Pro football players share their faith at men’s conference

Pro football players share their faith at men’s conference
Joe Klecko

Joe Klecko

By Peter G. Sánchez

GLASSBORO — On Oct. 29, 1974, Kevin Reilly experienced the highest of highs.

The Delaware native, starting at special teams for the Philadelphia Eagles football team, heard the roar of the Veteran’s Stadium crowd as he was introduced before his hometown team’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.

His hard work and persistence had paid off. He was now suiting up for the team he grew up rooting for, and a long and successful playing career awaited him.

Five years later, almost to the day, Kevin Reilly reached the lowest of lows.

Sitting in a hospital bed in Manhattan, he had just had his left arm and part of his left shoulder amputated, and four ribs removed, all to stop the spread of a rare cancer.

His journey from 1979 to 2014, and the faith and fortitude he found to persevere, from friends and family, was shared here Sept. 13 at Mary, Mother of Mercy Parish, when Reilly was the morning’s speaker at the second annual Brothers in Christ New Jersey Men’s Conference.

The day also included presentation by Joe Klecko, a former New York Jet; Msgr. James Tracy, a retired priest of the diocese, and Father James Casadia, pastor.

“You don’t know what you can do until you try,” Reilly told the 50 men gathered.

During his years growing up in Delaware, earning a football scholarship to Villanova University and eventually being drafted by the Miami Dolphins, Reilly always had a “never give up” attitude, he said.

But his surgery, which meant the end of a three-year playing career and an uncertain recovery, presented challenging obstacles. With a wife and three young children, he wasn’t sure how he could properly provide for them.

Soon, he fell into depression, a state only broken when he was visited by Rocky Bleier, a Pittsburgh Steelers football player.

The two had more in common than football.

Bleier, while serving in Vietnam, was shot in the leg, and doctors were unsure if he would ever walk again. Unfazed by his prognosis, Bleier continued to rehab and eventually came back to play for the Steelers, helping them win four Super Bowls.

The Steeler asked Reilly to promise him that “you will not quit on something unless you try it three times,” Reilly recalled.

Bleier also led Reilly to a poem, “A Winner’s Creed”; whenever he struggled, Reilly would recall its words.

Relying on what he called the “Four Fs — Faith, Family, Friends and Fortitude,” Reilly pressed forward, eventually learning to tie his shoes, knot a necktie and play golf.

While recovering, Reilly recognized that “nothing else mattered to me, but my relationship with my creator. Without my faith, I don’t get through the next 30 years of my life,” he said.

Remembering when a hospital chaplain would offer him daily Communion, Reilly realized that “when God enters the room, fear leaves immediately.”

“The Holy Spirit, and the human spirit, are stronger than anything that can happen to you,” he said.

Today, Reilly is a motivational speaker and co-host of the Eagles’ pregame and postgame radio show for 94.1 WIP.

Joe Klecko, in his afternoon’s keynote, stressed to the men the importance of being faithful witnesses to the Catholic faith, amidst the “crisis right now in our world,” with increasing divorce and abortion rates.

“We are called to step out into society and be who we are, witnessing by our lives and actions,” he said.

“We need to be that person of substance in this world.”

Sponsored by the St. John Neumann and Our Lady Queen of Peace (Pitman) Knights of Columbus councils, and the King’s Men group of Infant Jesus Parish (Woodbury Heights), the all-day conference was a day for men to not only come together to hear Reilly and Klecko’s inspiring messages, but to engage in fellowship, pray the rosary, and participate in a Eucharistic celebration.

Jack Mesco, a freshman at Rowan University and parishioner at St. Peter Church in Merchantville, attended the conference with his father and brother.

The “beautiful conference” was “empowering, and powerful,” he said.

“We as Catholic men need to take a more active role in the church and our world, to counteract all of the (issues contrary to the church) going on today,” said Bryan Dickerson, one of the organizers for the day. “Hopefully events like these will encourage more Catholic men to do so.”

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