Jim Kelly may not be a familiar name for many younger viewers of last evening’s July 18 ESPY awards. Those fans may know of Bill Parcells, or perhaps, just that the franchise usually gets its share of draft picks after not exactly soaring in the standings over the past several seasons, despite promising playoff glimmers here and there. Like few quarterbacks before or since his reign with the Buffalo Bills, Jim Kelly, personified character and class beyond his athleticism, and like even fewer famed NFL athletes, he has become courage personified in his personal battle against oral cancer since his departure from the field.

Jim Kelly had a lot to say about why every moment matters in life at the ESPYs, and Olympic gymnast and #MeToo movement justice crusader Aly Raisman let the strident support of her 140+ sisters fill the stage for their statement moment, and no one failed to hear their heroism.

Setting things right

In recent years, scoffers have taken aim at the annual ESPY recognition for becoming too much about the glitz and not enough about the lasting and often gut-wrenching kind of greatness that creates a legacy in sports. Looking at the morning headlines, there may be more coverage about Ciara and Russell Wilson's look on the red carpet than the more worthwhile aspects of the night, but to their credit, the ESPY awards have made a point to use their platform wisely, and pay homage to the history of sports while spotlighting the need for change.

The sight alone of those more than 140 female gymnasts, completely filling the stage in their dazzling gowns, did more than any news report demanding that justice has to be a continuing and fulfilled pursuit, particularly in light of new allegations in the realms of wrestling and USA Diving. Men and women in huddled masses can be silent no more, and one 60-year term that will finish out the life of Larry Nassar is something, but it cannot be considered justice.

Sarah Klein is the hero of the justice that has, at last, started to come for USA Gymnastics victims. Her words from the stage reflected that the scrutiny of the public and the retelling of the horrors under the guise of help and protection is “grueling, and it's painful -- but it's time.” The unified recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award stood as one while Raisman reminded not to “let anyone rewrite your story,” and that “your truth matters.” The multitude onstage offered the perfect punctuation of that point.

Courage and purpose combined

Jim Kelly's courage brought his 1983 fellow draft classmates Dan Marino and John Elway to tears as they honored the quarterback great and fellow football Hall of Fame member with the Jimmy V award for perseverance.

Kelly and his family have been more than open and courageous in sharing their heartbreaks and triumphs, even before the 2013 battle with oral cancer began. In 2005, the family endured the tragic loss of their son, Hunter, at 8, to Krabbe disease, which overtakes and destroys the nervous system. The condition is genetic.

The initial removal of a squamous cell carcinoma from Kelly's jaw in 2013 was supposed to be relatively simple, but no one could have imagined the recurrent vengeance of the disease for Jim Kelly, which has resulted in a jaw reconstruction, partial sinus removal, and multiple removals and surgeries for oral cancers.

The latest battle between Kelly and cancer was in March this year, when it returned for a third time, requiring more surgery and chemotherapy. Kelly is only 58, but it seems that he has lived lifetimes as a champion against cancer, remaining a devoted father and husband, and someone who always feels a need greater than his own.

Like the namesake of his award, North Carolina basketball’s Jim Valvano, Jim Kelly pledged that he is “never giving up. I will fight until the end.” He is also determined to stay positive every step of the way. He paid tribute to his daughters, Erin and Camryn, who always smiled during their visits to see dad in the hospital. His moving remarks exemplified the power of a person who can smile as “a difference maker.” In his self-effacing way, Kelly urged every person to make a difference to someone “fighting for their tomorrow,” and insisted that someone having a really tough day can be in the same rut as someone with cancer.

Every gesture potentially makes a huge difference.

These ESPY award honorees are living, breathing examples of staring down formidable foes and still embracing every new day.

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