When he turns from his computer to introduce himself, after pausing the replay of the previous night's Phillies game, my immediate thought is: This sandy-haired, little-kid-smiling guy looks
"I'm lucky, I guess," he says.
Right. He's lucky.
It's a kid's face. It really is. And then, obliviously thinking that he might need some cheering up, I say, "You know the old saying: A man's best decade is his 40s."
"Well, I thoroughly enjoyed my 20s and 30s," he answers immediately, with no trace of irony.
Then he offers a knuckle-bump with his left hand, which is his natural greeting to anyone, because while he can move his upper arms, his hands' fingers have been curled, lifeless, for 22 years.
Into the perfect knuckle-bump configuration.
He can't feel the bump, because there is no feeling his hands.
Chic Kelly, quadriplegic, has spent the last two thoroughly enjoyable decades in this wheelchair, except for the times when someone was lifting him into his bed in his parents' house, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Or into a friend's or sibling's car for a ride to teach his theology classes at Malvern Prep. Or down to Brittingham's Irish Pub on Germantown Pike.
In October 1988, he was paralyzed while playing hockey as a walk-on freshman for Merrimack College. Today, to say that Chic Kelly is a man who thoroughly enjoys his life would be something of an understatement. A beloved teacher, an avid sports fan, a man of the mind who's as comfortable discussing arcane British novels as he is the Phillies' pitching staff, all Chic needs now is enough money to pay for a private nurse.
He used to have it. But the $30,000 he's received annually from the catastrophic injury insurance policy that was in place at the time of his accident now covers a small fraction of the modern home-care costs. Repeated pleas to the NCAA have proved futile.
But he refuses to give in to the slightest suggestion of self-pity. If an attitude of eternal sunshine could animate dead nerves, Kelly wouldn't just be walking by now, he'd be sprinting through each day. Hell, maybe he'd be flying.
"You just gotta keep moving forward," he says. "I knew there wouldn't be a miracle, or cure. So you're better off dealing with what you have to deal with. I figure, 'Let me try and live my life to as close to what it would have been.' "
But even a man whose optimism has known no bounds can now see the shadow of an immovable boundary lurking down the line, which is why I am here, to talk about his plight, even though he didn't request it.
In an era when the media lives for the sensational, some of us, finding ourselves in Chic's shoes -- well, face it ...
All Kelly wants is enough money to be the man he is.
The $30,000 insurance policy pays for only a third of his home nursing care. His parents, now both 67, are out of work. His siblings have families of their own. He is asking for the $100,000 annually that the NCAA has given its catastrophic-injury victims since 1995.
And the organization that governs the sport that took the life from his limbs claims no responsibility, and despite his measured and rational and humble pleas, offers no more money.
Lawyers have told him that he'd have a tough case against the NCAA, and Kelly can't afford to spend money on a suit he can't win.
So he sits in this room, at the computer, surrounded by the things that make him smile: the photos of Mario Lemieux and Jameer Nelson and Springsteen. The games of his beloved Phillies and Flyers and Eagles and Sixers.
He grades papers and reads on his Kindle and is endlessly thankful for the voice-recognition software that allows him to communicate with the world and allows him to feel as if he's part of the human web.
He tries not to despair of never being able to convince the powers in Indianapolis. And occasionally he allows himself to laugh at the irony, because laughing is the best weapon he has.
The NCAA is all about developing athletes so that they'll live independent, productive lives, right? But in his case, they're insisting on denying him independence -- basically preventing him from becoming a man.
His most recent e-mail from the NCAA, a few months ago, said the same thing as the letter three years ago, sent when he first saw the shadow closing in:
"But obviously there is something they can do about it," Kelly says. "They're just choosing not to do it."
"It was a drill I'd done a million times," he says.
And a moment he's relived a million more.
Kelly had already sent in his deposit to the University of Fairfield in the spring of 1988. Not much of a hockey school, but it was offering a full ride. Then, with two weeks left in his senior year at Malvern Prep, an Augustinian Catholic school 20 miles west of Philadelphia, his guidance counselor told Kelly that Merrimack, an Augustinian college, wanted to establish a full academic scholarship for a student from an Augustinian school. And its hockey program was also transitioning to Division I.
On his hastily organized visit to the campus in North Andover, Mass., Kelly met with the hockey coach, Ron Anderson. Anderson was frank: The team was pretty well set, but he was welcome at the open tryouts, where the last couple of players would be chosen from the two-day walk-on tryouts.
Kelly enrolled at Merrimack. Six weeks later, he joined about 100 others for the walk-on combine. After the first day, 70 were cut. After the second, Kelly led the camp in scoring. When the roster was posted a few days later, he was in class. But his girlfriend went to the gym, saw his name, and when he got back to his dorm room, she'd left a gift on his bed. He'd done it.
