Tough to Beat

Chic Kelly’s life changed in a tragic instant—and he hasn’t looked back since.

Under normal circumstances, Chic Kelly and Kevin Johnson likely would’ve never met. In 2003, Kelly was in his 10th year as a much-loved teacher at Malvern Preparatory School. At the same time, Johnson was living in Philadelphia and preparing for college.

But Johnson’s plans came to an abrupt halt when he was shot in a well-publicized altercation over his Allen Iverson basketball jersey, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. The family needed money, so Kelly—himself a C5 quadriplegic—reached out to Johnson through his Friends and Family of Chic Kelly Foundation. The organization was established in 1999 to help fund spinal cord research and offer financial support to victims.

Johnson was one of many SCI victims who’ve benefited from the foundation. Thanks to Kelly’s organization, his family’s electric bill was paid, he got a laptop computer to help with his studies, and an access ramp was built outside his home.

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“He was basically a prisoner in his own home because he couldn’t go out,” says Kelly, who still teaches at Malvern and lives in East Norriton.

Kelly saw Johnson frequently up until last November, when Johnson was taken off life support after falling into a vegetative state due to a failed ventilator. “Kevin was an amazing person,” says Kelly. “He always had an upbeat attitude and a smile on his face.”

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Many who know Kelly describe him in the same way. And while he might not flaunt it, he understands his story has inspired others. “It’s more than just financial contributions that I’m able to offer through my foundation,” says Kelly, who has befriended many SCI victims and their families over the years. “A lot of times, these people I meet are newly injured, so it’s good for them to see that just because you’re injured doesn’t mean your life has ended.”

Indeed, Kelly is a glowing example of someone who, despite a devastating injury, has persevered. But even someone with his strength needs help sometimes. So supporters are turning the tables on their big-hearted friend, coming to Kelly’s aid with a benefit this month at Malvern Prep to help raise funds for his long-term care.

“People always say to me, ‘How do you do all these things,’” says Kelly. “And for me, it’s like, ‘How could I not do all these things?’ What am I going to do, sit in a room for the next however many years praying that they come up with a cure for spinal cord injuries and feeling bad? Getting back out there and doing things makes me realize that the way I go about doing things may be completely different than how I anticipated in life, but I’m extremely lucky that I can still do them.”

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Kelly has also learned plenty from the people he’s helped. “Kevin Johnson forgave the kid who shot him. He would let him visit and play videogames with him,” says Kelly. “He taught me what forgiveness was all about.”

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IT WAS A ROUTINE shooting drill, something Charles “Chic” Kelly had done countless times as a hockey player—only this was college hockey. He sped up, gliding across the ice, preparing to land the puck in the net. After he was tripped, it took less than a minute for Kelly to slide across the ice and crash headfirst into the boards—less than a minute for his life to change forever.

Kelly was a standout athlete at Malvern Prep. He played soccer and golf, and ran cross-country. But his true love was hockey. A few weeks before graduation, administrators at Malvern offered Kelly a full academic scholarship to Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. While he was impressed with the campus, he was concerned about his chances of playing hockey right away at a Division I school.

He’d planned on attending Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he was certain he’d make their Division III team. But with an older brother at St. Joseph’s University and a younger sister just starting high school, Kelly did the financially sensible thing and accepted the scholarship.

In the months leading up to tryouts, Kelly trained as hard as anyone could, all the while knowing that making the team as a freshman was a long shot. In the end, of the more than 100 players who tried out, Kelly was among a small percentage to make the cut. “For me, making that team was my greatest sports accomplishment ever,” he says.

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But Kelly wouldn’t play a single game for Merrimack. The accident happened at around 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, 1988. “It’s one of those moments in life you obviously never forget,” says Kelly, who’d made the team a mere three weeks before. “The moment I hit the boards, I went completely numb. I couldn’t feel anything and I couldn’t move anything. I was conscious, so I knew when I couldn’t get up that something was seriously wrong.”

As he lay there facedown on the ice, thoughts raced through his mind. Would he finish school? Would he die? What would happen to his life? “I hoped that when I got to the hospital they’d tell me otherwise, but I knew I was paralyzed,” says Kelly.

Within 48 hours, Kelly’s fears were confirmed: A broken neck had left him a C5 quadriplegic. He spent the rest of his freshman year at Philadelphia’s Jefferson University Hospital and Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.

It was during the first four months that Kelly experienced some of his darkest days. “I was on a ventilator, so it was difficult to speak,” he recalls. “I had a halo on, which keeps your head from moving and your spine aligned so your neck bones heal properly.”

Kelly became gravely ill with an infection and pneumonia. “It was a really difficult time,” he admits.

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But with the support of family and friends, Kelly made it through, heading to Magee for intense rehabilitation. “Once I started getting healthy and began my therapy, that’s when I started to get more excited about my long-term possibilities and what I was going to do with my life,” Kelly remembers. “I knew then my life wasn’t over.”

But he also remained realistic about his diagnosis. He knew he’d never walk out of Magee—that he’d be in a wheelchair and dependent on others to do things he once took for granted. “As much as someday I hope they come up with a cure for spinal cord injuries, living in the future is dangerous and depressing,” says Kelly. “It’s like wishing your life away. This is what I have to deal with now, so I deal with it.”

For Kelly, “dealing with it” meant not abandoning any of the aspirations he had before his injury. He continued with his education, earning his bachelor’s degree in economics and philosophy from St. Joseph’s University. Upon graduation, Kelly learned of an opening at Malvern Prep and interviewed for the job. He’s now in his 14th year at Malvern, where he teaches theology and economics. He also earned his MBA in finance from Villanova University and now teaches night school at St. Joseph’s, along with an economics course for Montgomery County Community College. “Chic is a great example to our students that even when you have things taken away from you, if you have your heart and your brain, you can be a productive human being,” says Jim Stewart, president of Malvern Prep, who’s known Kelly since he was a student at the school. “Chic also has an amazing way of keeping the kids engaged. They love him as a teacher.”

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Malvern Prep ninth-grader Kevin Rafferty had Kelly as a theology teacher in sixth grade. “The first day of class, he explained his injury and how he got hurt,” says Rafferty. “He told us it was OK to be scared but that he was fine. He’s definitely one of the most popular teachers at Malvern. He’s so personable; he’s someone you can talk to about anything.”

When Kevin’s parents got wind of the impact Kelly was having on their son and others, they began attending the fundraisers for his foundation. Kevin Rafferty Sr. was sure that if more Malvern alumni and parents knew about the events, they would attend. So he approached Stewart about organizing an event to fund Kelly’s own care. The benefit will be held Oct. 13 at Malvern’s O’Neill Center.

“This is a way to celebrate Chic’s involvement in the school,” says the elder Rafferty. “We can’t even begin to put a value on the positive influence Chic has had on his students over the years. This is a way to say how much we appreciate him.”

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