Inspiring Eagle Reilly Happy to be 4-F
“I’m 4-F,” the military recruit said to his officer. “And in college I could run like Deion Sanders, catch like Larry Fitzgerald and tackle like Dick Butkus.”
“You’re nuts,” replied the officer.
“Yup,” said the recruit. “That’s why I’m 4-F.”
4-F- the military’s classification for being unfit for service- is not viewed as a positive.
But for Kevin Reilly- former Villanova Wildcat, former Philadelphia Eagle and New England Patriot and current motivator- 4-F is a way of life.
“I have gone through some troubled times and there are four things that have kept my head above water,” said Reilly, “and have allowed me to continue to move through life. They are the 4Fs- Faith, Family, Friends and Fortitude. Faith being at the top of the list. They all interact with one another.
“When you combine knowing when to put things in God’s hands with family and friends, the last thing is Fortitude. Fortitude is the one where I say: Now it’s time for you to step up as a man or as a woman. You have to have your own inner strength if you have those three things ahead of you,” Reilly concluded, “because you’re blessed.”
For the first 25 years of his life, Wilmington DE- native Reilly seemed completely blessed. He went to Villanova on a football scholarship. He played three seasons in the NFL as a linebacker and on special teams. He married a beauty queen. And then…
The 1975 New England Patriots were a star-crossed team. In the penultimate game of that year, a season where they would stumble to a 3-11 record, the Patriots fell to the Buffalo Bills 34-14. Reilly would have a 54-yard interception return in that game. And on offense, a talented former first-rounder from Purdue named Darryl Stingley would catch three passes for 59 yards.
Three years later, Stingley would be a quadriplegic, after suffering a legal hit in a pre-season game. And barely one year later, Reilly would be an amputee.
In the fall of 1976, Reilly noticed that a bubble would appear on his shoulder during his workouts.
“While other medical experts struggled to diagnose the problem,” wrote Christopher Kazarian on ESPN.com in October 2011, “Dr. Ralph Marcove, an orthopedic surgeon at Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering, took less than a minute to determine that Reilly was suffering from a desmoid tumor. Soon thereafter, Marcove operated and removed Reilly’s shoulder blade.
‘Unfortunately, he didn’t get all of the tumor out the first time,” Reilly said. “It came back again with a vengeance.’”
A desmoid tumor will grow and grow and grow. Reilly faced a second surgery- a radical one that would ultimately remove his left arm, shoulder and four ribs. The alternative to the surgery….was death.
“I’m laying down in pre-op,” Reilly recalled. “The priest came in around 5:30 in the morning and gave me communion. I was feeling really anxious and that made me feel a lot better.”
Reilly’s priest returned again that morning: to administer Last Rites. “The doc gave me a sheet and said to sign it,” Reilly remembered. “I read it and I remember one sentence: As an adult getting this operation, you realize that there is a 33% chance that you will not survive this event. As Johnny Carson would say, ‘I did not know that.’
“The next 30 minutes were very crystal clear and only one thing was important to me: What was my relationship with my Creator? It’s not a lie. What was my relationship with my Creator, because I might see him in the next hour and a half.”
Reilly not just survived, he thrived. He had a long, successful career at Xerox. He learned to tie his own shoes and his own necktie, two things he was told he would never do. He golfed. He ran marathons. He still works as a broadcaster for Comcast.
And Reilly continues to give back and inspire hope. Then-Delaware governor Tom Carper once asked Reilly to do visitations at Walter Reed Army Hospital. One of Reilly’s aforementioned Friends, John Riley, spearheaded and joined Kevin on the trip.
Sadly, with the Gulf Wars, the number of young amputees like Reilly seem to be growing and not shrinking. “I met with a dozen guys. I didn’t expect to see women- I don’t know why- but there were two women in the group,” Reilly explained. “In about 30 seconds, I had bonded with these guys like I had known them all of my life because I represented to them an experienced amputee. They were anywhere from four weeks to four months of missing a limb…or two…and I was the veteran ready to talk to them.
“I couldn’t believe that day how intimate that talk went, with the questions that they asked and how they poured out their fears. I could tell them ‘Don’t worry about that’ or ‘That is something that you’re going to have to work through.’”
Reilly eventually got his Peer Visitor Training. “That was absolutely fantastic and one of the things they taught was to be a good listener and not make recommendations,” Reilly stated, “because of how credible your recommendation could be and it could be the wrong one. You need to be there for them and not for you.
“I went down a couple of more times, and that led me to feel comfortable to go to A.I. DuPont Hospital in my backyard and talk with kids who have lost limbs or had serious injuries- and to be a good listener and tell them that life will go on whatever their handicap is,” he concluded.
Reilly added, “I do not hesitate to drop everything if some one has a serious problem.” The city of Boston had a serious problem on April 15, 2013 when bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line left scores of young athletes as amputees. Who better to counsel them then Reilly, who quickly offered assistance to both doctors and victims?
“I do say a prayer before I talk to these people- ‘Holy Ghost, please enlighten me’ – and I try to be happy, make sure that there is a smile on my face and I joke with them,” Reilly explained. “The biggest thing they fear is that they will never be happy again. They haven’t even figured out that they will have trouble tying their shoes or whatever. They just wonder if they will ever be happy again because they are real sad right now. The big thing I bring to them is ‘You’ll be okay. Because I’m okay.’ So I have to make sure I have that upbeat attitude, kidding with them.”
