One Tough Chic
Two Decades After He Was Paralyzed, Kelly Soldiers On
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
Charles "Chic" Kelly Jr. was living a dream. In 1988, the 18-year-old Pennsylvania native was on an academic scholarship at Merrimack College. Not only that, but he made the JV hockey team.
The thought never crossed his mind that his dream would turn into a nightmare.
On. Nov. 3, during a routine shooting drill, Kelly was tripped and was sent crashing head first into the boards. The impact left him a C-5 quadriplegic.
"I didn't lose consciousness, so I remember everything," he said. "I was doing a drill I had done a million times. The puck got a little too far out in front of me and the goalie came to play it. I tripped over his stick and went head first into the boards. As soon as I hit, I knew something was seriously wrong."
As bad as the situation was, it didn't take Kelly long to figure out what had happened.
"My initial reaction, if you have ever had the wind knocked out of you, that's what it felt like," he said. "But, when I went to go get myself up, I couldn't move anything, nothing happened. It set in pretty quickly what was wrong."
Bob DeGregorio, Merrimack's athletic director at the time, was running the practice the day that Kelly got hurt.
"As soon as I saw him go down, I knew it was serious," said DeGregorio, who is now the commissioner of the Atlantic Hockey Association. "I had seen injuries like this before. I remember sending for the trainer right away because he couldn't move anything. It took almost an hour for the EMT personnel and the fire department to get him off the ice.
"I just remember yelling, 'Put your head up!'"
"Chic, when I knew him, was a fine young man," DeGregorio added. "Not only was he a hockey player, but he was a scratch golfer."
Kelly moved back to his native Pennsylvania after the accident, and went through nearly a year of rehab. After all that, his toughest battle was still in front of him. He's still fighting it today.
Policy change comes too late
At the time, the NCAA had an insurance policy that schools could purchase what would cover up to $30,000 per year in care for players who suffered debilitating injuries. About 19 months after the injury, according to Kelly, the policy increased to $60,000. Today, the NCAA covers up to $250,000 per year in nursing and care expenses.
But, Kelly is only entitled to the $30,000 per year that was offered at the time of his injury, only about half of what it costs for his care per year, he said.
When Merrimack goalie Joe Exter fractured his skull in 2003, the NCAA covered the cost of his care. But unlike Kelly, Exter did not require long-term assistance.
To help cover the costs, Kelly works three jobs - teaching economics at Malvern Prep, his alma mater, as well as at a community college, and at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"I have great friends and family, but my parents are 65 years old and my brothers are married, it's just a matter that they won't be able to help take care of me forever," Kelly said. "I have a nurse in the morning, but my family is helping care for me the other 20 hours in the day."
St. Joseph's University athletic director Don DiJulia has been an advocate on behalf of Kelly. But, despite numerous letters, phone calls, and a DVD of a video package produced by Comcast, Kelly has heard no response from the NCAA.
"All I am asking is that they make up the difference between the $30,000 I get now, and what it actually costs for my care," said Kelly. "It's not like I am sitting here going, 'Woe is me.' I went back to school as soon as I got out of rehab, and only graduated a year late.
"I have a full-time job, and I have an active social life. All I am looking for is the NCAA to step up to the plate and make up the difference in care.
"I sent the NCAA a letter with the DVD and they told me to contact the insurance company. I contacted the insurance company and they told me that they had no obligation to increase the contract they had. I sent that response back to the NCAA, and have never heard back."
According to the NCAA, they hold no responsibility.
"The $30,000 a year was for custodial or private nursing care. In 1988, the NCAA offered institutions the opportunity to participate in an insurance program, but the institutions chose if they wanted to provide coverage, and how much," NCAA spokeswoman Jennifer Kearns said in an e-mail.
"Any student-athlete injured during that policy period would receive the benefits under the terms of that policy. The NCAA did not provide the insurance, the institution did. Therefore, any specifics of Mr. Kelly's case would have to be addressed by the institution and the insurance company."
According to the NCAA, Merrimack had the maximum insurance coverage. The NCAA's policy offered $30,000 per year, and Merrimack purchased that policy.
"In 1992 the NCAA began purchasing the insurance for the student-athletes," Kearns said. "That insurance program was not retroactive to prior athletes. Over time, the benefits increased. In 1992 the benefits increased to $50,000 per year, in 1995 they increased to $100,000 per year, and in 2000 they increased to $250,000 per year."
The policy at the time was sufficient in 1988. But, Kelly contests that as the cost of care changed, the policy should increase.
"We, as the school, purchased the policy that the NCAA offered, it was their policy," DeGregorio said. "I thought that there was a built-in increment that would increase the benefits as it went along, at least there should be, the cost of living goes up. I thought there was a cost-of-living increment built in, because once the injury occurs, a person in that situation is deemed uninsurable by the companies. But, we purchased the only plan that the NCAA offered at the time."
Merrimack played a charity game with Bruins alumni shortly after the injury, and donated the proceeds to Kelly's family.
"We did the alumni game for him and donated the money," DeGregorio said. "Then we sort of lost contact. I know he went back to school, but it wasn't at Merrimack. I'm sure that given the circumstances, the family was probably in a bit of shock. I remember his mom taking it really hard.
"It was a real shame, as a parent, you send a fine young man off to college and he comes home paralyzed for the rest of his life, I can't fathom that. Now, to hear some of the problems he is having with getting coverage, I just can't imagine."
Similar to Travis Roy
In 1995, Kelly relived the moments of his tragic injury when Boston University freshman forward Travis Roy suffered a similar injury just 11 seconds into his college career.
"Right away, I knew exactly was he was going through," Kelly said. "I did call the hospital a few times and tried to contact him, but we never got in touch.
"After I got hurt, my sister went to nursing school and worked on the same floor that I had been on. I ended up going back to talk to a bunch of guys over the years that had similar injuries to tell them that their life isn't over. That was something that helped me a lot, talking to other people. I wish I did get a hold of Travis at some point, but he probably had millions of people talking to him."
While Kelly struggles to cover his own costs, he has founded "The Friends and Family of Chic Kelly," a foundation that is dedicated to improving the quality of life of victims of spinal cord injuries.
Kelly's foundation has helped countless individuals in the Philadelphia area who have suffered injuries similar to his.
"There are so many people that get hurt and have nothing, especially in the inner-city places of Philadelphia," Kelly said. "We had been helping a kid who had gotten shot over an Allen Iverson jersey, and was left paralyzed and on a ventilator. He was in pretty tough shape and his insurance company wouldn't pay for a wheelchair, a ramp, nothing.
"We got him a laptop, a ramp for his house, and we were starting to build a special bathroom, but unfortunately his ventilator malfunctioned one night and he passed away. That's just one of the things we've seen."
Kelly is often asked how he can exert so much energy helping others, when he has had troubles covering his own expenses. But for Kelly, it was a no-brainer.
"Well, most people are surprised, because they assume that all of my nursing coverage is paid for," he said. "But, why not help? I know what some of these other people are going through."
Mike McMahon also covers Merrimack hockey for the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence (Mass.). This article originally appeared in the Eagle-Tribune.