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How A Former NFL Linebacker Overcame Unimaginable Hardship

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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.

But 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. Yet after hearing the former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker during a speaking engagement in Big Sky country, the girl gained hope. Her mother just wanted to say thank you.

Reilly’s own daughter couldn’t believe the woman’s enthusiasm. He could.

That is the effect Reilly has. He may address a room of 200 people on any given day, but 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 had been 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’s message is not unique in the world of inspiration, but his commitment to helping others is. It isn’t a moneymaker. If others are in pain, he wants to help. Reilly has faced down his opponents and demons, so he’s here to tell you that no matter how tough it gets, you can, too.

Everyone needs to hear that—some days more than others. So Reilly, a Wilmington native, keeps putting himself out there, meeting people in Montana, in South Dakota, in Louisiana and at home in Delaware, spreading his message. If he can go from the fear of not surviving surgery to waking up without an arm, then surviving divorce and a bout with alcohol abuse, you can triumph, too.

That’s the message in “Tackling Life: How Faith, Family, Friends and Fortitude Kept an NFL Linebacker in the Game.” Reilly sells dozens of his new memoir every time he speaks. Written with John Riley, his best friend for decades, the book mixes flashbacks with chapters that drive home Reilly’s message of resilience. The book is a perfect companion to his spoken words. In a publication landscape that is overrun with people telling us how to survive life, Reilly’s stands out for its authenticity. For those looking for something with more lasting power than the hourlong speeches Reilly delivers, the book has it.

“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.’”

 

FORMER PHILADELPHIA EAGLE KEVIN REILLY WENT FROM A FEAR
OF NOT SURVIVING SURGERY TO WAKING UP WITHOUT AN ARM,
THEN OVERCOMING DIVORCE AND A BOUT WITH ALCOHOL ABUSE.
HIS NEW BOOK EXPLAINS HOW HE OVERCAME ALL OF IT AND HOW
HE WORKS NOW TO INSPIRE OTHERS.//PHOTO BY LESLIE BARBARO

KEVIN REILLY (RIGHT) WROTE “TACKLING LIFE: HOW FAITH, FAMILY, FRIENDS AND FORTITUDE KEPT AN NFL LINEBACKER IN THE GAME”
WITH HIS LONGTIME FRIEND JOHN RILEY.//PHOTO BY LESLIE BARBARO

 

Keith had diabetes so bad, doctors amputated 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.” Reilly repeated it several times, hoping to convince the Almighty of his remorse. There was some old-fashioned Irish bargaining, too. “If I get through this, I’ll pay it forward,” Reilly said.

And he has paid it forward like no one else.

An outstanding football player at Salesianum and Villanova University, Reilly was chosen by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 1973 NFL 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 were 2 ½ hours each in the sweltering Florida sun. If a dehydrated player dropped to the ground, coach Don Shula “would just move the huddle.”

After toiling in the heat, Reilly would repair to his dorm room to study the dense defensive playbook. He was the last player cut. “Once you get through something like that, you can get through anything,” he says.

Reilly found a spot on his hometown team. He spent two seasons with the Eagles as captain of special teams, and he enjoyed every second.

“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. As he was working to get into shape for the ’76 season, Reilly was diagnosed with a desmoid tumor in his left arm. The rare scar-tissue tumor resisted several operations over the next three years, so in 1979 he went to Memorial Sloan Kettering, the New York cancer center, for amputation. The surgery lasted 11½ hours. It didn’t kill him, but it triggered trouble Reilly never anticipated.

At first, everything seemed fine. Five months after the surgery, Reilly went back to work at Xerox, and for the first 30 days he felt good. Then in February he fell into a depression that almost crippled him. 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 hadn’t received any rehab or counseling. There was no one to help him through the grief over loss of his arm, shoulder and ribs, and of football, which had been his love and identity. His marriage disintegrated. He turned to the bottle, and it eventually turned on him. But Reilly got sober and realized that his calling wasn’t football or sales. It 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. If that’s your goal, you can overcome anything. Nothing lasts forever.”

During his speeches, there is always 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.”

Despite his relentlessly upbeat approach and his understanding that neither life’s defeats nor victories last, Reilly struggles with his disability. He can knot his tie with one hand and play golf better than many. But he hardly cruises through life without a care. The difference between him and others is that he has decided to call on the same grit that carried him through the Miami training camp to confront everyday struggles.

Perhaps that’s why he can give so much to others. Whether he is speaking to an audience, providing analysis on Villanova football radio broadcasts (he also spent a couple years as the color commentator on Eagles preseason telecasts) or simply encountering people while running errands, Reilly is ready to help.

For years, Reilly and Riley worked together on the Leukemia Golf Classic. John Riley helped run the golf side. Kevin Reilly rounded up celebrity participants. During the process, the two men befriended a boy from Claymont, Steven, who had leukemia. Despite a bone marrow transplant at the Mayo Clinic and a period of remission, Steven passed away at age 14. The day Steven passed away, his mother called the two to see if they could come and visit one last time.

“Kevin and I drove to the house, and Steven was lying on the couch, looking like you would expect someone who was in his condition to look,” Riley says. “He was emaciated. Kevin walked across the room, held his hand and spoke to him.

“The guy has a power most people don’t. It’s incredible.”

And he wants to share it with everyone he can.

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