Though it seemed that, everywhere he went, Kevin Reilly encountered someone who had heard him speak or knew his story, it wasn’t happening this day. Not in Anguilla.
Then, suddenly, there she was—a woman from Montana calling Reilly’s name and rushing over to see him. Her daughter, a talented high school basketball player, had broken her leg. She was depressed. But after hearing the former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker during a speaking engagement, the girl gained hope. Her mother just wanted to say thank you.
Reilly’s own daughter couldn’t believe the woman’s enthusiasm. But that’s the effect Reilly has. Though he may address a room of 200 people on any given day, he’s really speaking to the 10 or 15 who have shown up with a need. They are especially open to the message of a man whose football dreams were snuffed out by cancer, whose left side had been stolen by a surgeon’s saw.
“These people are all having a problem, or their daughter or grandkid is,” Reilly says. “When they come up to me after my speech, they say, ‘Boy, did I need to hear you today.’”
Reilly went from the fear of not surviving surgery to waking up without an arm. He weathered divorce and a bout with alcohol abuse. His message is not especially unique, but his commitment to helping others is rare. It isn’t a moneymaker; if others are in pain, he simply wants to help. He’s there to tell them that no matter how tough it gets, they can face their opponents and their demons, too.
Everyone needs to hear that—some days more than others. So Reilly, a Wilmington, Del., native, keeps putting himself out there, meeting people in Montana, South Dakota, Louisiana and in our region, spreading the message behind Tackling Life: How Faith, Family, Friends and Fortitude Kept an NFL Linebacker in the Game (Faith & Family Publications, 222 pages). Reilly sells dozens of his new memoir every time he speaks. Written with long-time friend John Riley, the book mixes flashbacks with chapters that drive home Reilly’s message of resilience.
“The first time I sat down with Kevin to talk about the book, he said to me, ‘I really feel my life has been based on faith, family, friends and fortitude,’” John Riley says. “He said, ‘I have developed resilience, faced adversity, and overcame and turned it into something positive. I want to get that message across to people who struggle in life.’”
Keith’s diabetes was so bad, doctors had to amputate eight fingers. The surgeries were brutal. Guess who accompanied him on visits to the hospital. “This was a guy Kevin had never met before,” Riley says. “He’s a pretty extraordinary person. I’m a little surprised he didn’t become a priest. He is very religious, and a lot of his friends are Catholic priests.”
If anyone could understand what Keith faced, it was Reilly. He remembers well the fear he felt while waiting to undergo the surgery that would remove his arm, shoulder and ribs. After signing the document that stated there was a significant chance he wouldn’t survive the operation, Reilly started reciting the Act of Contrition, a prayer Catholics say before confessing their sins: “Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee.”
There was some old-fashioned Irish bargaining, too. “If I get through this, I’ll pay it forward,” Reilly said to himself.
And he has paid it forward.
An outstanding football player at Salesianum School in Wilmington and Villanova University, Reilly was chosen by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 1973 draft. He headed to Florida hoping to earn a spot on a Super Bowl champion team that finished the previous season 17-0. “There
were 22 rookies vying for two spots,” he says.
Reilly describes the 10-week training camp as the “toughest physical activity I ever went through.” Twice-daily practices lasted two-and-a-half hours each in the sweltering Florida sun. If a dehydrated player dropped to the ground, coach Don Shula “would just move the huddle.”
Reilly spent two seasons with the Eagles as captain of special teams. “It was the greatest experience you could ever imagine for a kid who grew up an Eagles fan and who went to Franklin Field [the team’s home from 1958-70] with his dad and uncles,” he says. “I bleed green, and I always wanted to wear the green and white.”
Reilly lost his spot with the Birds after the ’74 campaign. He caught on with New England in 1975. But as he was working to get into shape for the 1976 season, Reilly was diagnosed with a desmoid tumor in his left arm that resisted several operations. In 1979, he had amputation surgery that lasted more than 11 hours.
At first, everything seemed fine. Five months later, Reilly went back to work at Xerox, and for the first 30 days, he felt good. That February, he experienced crippling depression. He managed to work, but getting out of bed every morning was a struggle, and not because of physical limitation. “I came back too soon,” he says. “I didn’t realize everything that had happened to me.”
Reilly had received no rehab or counseling. He turned to the bottle, and it eventually turned on him. But Reilly got sober and realized that his calling was motivating people. “I had 16 years of Catholic education, and though some people say I was brainwashed, it was good brainwashing,” he says. “I believed in a higher power, and I didn’t want to take my eye off the final prize, which is getting to heaven.”
During his speeches, there’s a moment when Reilly starts to yell. “Some of you are suffering so badly that you didn’t even hear me until I raised my voice,” he shouts. “Hang in there. You have to handle the ups and downs. Neither lasts.”
For years, Reilly worked with Riley on the Leukemia Golf Classic. During the process, the two men befriended a boy from Claymont, Del., who had leukemia. Despite a bone marrow transplant and a period of remission, he passed away at age 14. “Kevin and I drove to the house, and he was lying on the couch, looking like you’d expect someone who was in his condition to look,” Riley recalls. “Kevin walked across the room, held his hand and spoke to him. The guy has a power most people don’t. It’s incredible.”