Cancer surgery took 20 percent of Kevin Reilly’s body, but it couldn’t take the former Eagle’s zest for life. In a new book, he looks back on his battle to survive—and thrive.
Kevin Reilly arrived for our interview at Hollywood Grill around 7:30, straight from attending morning mass with his 91-year-old father at nearby St. Mary Magdalen Church. It’s a ritual the father and son follow a couple of times a week. Indeed, faith is one of the bedrock principles of the Reilly family and one that has helped steer the Salesianum alumnus and former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker through the fires of hell.
Nearly 39 years ago, in New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, a surgeon removed Reilly’s left shoulder, left arm and four ribs. Earlier surgery had cost him his shoulder blade and collarbone—all in an effort to eradicate the cancerous desmoid tumor that had caused him excruciating pain and threatened his life. All told, when he was wheeled from the operating room on that chilly October day in 1979, he had lost 20 percent of his body. His road to recovery was marked by more pain, depression and, ultimately, victory, thanks to his tight-knit family, friends, his aforementioned faith, and the fortitude of a gritty athlete.
One of his first obstacles was created by the alleged “pep talk” he received a few days after the operation from a World War II veteran who also had lost his left arm. Explaining that he was there to offer support, the vet proceeded to list all the things the new amputee would be unable to do, including tie a tie or his shoelaces. He added that running—a regular part of Reilly’s workouts—without pain would be almost impossible because his body would be out of balance.
Today, the 66-year-old Reilly, a much sought-after public speaker, often ends his talks by demonstrating how he ties a tie. Since the operation, he has run the Caesar Rodney Half Marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, and he currently logs about 8 or 9 miles a week, in addition to lifting weights. And he can drive a nail.
Reilly details his recovery and much more in a candid, 205-page autobiography, Tackling Life. Published last month, the book discusses his career at Sallies, Villanova and the NFL, where he played for the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins in addition to the Eagles. He also touches on his divorce and his decision several years ago to give up alcohol. Now happily remarried, he dotes on his 10 grandchildren, babysitting at every opportunity, while pursuing a speaking and broadcasting schedule that takes him throughout the country.
He discussed the book and his remarkable life in an hour-and-a-half interview at the Concord Pike diner. Following are some highlights.
The genesis for the book: “It had been in the back of my mind for a while,” Reilly says. “After almost every speech, there would be a line of 20 or so people who wanted to talk, and they would ask if I had a CD or a book.” He finally decided to start the project in March of 2016, after he made the kickoff speech to an audience of 1,800 at the Catholic Men’s Conference in Philadelphia. He got a rousing reception, and another speaker told him: “You could’ve sold 500 books today.”
Reilly’s friend of 40 years, John Riley, agreed to help, and they soon set up a routine: Reilly would write 15 pages or so in longhand (“I have good handwriting,” says the Sallies grad), then give them to Riley, who would massage the words. Reilly’s daughter-in-law, Erica, served as editor and advisor and helped to type the manuscript. The result is a good read whose early chapters contrast the traumatic operation and his recovery with his athletic career.
Overcoming his limitations: In the book, Reilly credits Rocky Bleier, a mainstay of the legendary Pittsburgh Steeler Super Bowl teams, with helping him get past the deflating lecture from the WWII vet. At the hospital, Bleier, who was wounded in Vietnam and told by doctors he would never play football again, urged Reilly not to let other people set limitations on him. “Promise me you won’t quit on anything until you try it three times,” Bleier said.
Ever the over-achiever, Reilly tried some things many more times than three. He revealed that it took him about 20 tries to learn how to knot a tie one-handed. The secret, he says, “was when I finally learned to use my mouth. Then it was just a matter of figuring it out.”
Reilly’s father built the family’s home in Blue Rock Manor and Reilly himself worked one summer for a Wilmington contractor, so he knows his way around tools. Driving a nail was a challenge until he learned to start it by holding it between two fingers, placing the flat side of the hammer against the head, and pounding it into the work surface.
Linebacker humor, and some vintage Biden: Football players aren’t noted for their sensitivity, and an incident not in the book illustrates how a couple of former Eagle teammates—also linebackers—helped Reilly maintain a sense of humor about his handicap. When he and Bill Bergey were doing a WDEL broadcast at Stanley’s Tavern in North Wilmington, they were joined one night by Frank LeMaster, who played for the Birds from 1974-82. It was Christmas time, and Bergey and LeMaster surprised Reilly with a gift: The Clapper—the device that turns lights on and off and is activated by hands clapping. “How the hell am I supposed to use this?” Reilly laughed, whereupon Bergey grabbed Reilly’s hand and slapped him on the cheek with it.
Another helpful and equally less-than-gentle encounter occurred not long after he lost his arm to surgery. An old friend, then Sen. Joe Biden, came up to Reilly following a speech and imparted a Joe-being-Joe admonishment: “You’re fat. Get back to the gym!”—advice the workout addict promptly followed, with his usual fervor.
How he got his nickname: In the book, Reilly mentions his nickname, “Tick,” but doesn’t explain how he got it. It seems he has former Philadelphia quarterback Roman Gabriel to thank. By the end of the 1973 season, Reilly had played a total of 21 games (seven exhibitions with the Dolphins and Eagles and 14 regular season contests), and the wear-and-tear dropped his weight from 225 to 209. So in the offseason he embarked on a rigorous exercise and diet regimen to pack on the pounds, and he reported to training camp in ’74 at 228. “But it was all in my chest and shoulders,” says the 6-2 Reilly, which left his legs looking out of proportion. When he stepped on the scales, Gabriel was standing nearby. “Reilly,” he yelled, “what the hell happened to you? You look like a bloated tick.” The name has stuck with his ex-Eagles teammates.
How sales are going: “The book is exploding,” says the newly-minted author. “I just hired part-time help.” It’s available on Amazon ($20 paperback, $9 Kindle) or on the website: TacklingLifeBook.com.