It’s the same way Rocky Bleier was upbeat with a depressed Reilly. Fans know Bleier as Franco Harris’ four-time Super Bowl winning backfield mate for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bleier also had his leg shattered in an ambush in Vietnam and nearly became an amputee himself.
“Rocky Bleier called me the day I was in the hospital having my worst day mentally,” Reilly said. “There were a couple of things that he said that made me realize that I didn’t cause this. If I had taken steroids, I would have blamed myself. But I didn’t take steroids. I was one of the few guys who didn’t want to go that route. I lifted vigorously but I knew from watching these guys in the gym that it was false weight and they were acting kooky. I didn’t want to do that kind of stuff.”
“Bleier got my spirits up,” Reilly told NBC10 in April 2013. “He said, ‘Did any of the doctors and nurses talk to you about your limitations?” I told him there’d been this volunteer in who kind of depressed me. He’s been without an arm for 45 years and I think he’s a little more of an expert than you and I. And that’s when Rocky said something I’ll never forget. He said ‘Experts built the Titanic and amateurs built the Ark. Experts can be wrong.’ That was really a turning point for me. And I knew I had to figure out how to get on with life.”
For the first 25 years of his life, Reilly wasn’t used to getting calls from people like Bleier. He was used to tackling people like Bleier and he did it as well as anyone.
Reilly thought he was going to commit to Maryland after starring at Salesianum High in Wilmington. But the family atmosphere that he immediately felt at Villanova convinced him to go North instead of South on I-95.
“Villanova gave me the opportunity to play Division I football with a great bunch of athletes,” Reilly lauded. “We were competitive. We were 9-2 my sophomore year where I was a starter and we were 6-4 my junior year. I’d say 90-95% of the guys that I went to school with graduated. We all got great educations and played top notch football.”
During his freshman year, it wouldn’t have mattered where Reilly went- he wouldn’t have played. Injuries and poor performance at tight end convinced the Wildcat coaching brass to switch him to linebacker. The future NFL’er entered his sophomore training camp as a fifth stringer.
“One day I just got tired of being beaten by the first and second string guys I was up against because I was on the scout, scout team,” Reilly reminisced. “I just went crazy for two days in a row. I started a fight. I thought ‘I’m either going to impress these people or get kicked out of the school.’ So they moved me up to third string and then they told me they were going to redshirt me. They were happy with the progress I had made and the passion I had shown.”
Injuries forced the Wildcats to re-think the redshirt and dress Reilly for the 1970 opener at Maryland, a game where Villanova pulled off an upset win. In the third quarter starting linebacker Will McManus, who would eventually become the police chief of San Antonio, hobbled off the field with an ankle injury.
Reilly promptly made all three tackles in his first collegiate series. “I was like a chicken with his head cut off. The adrenaline went through me like a drug,” he explained. “I made two tackles on my side and made a third from behind going the other way just because I was so amped up.
”The next week I start on a nationally televised game at Boston College and I hold my own. A couple of weeks after that, I make an interception with two minutes to go as Navy is driving to keep our win. And that is a story that hardly anybody would believe: here I was on an August day on the fifth team and four weeks later I’m starting against Boston College on national TV. Again, I look to the Heavens,” he said humbly, “and go ‘How did this happen?’ and I can’t help but think it was the Man Upstairs helping me out.”
Despite a 2-9 record as a senior, Reilly anchored a stout defense. The Wildcats lost four games while surrendering 14 or fewer points. Scouts noticed, and Reilly was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 1973 Draft. He latched on with the hometown Eagles and played linebacker and special teams in 1973 and 1974.
Those seasons may not live forever in Eagle lore- although ’74 was Philly’s first non-losing season since 1966- but Reilly played with the building blocks of an NFC Champion.
“The linebacking staff that I played with were Frank LeMaster, John Bunning and Bill Bergey,” Reilly pointed out. “Those were the linebackers in the Super Bowl. Safety Randy Logan came in with me as a rookie and you could tell that he was a solid character guy and a great football player.
“Harold Carmichael didn’t really come into his own until Dick Vermeil got there. Offensive and defensively, it was a picket fence but there were some real solid foundations there.”
Logan, Bergey, LeMaster and Bunting were all defensive starters on the 1980 NFC title-winning Eagles. That group not only punched Philadelphia’s ticket to their first Super Bowl, but also ranked first in the NFL in fewest points allowed.
“What Dick did after that was get some quality athletes who were character ballplayers. That is what Dick cared about most: did these guys have the character to play as a team?” Reilly commented. “He got rid of the guys who he felt didn’t fit that bill. He worked those guys to death, working them so hard that they outplayed everybody in the fourth quarter.”
Today, Reilly is retired from Xerox. He stays active in the game as both a broadcaster and as a motivational speaker with Catholic Media Group. Reilly’s Christian faith has enabled him to not only keep his own mindset positive throughout awful adversity, but to encourage others through their own struggles.
“I would be on drugs without my faith,” Reilly admits. “I’m a recovering alcoholic and I would NOT be able to make it without (my faith).
“One of the things I try to tell people, when they say ‘Well, God doesn’t answer my prayers,’ is that there are three things He does when He answers your prayers: He says ‘Yes, No or Not Right Now’ and who knows down the road if this isn’t the best thing for you? That is what I really believe. When I lost my arm, I wasn’t mad at God. I felt that this is the cross that I have to bear and there has to be a reason for it. And there sure was a reason for it.”
Special thanks go to Joe Condit of CMG Booking, the Catholic Speakers Organization, for coordinating this interview. For more information on Kevin, or to book him as a speaker, please visit www.cmgbooking.com or call #(657) 777-2535
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