"That was my biggest sporting accomplishment," he says now. "That was the hardest I'd ever worked at something. I knew I was going to have to make my mark as somebody who goes the extra couple of yards every time, and that's how I made the team. It came down to me and another guy who had more talent, and afterward he told me, 'The reason you made it and I didn't was your work ethic.'
"Ironically, it prepared me for a much bigger physical challenge later, when I faced a completely different set of challenges, but it was the same idea."
His chances of suiting up for a game were uncertain; the Warriors dressed 20 players and kept 32 on the roster, but no matter how you read it, he'd been welcomed into an elite fold.
"One of the things we evaluated in bringing kids into our system," Anderson says now, "was we were always looking for players whose effort appeared to be sincere, kids who looked like the kind of people who would welcome a challenge instead of being handed something. That was Chic's attitude. We liked him. We thought he might become a player."
It was three weeks into the season. The team was on the road. The remaining non-dressing dozen were practicing at home. As usual, it was an intense practice. If you impressed Bob DiGregorio, the second-team coach, in practice, your chances of moving up next year were enhanced.
Kelly was moving in on goal. Skating as fast as he could, hoping to deke the goalie, pop it into the upper corner.
"The puck got too far out in front of me, and as I sped up to catch up, he reached out at the same time I made the move," Kelly recalls. "His stick went under my skates, and I hit the ice, sliding headfirst, into the boards."
He recites this without emotion.
"Five seconds later I gathered myself and tried to get up," he says. "Ten seconds later I knew something was wrong. I couldn't feel anything, move anything. Within a minute I pretty much knew I must have broken my neck, I remember saying to the goalie, 'Tell those guys to stop shooting pucks, and get the coach down here.'
"Then I remember they were wheeling me off the ice and I said to the paramedics, 'Hold on a second -- I just remembered: My friend from high school's coming to visit me this weekend. He's going to be here at 7:30 on a Greyhound. Someone has to go pick him up.'
"They thought I was delusional. But I was thinking, 'Poor guy. Coming up to have a fun party weekend at college ... instead he's going to be at the hospital.' "
I ask: What was the goalie's name? What was the name of the guy who stole your limbs?
He shakes his head.
"That's a good question. I don't remember. He was in the same boat I was. Probably one of the last to make the team. Put it this way: He wasn't trying to hurt me.
"Look: It could have happened anywhere. It could have happened at Fairfield. In high school, we'd drive too fast to practice early, and shoot pucks at each other and trip each other. I could have hurt one of my friends."
Kelly plunged into the rehab the way he'd plunged into working out: full-bore. He enjoyed the challenge. He was off the ventilator within a week, despite contracting double pneumonia. After 10 months, he came home and enrolled at St. Joseph's University, where he earned his B.A. in economics (minor in philosophy), and then his MBA. Then he joined the Malvern Prep staff to pass on what he knew about theology and economics and growing up.
"It's funny: If before it happened you had told me what I'd have to deal with after it happened, I would have said, 'I can't do that. There's no way I could physically or emotionally deal with that,' " he said.
"I remember something that happened a year before that. In church the priest was talking about a wrestler who broke his neck goofing around on the grass with a friend. I thought, 'Imagine living with that. Thank God that'll never happen to me.' "
In 1988, the NCAA offered a program to colleges that would allow the schools to fund insurance policies that would cover athletes who had suffered catastrophic injuries for $30,000 a year. Merrimack had such a policy in place at the time of his injury. Twenty-three years ago, that 30 grand was enough to pay for Kelly's 24-hour care.
Since then, home nursing costs have more than quadrupled. Realistically, Kelly has 35 more years to live, at best. The total he is requesting would be $2.4 million over the rest of his life.
Last year, the NCAA, a nonprofit organization, sold the rights to its annual basketball tournament, which provides 90 percent of its annual revenue, to CBS and Turner (which is part of Time Warner, the same parent company as SI.com) for $10.8 billion.
Last March, a 30-second commercial during the Final Four cost $1.3 million.
Ninety-five percent of the NCAA's revenue goes back to member schools. Those schools then use it to pay seven-figure salaries to coaches and build new arenas.
With the money the NCAA still has, the organization pays its administrative costs, and does its best to advance the noble cause -- for instance, flying 400 athletes to an all-expenses paid "Student-Leadership Forum."
The organization has no fund to help victims of catastrophic injury.
Four years ago, as the expenses of his nursing became prohibitive, Kelly asked Don DiJulia, the athletic director at St. Joseph's, if he could reach out to the NCAA and help see if it could bump up his annual care to $100,000. DiJulia forwarded a letter from Kelly to Keith Martin, the NCAA director of Finance and Operations. He included a DVD of Kelly, explaining his situation.
Martin wrote back to DiJulia and explained that the organization could not help because the current policy, in place since 1995, was not retroactive. Martin suggested that Kelly contact the insurance carrier. The insurance carrier said it could do nothing.
