What It Means to Be “Kelly Tough”
Sometimes in life, different words and phrases take on completely different meanings than you ever thought they would—especially during times of tribulation and the need for hope. For Erin Kelly, daughter of legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback, Jim Kelly, “Kelly Tough” became something more than just a family idiom that carried over from her grandfather’s teachings. Instead, it became a way of finding strength in Christ in the midst of weakness.
The Kelly family is no stranger to trials. Erin’s younger brother, Hunter, was diagnosed with a fatal genetic disease called Krabbe leukodystrophy shortly after his birth and died in 2005 at the age of 8 when Erin was only 10. It was through his battle, though, that Erin found her faith in Christ.
“I had seen my mother and grandmother take care of Hunter,” she said. “I watched their joy and how much they loved Hunter and loved Jesus. I wanted what they had. I started seeking after Him and growing with Him as I grew older. The experience of watching Hunter suffer and going to Heaven made me seek even harder after Him.”
Then, in the summer of 2013, the Kellys found themselves staring at another trial: Jim was diagnosed with squamous-cell carcinoma of the upper jawbone. After extensive oral surgery to remove the cancer, the doctors believed that Jim was cancer-free. However, less than a year later, the cancer returned and he began the process of radiation and chemotherapy. As the daughter of such a prominent athlete, Erin said she initially found it difficult to have her father’s battle constantly in the public’s view.
“There were points I remember when my dad first had cancer that I was really frustrated that it had to be so public and that we had to share that information,” she said. “It was such a deep and personal thing for our family. But finally, I came to realize that it became a huge blessing. People are watching, which is ultimately an opportunity to give God glory and to have people pray for us. To hear that is such an encouragement—it was a huge encouragement to my dad and our family. I’m thankful for the platform God has given us to share our pain with others in hopes they will find hope and strength in Christ.”
And it’s that strength that Erin saw in her father that made her realize just what it means to be “Kelly Tough.” She said that her dad was physically and emotionally broken down, but she had never seen him so strong with his hope in God alone. Like most people who had seen her dad in all of his grit and glory on the gridiron, she was used to seeing someone who could carry an entire football team on his back and lead those men to victory.
“In my little girl eyes, he was this superhero dad, and this was really the first time I actually saw him be weak,” Erin said. “He couldn’t control anything, and it actually ended up being the most beautiful thing because he had to put his strength in Christ.”
In her book Kelly Tough: Live Courageously by Faith, Erin shares that, in all of the time she had with Hunter, she never feared losing him because she was always living in the moment. She wasn’t worrying or even considering that one day, she might not be able to embrace him. But, she admits that she has battled the fear of losing her dad during his fight with cancer. Even though she’s questioned why God would allow anything like this to happen, she said she still finds comfort in the fact that everything is in His hands.
“In the midst of all that was going on, I totally believed that God is big enough to take my pain and wrap it up in His joy,” Erin said. “I came to the point where I realized I don’t have to understand. I’m going to trust Him anyway. I came to the place where I said, ‘Lord, I still believe that You are good, regardless of what the outcome is.’”
Kelly Tough, which Erin wrote with her mom, Jill, isn’t just a book about a family’s journey—it’s a reminder of how powerful love truly is and how big God’s love is for you. Erin said in her book that, although she considers it a miracle that her father is now cancer-free, the greater miracle is how present God was through everything. She said her family truly grew together in this journey, and she has never felt so close to her dad.
“I don’t think I fully grasped taking in every moment and treasuring every moment with the people you love,” Erin said. “Even if it’s sitting on the couch with him, watching ESPN—I long to do those things because I just want to be with him.”
And she hopes that others will find hope in her family’s story.
“In the midst of whatever you’re going through, God is bigger and greater, and He sees you,” she said. “Put your strength in Christ alone. He knows your pain and deepest sorrow—and He uses it.”