In 1979, as I was working to get in shape to resume my career in the National Football League, I was diagnosed with a rare desmoid tumor. The large, aggressive, cancer-like growth required the complete amputation of my left arm and shoulder and removal of four ribs. Even though I was an otherwise healthy 28-year-old, there was a strong possibility I would not even survive the 11 -hour surgery.
As I was being prepped for surgery that fateful day, I was approached by a Catholic priest who, in his capacity as hospital chaplain, gave me the “last rites.” I describe in my book how several other patients of different faiths in pre-op asked to join in a prayer. It seems to be a part of our nature that whatever our faith, we turn to God in a moment of extreme danger or risk. Prayer for me was consistent with my upbringing, and looking back now on the trauma of that experience, I believe my faith helped provide strength in the crisis itself and in the years of recovery.
I have had many years to adapt to my one-arm world and eventually became pretty good at it. In my speeches, I often tell the story of the hospital counselor who suggested I buy clip-on ties because I would never be able to tie my own necktie. As I tell the story, I tie my necktie one-handed — always good for a laugh and some applause. But although I survived my physical health crisis, I did not think I would make it through the depression that I experienced with the end of my marriage of 20 years. Once again, my faith became part of a support network that included friends, family and professional counseling. As a result of that experience, I made many changes in my life and believe I am a better person because of it.
I was raised as a Catholic and attended a parochial school where I was exposed to the fundamentals of my faith. I then attended an all-boys Catholic school famous for its football team. It was on the football field where my dreams were focused, but I soon found that there was more to the institution known as Salesianum than undefeated sports teams. The school was founded by the Oblate order, followers of St. Francis de Sales. The culture was personified by the motto, “Tenui Nec Dimittam” (I have taken hold and will not let go), and led by men like my baseball coach and mentor, Father Robert Ashenbrenner, who personified the qualities of Saint Francis, “The Gentleman Saint,” in his everyday life.
Salesianum had a profound effect on my life and many other young men, including the current commander of the Navy SEALs, a school graduate who returned to speak to the students this year. The priests, teachers and coaches taught us to respect and support our fellow man and to understand that faith can be a force for good in your life. Recalling the quote, “You may be the only bible that your neighbor ever reads,” I am hoping my book helps to spread the message.
Today, I tour the country speaking to groups from all walks of life: corporations, schools, athletic teams and faith-based groups. I tell my personal story with the hope that my experience will help others face the demons in their own life.
One speaking opportunity affected me more than any other and that was the time I was asked to address the Amputee Ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005. Just standing before those brave young men and women was an honor I will never forget. They were looking for answers about what lay ahead, and I stood before them as an expert on life after traumatic amputation. As I got ready to speak that day, I was once again asking God for strength — the strength to make a small difference in the life of these heroes who had taken the risk for all of us. Take hold and never let go.
• Former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Kevin Reilly is a motivational speaker and author of “Tackling Life: How Faith, Family, Friends and Fortitude Kept an NFL Linebacker in the Game” (2017, Faith & Family Publications) http://tacklinglifebook.com. He lives with his wife, Paula, in Wilmington, Delaware. Reach him at www.kreilly.com and @KevinReillyNFL52Eagles.