"It's a lot easier to say no to someone," Kelly says, "when they're not there in person."
Kelly next turned to an old family friend, Jay Wick. Kelly had caddied for Wick as a teenager at Gulph Mills golf course, where Wick was the assistant. Now the pro at Old Sandwich Golf Club on Cape Cod, Wick found an attorney to review the possibility of a case against the NCAA. The attorney advised him that the case was not strong. Kelly couldn't risk money he didn't have on a suit he wouldn't win.
"It's such an unbelievable injustice," Wick says. "Here you have one of the great role models ... the NCAA should be embracing Chic Kelly. This is someone who had this incredible misfortune and tough odds. Then he graduates, then he gets a masters, he teaches kids who love him -- it's nothing short of incredible for them to turn their back on Chic.
"In the end, if the NCAA powers meet Chic Kelly, and still don't do anything to improve his financial situation, then fine. But at least meet with Chic! If someone in the NCAA could just meet this kid ... I just don't believe that human beings in a position to help someone like this wouldn't do it."
Since then, both of Kelly's parents have lost their jobs. Money is tight. So Kelly recently emailed Martin again and received this response:
"The NCAA is in the same position today as we were in 2007 in that we do not have the authority or ability to retroactively change policy benefits regardless of who purchased the policy. ... This is true for the policies we purchased beginning in 1992 as well as the policies individual universities purchased before that time."
He again told Kelly to talk to the insurance carrier. The carrier again said there was nothing it could do about raising benefits
I contacted Gail Dent in the NCAA Public and Media Relations Office asking to speak to Martin about the case. A few days later, she responded by e-mail:
"I spoke with our staff and was told that we've been in communication with Mr. Kelly on a few occasions over the years ... [in] 1988 the NCAA had a voluntary program and the individual schools made the decision about the coverage they needed to have in place. The NCAA started paying the premiums in 1992, however, we cannot retroactively change the benefits under a policy ... I'm not sure there is any additional information the NCAA can provide for your story."
When I asked for clarification on the NCAA's relationship to the individual schools at the time, Dent responded: "We don't believe that the program that Merrimack was part of was mandatory. We made the program available to schools and they had the option to purchase it or not."
All Kelly knows is that he was participating in a hockey practice insured either mandatorily or voluntarily by the NCAA -- which, today, cannot apparently clarify which was the case -- when his mobile life effectively ended.
And as far as Kelly is concerned, all of the obfuscating semantics are beside the point: "It's like having a pool in your backyard," he says, "and not putting a fence around it and then claiming you're not responsible for someone drowning in it."
All Kelly needs to know is that the policy he was issued had "NCAA" on every page.
"But look: It's not like I'm bitter about the NCAA," he says. "I'm like, 'OK, if you could just fix it for me going forward, my life would be tremendous.'
"If I could just get the NCAA to say, 'Look, this is a special case ...' I mean, how many of us could there be? I'd bet you dollars to donuts it's less than five people. It might be one person who has a significant disability and needs physical assistance with almost every daily living activity: me.
"I'm asking for a drop in the bucket. To just make up the difference. To just pay for the nursing. I don't need a lump sum, like a million dollars. If they'd just put in the difference between the 30 grand they're giving me, and the 100 grand I need and deserve, and just put the 70 in an account for a nursing service, I'd be set.
"If the NCAA would just give me what's just and fair, I would have no problem paying for my adult independence."
The last time I visited Kelly's parents' house, the sun was high in the sky, and Chic's spirits were, of course, even higher -- even though his beloved St. Joe's basketball team had just finished its worst season in decades with a loss to Dayton.
The cause for the smile? He was writing his final exams, and for any teacher, no matter how much he loves to teach, when you're writing those finals, you know that summer freedom is just around the corner.
For Kelly, this means a lot of midweek Phillies games. "The Phillies have real good wheelchair seats," he says. And there won't be a lack of friends to accompany him: "They all say, 'Dude, bring that handicap parking thing!' He laughs. "You get rock-star parking."
As I say goodbye, I realize that, on this visit, I hardly paid attention to the wheelchair, and that we had spent more time talking about the Eagles and the Giants and the NFL lockout than we'd talked about his plight -- which is, at the end of the day, at the end of every day, how he wants it.
Because sports spawned this incredible, indomitable spirit, and then tried to swat it down.
He spins back to his computer, to watch some Phillies highlights, or Eagles previews, or Flyers highlights. It's funny, he'd told me: Some people ask him if he can stand to watch hockey now, when the truth is he can't get enough of it. Hell, sports is a big part of why Chic Kelly loves to get up every day.
Too bad he needs help to get out of that bed, and will, every morning, for the rest of his life. Too bad the people who won't pay for a nurse to lift him can't see what I see: the ideal of the athlete embodied by a man who refuses to lose.