By Joe Starkey
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talks with former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly before an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
The Steelers and Buffalo Bills are sharing practice fields this week in Latrobe. But for franchises separated by just 220 miles, they have shared precious little meaningful history.
There was Bills linebacker Jim Haslett stepping on Terry Bradshaw's head in 1979. That stands out. There was O.J. Simpson busting a couple of historic runs on the Steel Curtain, the Steelers pounding the Bills in playoff games 20 years apart and the Bills ruining Bill Cowher's first season with a 24-3 playoff win.
There was even the odd sight of Buffalo becoming Pittsburgh North around the turn of the millennium. Scads of notable ex-Steelers employees, first with Tom Donahoe, Mike Mularkey and Chan Gailey to current general manager Doug Whaley, wound up at 1 Bills Drive in Orchard Park, N.Y.
But the cities' most meaningful football connection might be one that binds a pair of iconic and similarly rugged quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger and Jim Kelly.
Their connection, at least from Roethlisberger's end, goes back more than 20 years. It has taken on new meaning of late, given the personal transformations of each and Kelly's harrowing but inspiring bout with cancer.
The relationship began in the form of a young Roethlisberger, 22 years Kelly's junior, taping a No. 12 Kelly poster to his bedroom wall in Findlay, Ohio.
“I tease him about that all the time,” Roethlisberger says.
Fast forward to Roethlisberger's first few NFL seasons, when his linebacker-like approach and laser-like precision late in games evoked images of Kelly in the Bills' famed “K-Gun” 15 years earlier. Have there been any star quarterbacks in the past quarter-century who endured more punishment — invited more punishment — than these two?
They finally connected in person early in Roethlisberger's career at Kelly's golf tournament in Buffalo. Roethlisberger traveled early and stayed at Kelly's house. They bonded immediately. Roethlisberger soon was making annual treks to Kelly's lodge in Ellicottville, N.Y., where the two would hunt, fish, ride snowmobiles and talk shop.
“For a Hall of Famer to come down to my level, if you will, just meant so much,” Roethlisberger says. “He's a guy I can call when things aren't going well. I'll get notes from him after games, good and bad: ‘Keep your head up.' ‘Great job.' To have someone like that I can call a friend? That's first and foremost. And I think he'd say the same thing: He looks at me as a friend.”
I asked Kelly's brother, Dan, about Roethlisberger's place in Kelly's fraternity of quarterback confidants.
“There's a handful Jim is real close with, with Peyton (Manning) and Dan (Marino) and guys like that. Brett (Favre), too,” he said. “I would say Ben's right up there at the top.”
As such, Roethlisberger has been privileged and pained to witness Kelly, 54, repeatedly rise from unfathomable depths of torture. The lowest point was the death of his 8-year-old son, Hunter, who in 2005 succumbed to a rare disease of the nervous system.
Kelly's latest descent began 14 months ago when doctors diagnosed cancer in his jaw. It subsided, then returned aggressively. Dan Kelly said the family is awaiting an MRI next week to see if chemotherapy and 35 radiation treatments worked.
The Kelly family (Jim, wife Jill, daughters Erin, 19, and Camryn, 15, plus a large extended clan) gifted the world by publicizing Jim's battle. An image of Erin clutching her father's arm in his hospital bed went viral. It and other photographs, articles and television pieces speak to the suffering, devotion and cruel tests of faith families experience in such times, when the blessings and curses often roll into one.
“Kelly Tough” is the term the Kellys use to describe their positive response, and it was on full display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame two weeks ago, when Kelly helped usher ex-teammate Andre Reed into the Hall.
“I can only imagine what Jim and his family are going through,” Roethlisberger says. “I've stayed in touch through phone messages and calls. The last time we talked was after the Hall of Fame ceremony. I shot him a note and said, ‘I know it wasn't easy for you to be up there, but you looked good, bud.' It's tough to see such a tough, strong guy go through that.”
A powerful “Outside the Lines” piece on ESPN recently chronicled Kelly's struggles. It ended with a hopeful Kelly looking ahead to walking his daughters down the aisle someday even if he has to “crawl there.”
“I know the family, and it's emotional to see them do these pieces. But that's who they are,” Roethlisberger says. “Their faith is so important to them, and I think the girls and Mrs. Kelly will tell you that they kind of got Jim on the right path. It's changed his life. He'll tell you that.
“I just feel blessed to call him a friend.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.
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