coach might —the huge gatherings for the openings of deer and turkey seasons. About 30 of Kelly's buddies spend the weekend for some hunting and much partying, and 50 to 70 others might drop by. Every Valentine's Day, Kelly gives Henry and his wife, Debbie, use of the lodge.
Henry has attended the last 27 of Kelly's annual charity golf outings in Buffalo. This year, Henry will be honored along with two other coaching influences on Kelly: HowardSchnellenberger (Miami Hurricanes) and Marv Levy (Bills).
Beyond what is reported, Henry is the pipeline to Kelly. Recently, Henry gathered friends and family members to pose for pictures to brighten Kelly's mood; he and Debbie plan to visit Kelly on Friday.
The shell of the high school remains, housing a few businesses and a gym, but the school is long gone.
So are several retail establishments along the main drag formerly named Broad Street, now Kellys Way.
Rex-Hide, once the town's largest employer, has vanished, too. The plant made rubber components for truck tires; on football Saturdays, its workers ate lunch on the roof and watched Kelly lead the Bulldogs to victory.
Mayor John Klein calls East Brady “one of the best-kept secrets in Western Pennsylvania” and a good place to raise kids.
“I have five,” he said. But, he added, “we've had our share of problems.”
The economic decline began after World War II. Businesses disappeared, and so did people. In the 2010 census, the population dipped below 1,000 for the first time since anyone can remember.
Some important constants remain, however.
One is the Allegheny River. Another is Kelly, who loves the river and makes a point of attending Riverfest, the annual July frolic. Kelly left for college and football at Miami, went on to play for Houston in the short-lived United States Football League and then settled in Buffalo, where he played for 11 seasons and remained after he retired in 1996.
The source of Kelly's cancer is a mystery; he never has been known to use tobacco, the leading cause, in any form. In late March, it was announced that one of the tumors had grown too large to remove. Kelly this week is scheduled to begin chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
If the treatments work, surgery to remove the spreading tumors will be performed after two or three months, said Dr. Peter Costantino. Kelly's condition “remains very treatable and potentially curable,” the doctor said.
Art Vasbinder coached Kelly in sixth-grade basketball. He is better known in these parts as the owner of Bachelor's II, a bar about five miles from town that Kelly and his buddies frequent.
“Knowing Jim my whole life,” Vasbinder said, “if anyone can get through this, it's him. Because he is a tough kid.”