AUBURN — There were plenty of laughs, tears and footballs at the E. John Gavras Center's Legacy of Caring Dinner Wednesday night at the Holiday Inn.
Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly headlined the event, which benefited the center's $1.5 million capital campaign. The project will include the renovation of the facility's exterior and expand its preschool program.
Before the dinner, Kelly posed for photos and signed autographs at a VIP reception. After the meal was served, he took the stage with emcee Niko Tamurian, CNYCentral's sports director.
For nearly an hour, Kelly reflected on his upbringing — he was one of six sons raised by Irish Catholic parents — his football career and the challenges he faced after his playing days were over.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, he dreamed of playing for Penn State. He was recruited by Penn State coach Joe Paterno. But Paterno wanted Kelly to play linebacker. Kelly wanted to remain a quarterback, so he went to the University of Miami instead.
In his final season at Miami, he faced adversity. A shoulder injury threatened to derail his football career. A doctor told him he may never play football again.
"That crushed me," Kelly said.
He recovered and entered the 1983 NFL Draft. He recalled the controversy involving John Elway, who was drafted No. 1 overall by the Baltimore Colts. Elway didn't want to play for the Colts. As he and his family waited to see which NFL team would draft him, Kelly's agent asked him if there was anywhere he didn't want to go.
One of the teams on the list: the Buffalo Bills. The Bills selected him with the No. 14 overall pick.
The disappointment he had in 1983 is gone. After a brief stint in the USFL, he joined the Buffalo Bills in 1986. He called it "one of the best decisions I ever made in my life."
During 11 seasons with the Bills, he led the team to four consecutive Super Bowls. The first was the Super Bowl XXV loss to the New York Giants. He drove the offense down the field to set up a 47-yard field goal attempt. Bills kicker Scott Norwood missed the field goal wide right.
"How that hurt and how I know being a quarterback and being a leader on that team how it hurt," he said. "But the key is, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to feel sorry for yourself? Are you going to look at each other or blame somebody else? Or are you going to fight back? We fought back."
The Bills bounced back and advanced to the next three Super Bowls.
The toughness Kelly is known for would be put to the test after his NFL career was over. His son Hunter, who was born in 1997, had a rare — and fatal — genetic disease. Doctors estimated he would live 14 months. He was 8 years old when he died in 2005.
In 2013, Kelly was diagnosed with cancer in his upper jaw. After beating cancer once, it returned in 2014. He was treated and has been cancer free for nearly four years.
He linked his message of perseverance to the Gavras Center's work. He lauded the facility, which provides services for students with developmental disabilities.
"It's all about the attitude," he said. "It's all about coming together — coming together as a group, coming together as a family. The people here in this organization are family. I get it, and I know a lot of y'all get it, too."
Kelly's appearance serves as the kickoff for the capital campaign. Gavras plans to raise money over the next 12 to 18 months to fund the expansion project.
The facility received a state grant in 2016, but will need significantly more funding to advance the expansion.
Robert Padula, chairman of the Gavras Center's board, urged attendees to support their efforts.
"Please work with us to continue the quality of life for everyone who lives in our community," Padula said. "That's what central New York is all about."