Quadriplegic Chic Kelly just wants enough money to pay for his care (cont.)
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.' "