Quadriplegic Chic Kelly just wants enough money to pay for his care
Chic Kelly was paralyzed while playing hockey at Merrimack College in 1988
His insurance policy gives him $30,000 a year, but it's not enough to cover costs
NCAA has refused to increase his benefits for his most basic medical needs
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 way too young to have just turned 40.
"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 of us -- would have rattled some cages. Called a press conference, called a network. Maybe even rolled the wheelchair from Philly to Indianapolis, giving press conferences every step of the way, until we arrived at NCAA headquarters with a bullhorn and a film crew.
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:
We received your information, and there's nothing we can do about it.
"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.