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Author Interview

Jim Kelly: Faith, Football, & Fatherhood

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly spent 11 seasons leading the Buffalo Bill to victory after victory.  With a strong arm and a game-tested grittiness, Kelly led his team to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

When he retired after the 1996 season, Kelly expected his post-football life to be just as successful as his decade-plus on the professional gridiron.  He had no idea that he was in for the greatest challenge of his life -- a personal battle that brought him to his knees and eventually to the foot of the Cross.

I recently sat down with Kelly to discuss his new book, The Playbook for Dads, his greatest triumphs and tragedies, and the lessons he has learned about a man’s most important job on and off the field.

You could have written about just about anything related to your football career.  Instead, you are releasing a book about fatherhood.  What inspired you to write The Playbook for Dads?

I guess a lot of things. Number one, growing up in the family that I did in Pennsylvania, with six boys, I know what my father instilled in his six sons about integrity.  My son (Hunter) was diagnosed with a fatal disease and passed away. Things that I thought I would’ve done with my son, I would’ve taught my son, a good firm hand shake, a look in the eye. Then realizing, having a football camp for 25 years, and seeing how some kids are being brought up, and seeing how some kids don’t know the easiest of thank yous, how I tried to, not break their fingers, but make them feel that when I give them a good firm handshake that you’ve got to start from the basics. It’s entitled The Playbook for Dads to let parents also know that it starts at home with mom and dad. Dads just need to spend quality time with their children. These are things I would’ve taught my son as time went on, just trying to make him the man I’d want him to be, but also, to help him understand it does start with dad.

You were part of those famous Buffalo Bills teams in the 1990’s. You made it all the way to the Super Bowl four times and lost every one of them.  I’m sure that experience revealed a lot about your character and perseverance. Does that type of experience help you in parenting? How can you incorporate some of those same principles into being a father?

For me, I think the Lord prepared me for what was coming. From being raised in a family of six boys, the strong family we were, Dad really working three or four jobs and not having much, my senior year in college, being considered for the Heisman Trophy with the big dream of playing in the NFL, and then totally blowing up my right arm. They inserted three rods into it, and told me I would never play football again. From the devastation there, to going to University of Miami, and then being drafted by the Buffalo Bills and not wanting to play there.  Ultimately, one of the best decisions I ever made was when I became a Buffalo Bill. Then going to those Super Bowls, the dreams of leading your team to victory, and the excitement that you have when you’re going into lose. Then to do that four years in a row and never see that championship.  That really tested me a lot. All of this tested my patience to a certain point, but it also tested my perseverance of going through some tough times in my life. How was I going to overcome them, how was I going to step up and accept the challenge?

What role did your son Hunter teach you about your character and perseverance?

When I retired from the NFL, my son was born on my birthday two weeks later, which is Valentines Day. Imagine having a son born on your birthday. The game plan was already written, the script was already planned, and I knew exactly what was going to go on. Unfortunately, the good Lord had different plans for me. It took me a while to get prepared for what was yet to come, but the roller coaster ride I had, and to be able to put some of that aside and to learn from it, it took me a while. It really did, because when you have so many things that you look forward to, and so many dreams you have, and so much you’ve worked for all your life, to everything turn out sour. It’s very easy to blame somebody, and my way was blaming God. It took me a while to understand that I need God, I need the Lord on my side, and I need to continue to pray. Literally, I had to think in my own mind that if I wanted to see my son again I was going to have to change my life. And if I wanted to have my daughters look at their daddy with respect when I walked in that front door, and ultimately to have my wife be treated the way she should be treated, I needed to change. She went through a lot through those 8 ½ years, those last years of my son’s life. But I finally got it. I needed help, and we sought help. We finally conquered it. I finally conquered it.  Here I am today, a lot happier and a lot prouder than I was many years ago. I just wish I would have found the Lord a lot sooner than I did.

You begin each chapter of your book with a letter to your son.  Why did you make the decision to do that?

