On the last day of his short life Mike Reily awoke in a hospital bed at Touro Infirmary in his native New Orleans, barely a mile from the house in which he was raised. It was Saturday, July 25, 1964, and the temperature outside would climb to a sticky 91°. A single intravenous fluid line was connected to Reily's body, which had been a sinewy 6'3" and 215 pounds before being withered by Hodgkin's disease and by the primitive treatments that couldn't slow its progress. Mike's mother, Lee, had been in the spartan room with him almost every minute of the four days since he had been brought in to die.
Three months short of his 22nd birthday and recently graduated from college, Reily must have known the end was near. This day had stalked him for 17 months. His childhood friend John Gage, who was heading into his second year at Tulane's medical school, had visited him in the hospital. "He was lucid, but he was beaten to death," says Gage. "People who are terminal eventually have a look. The life is gone. That's the way Michael looked. He told me that when I became a doctor, [I should] find a cure for this miserable disease."
Maybe as he lay there, Michael Meredith Reily also thought about things he would never see again: The flat, brackish waters of Bayou Liberty, where as a boy he had water-skied all day and never grown tired. The cold, green football field in faraway New England, where one November afternoon Williams College had upset Amherst and the rangy linebacker from New Orleans had been the best player on the field. The tall, blonde girl from Skidmore College with blue-green eyes, the kind of girl you never forget whether you live one more year or 100.
But Reily could not have imagined the ways he would endure in memory. He could not have known what older men learn: that friends and teammates are never really forgotten, and those who live largest and die soonest are remembered in the most poignant way. He could not have known that nearly half a century after his death, those who knew him best would still be haunted by his absence. He could not have known that men who served in combat would recall his courage in the face of death and compare it to bravery in battle.
And Reily surely did not know that on a late fall afternoon in the Berkshire Mountains of northwest Massachusetts, seven months before he graduated and went home to die, his young football coach and the college's equipment manager had made an impulsive decision to put away the purple, white and gold number 50 jerseys that he had worn on the field, and that over the next 47 football seasons five more coaches and six more equipment managers would quietly honor that decision, most without knowing why. They would leave the jerseys packed away, unofficially retiring number 50 at a college where numbers were not retired. And one day, quite by accident, the story of Mike Reily's jerseys would be unearthed, and the young man who inspired so many others would come back to life.
Fall 2010: The box
Early in October of last year, Ben Wagner was at home in Portsmouth, N.H., perusing the website of Williams, a small, highly selective Division III school in Williamstown, Mass. Calling up the football page, he found a section titled EPH LEGENDS. (Williams teams are nicknamed the Ephs or Ephmen after the school's founder, Col. Ephraim Williams, who was killed in 1755 during the French and Indian War.) Wagner, 69, had been an Ephs baseball player and co-captain of the 1963 football team, a 6'4", 235-pound offensive and defensive tackle whom everyone of course called Big Ben. The other co-captain was Mike Reily. Over the years Wagner had been disappointed that Reily was not listed among the Eph legends, not only for his dominant play but also for his courage as he faced death.
Wagner finally e-mailed the college's football coach, Aaron Kelton, to inquire about adding Reily to the list, and he encouraged his teammates to do the same. Wagner also got in touch with Dick Quinn, Williams's sports information director. Quinn, 60, had been raised in Williamstown and had begun working at the school in 1989. He recognized both Reily's and Wagner's names. Back in the 1960s kids in town attended Williams games in all sports; Quinn had been present when Wagner hit a baseball into the distant football bleachers, which had rarely been done. Quinn also remembered attending football games at which the public address announcer kept saying, Tackle by Reily. Tackle by Reily.
"You could not go to a game Reily played in and not hear his name over and over," says Quinn. "I remember hearing that Mike died the summer I was 13, and I was stunned. I knew he didn't play his senior year because he was sick, but I had no clue that meant terminal." Quinn asked the college's assistant archivist, Linda Hall, to dig up some photos of Reily, so that he could add Reily to the Web page. He told Wagner he was on the case.
Around the same time, Williams assistant offensive line coach Joe Doyle made one of his routine prepractice visits to the school's equipment room in Cole Field House, a three-story brick building that sits atop a steep hill overlooking a broad expanse of practice fields. Doyle, then 69, was a 5'10", 230-pound inside linebacker at UMass in the 1960s and later a high school coach in Cheshire, Mass. When he became an assistant principal in the mid-'80s, he was no longer allowed to coach high school football, but then-Williams coach Bob Odell made Doyle a volunteer assistant. Odell couldn't pay him, but he did get him a gift. "A nice sideline parka from the college," says Doyle. "I could wear it when it was cold." He picked number 50, his number at UMass.