There are so many things I’d want my son to understand about his dad, and to understand at times what I want other fathers to understand. I want people to know how important my son was, and how important I know life lessons are. There are things that you think about in your life that you’re proud of, some things that you’re not proud of. I wanted to be straightforward. Each chapter contains not only a letter to my son but I end them with a little note to my daughters.  Even though the book is Playbook for Dads, it also speaks to my daughters, too. It’s interesting, because early on, even though they’re girls, I wanted them to have a firm handshake. At the beginning, I would squeeze their hand a little too hard, and they would say, “Daddy, ouch!” Of course, my wife would say, “Jim, they’re girls.” I’d say, “Yeah, but they’re going to be tough Kelly girls.” I just wanted my son and my daughters to realize that we all go through things that we’re not proud of, but the thing is, at times you’re going to have to seek the Lord and know that it’s not bad to get on your hands and knees and pray, which I do a lot.

What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a professional, as a father, as a man?

Forgiveness. Not only the good Lord forgiving me, because Lord knows I’ve prayed a lot for forgiveness.  Number two is my wife.  If she didn’t forgive me, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. Number three is to have my kids forgive me. That probably was one of the toughest times of my life is when I had to pull my young daughter aside a few years ago and explain to her, and tell her daddy wasn’t the father or husband I should have been and to ask her forgiveness. She did, and that was a really tough part of my life that I knew was going to be hard, but didn’t think it was going to be that hard. But after it was said and done, to see the look on my daughter’s face is priceless.

You hear this all the time, that half the battle of parenting is just showing up and being there for your children.  How important is consistency in being a good father?

This comes into play with your faith, too.  It’s being one person, one time, and being somebody totally different on the other hand. It’s being consistent when people are not watching. For my daughters, it’s telling them that if you want to be good at something, you can’t just do it when somebody’s watching you, or trying to push you. You have got to do it all the time. You have to be able to get out there and shoot hoops. I was telling my daughter you’ve got to be able to practice your faith away from church.  It’s not just showing up on Sundays. You’ve got to have your quiet time in the morning. I try to be consistent on having my quiet time in the morning, being consistent on making sure my daughters also do it.  The Lord wants to have that special time with you, as much as I want to have it, but I have to prioritize. Making sure that the Word comes first before anybody.

For dads who are struggling just to get through the day with their kids, what advice can you give them about being a good father?

Patience is number one.  You need to be able to sit down and talk to your children. What I found out a lot through my football camp is a lot of times kids don’t always want to hear from their dad or their mother. If there’s somebody that is close to your child sometimes it’s good to have somebody else telling them the same thing. I remember probably five, six years ago, I was playing basketball with my daughter and I was one of her coaches. She wouldn’t listen to me. So I said to her, “Trust me, Daddy knows what he’s talking about.” But then when the coach, whom she looked up to, told her the same thing that I was telling her, she came back, she said, “Daddy, Coach Sam was telling me exactly what you were telling me.” She says, “I guess you do know what you’re talking about. I understand.” So, when I am talking to kids, I’m saying, “Okay, I’m not your mother, and I’m not your father, but I’m going to tell you some things that your mom and dad probably told you, and it is right. I know a lot of you kids are going to like go one ear and out the other, but I know that there’s a whole lot of you kids that are smart enough to know where I’m coming from.” Sometimes it’s good to have a perspective from somebody else.

With The Playbook for Dads, it’s easy to think it is a book for fathers and sons. But is it also for fathers and daughters?

Yes. Most importantly, it’s a book about values.  It’s about teaching young kids the right things, even though there’s a lot of football in it. So, that’s probably more of why it’s The Playbook for Dads, because I reminisce about some of the days when I played, some good times and some bad times.  Values, integrity, and perseverance can be applied to both sons and daughters.

As an author, what’s your greatest hope for this book? 

That more fathers man-up and take responsibility for raising their kids.  It just bums me out that you try to get fathers to man-up and understand that they need to be a major part of their child’s life, especially their son’s lives, that it starts at home with daddy.  My hope is that fathers take responsibility for their kids.

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