Person of the Year: Dick Kelley

A little girl runs into the room beaming with joy. She’s just seen a towering star.

“We just saw Ryan Anderson,” she exclaims. “He’s so tall.”

Dick Kelley turns his head, and as Anderson walks through the door followed by fellow Boston College basketball players Lonnie Jackson and John Cain Carney, Kelley lights up brighter than his starstruck niece. He can’t get up from his place on the couch to say hello, so they all come around and pat him on the shoulder. Before they can get comfortable, Kelley directs them to the pizza in the kitchen by nudging his head, ordering them to eat.

Kelley, a sports information director for men’s basketball at BC, was diagnosed with ALS in September of 2011, when a sore wrist spiraled into something much worse. Since then, the disease has steadily progressed, and he now has very limited mobility, virtually no ability to speak, no use of his arms, and can only walk with great asisstance. A Dynavox computer, which he can control with a metallic dot on his glasses, allows him to send emails and tweets. He relies on others for almost everything, but they still rely on him too, for guidance and for strength.

Anderson is one of a group of players who regularly makes the 12-minute walk or five-minute bus ride to Kelley’s apartment near campus. BC helped Kelley move into 2000 Commonwealth Ave. when he could no longer get around the stairs at his condo, and it’s helped him remain an active member of the community. Anderson used to visit Kelley in his office on the third floor of Conte Forum every two weeks. When Anderson’s class first arrived two summers ago, Kelley was completely healthy. He took the first picture of the group as freshmen.

“There’s always the thing that you don’t want bad things to happen to good people,” Anderson said. “Because he’s such a good guy and the energy and the happiness that I saw in his eyes when we first came to BC-it’s just crazy to see his progression since I’ve been here.”

Now Anderson, along with plenty of other friends, family, colleagues, and athletes, join Kelley for dinner or a visit every month or two.

“He’s been such a tremendous role model for me,” Anderson said. “If I had to say someone that’s impacted me the most since I’ve been at BC, it’s definitely Dick Kelley.”

One of the first words that the people close to him use to describe Kelley is blunt. He’ll say what’s on his mind, and if you’re doing something wrong, he’ll call you out for it.

“He’s straight to the point, and with these guys I think they appreciate that,” said men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue. “Things like ‘You didn’t do that right, this isn’t how you say that, here’s how you act.'”

For Kelley, it’s the only way he knows.

“Blunt and direct is one way of saying it,” Kelley wrote in an email interview. “Honest is another. I can’t think of a better way. I believe people know when you’re less than honest. Our athletes are smart. If I were ever tempted to BS them, I’m sure they would see right through it. They would-and should-lose respect for me. I think they appreciate getting it straight.”

Whenever Donahue has needed encouragement during his three years at BC, he’s been able to rely on Kelley, who has worked for the athletic department for more than two decades.

“He’s someone I could go to and reinforce the things that I was thinking and the vision I had,” Donahue said. “And him coming in and telling me, ‘You’re doing it right. You’re doing it the right way. Continue to bring in these types of kids. It’s what Boston College needs.’ It was just great for me. He wasn’t looking for anything in return, he was just being Dick Kelley and helping in any way he can.”

Kelley’s way of helping has rarely involved the basketball court. He’s seen his role in media relations as an opportunity to advise and teach.

“Athletes have coaches who instruct them on the game,” Kelley said. “They don’t need me weighing in on their play or rehashing the recent games. I hope to engage them in non-sports talk. I take an interest in their lives away from the athletic arena. I have other interests and so do they.”

“He’s always very honest and candid with everyone,” said Chris Cameron, director of media relations. “I saw it every day. His motto was ‘Positive and Humble.’ He would always give that advice to student-athletes before they would do an interview.”

When he was a student at BC, Kelley gained respect for the people that took an interest in him and helped him grow. In the early 1990s, Kelley taught a newswriting class, and both of his parents were educators. His mother taught elementary school in Andover, their hometown, and his father taught middle school in Lowell.

“What can I help you with in your life?” Anderson said Kelley would ask him. “How can I help you grow as a man? How can I help you become a complete person?”

When Joe Rahon first arrived at BC last summer, Kelley was having groups of four or five over to his place for dinner. Rahon, a freshman guard, had never met Kelley until that summer.

“Just right when you meet him you can tell he cares so much about you, not only because you’re part of the BC basketball team, but just because you’re part of the BC community,” Rahon said.

Rahon went to see Kelley with Anderson, Jackson, and Olivier Hanlan, the team’s other freshman. Kelley sat Hanlan and Rahon down and gave them a 10-minute talk about what it means to be an athlete, a role model, and a part of BC. He told them that the BC community cared about them and shared all it would do for them. He told them to go on service trips and to volunteer at local schools. And he also told them what he expected of them-to perform in the classroom and to represent the school well. It was one of the last meaningful talks in which he would be able to speak before the disease relegated him to messages on his computer.

“He did such a good job of making us feel so comfortable and so loved,” Rahon said. “You could honestly tell how genuine of a person he is, and not only did he care about you as a basketball player, but as a person and growing up and maturing and turning into a man.”

The PA announcer is trying to give his message, but he’s having trouble talking over the crowd. Kelley sits at center court prior to the tipoff of an early March game between BC and Virginia. Spring break has just started, but the crowd is roaring. Kelley is being presented with the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Most Courageous Award for his fight with ALS.

“I was overhwelmed,” Cameron said. “In my 15 years here I’ve never seen a crowd give someone such a heartfelt, extended standing ovation like that. It was unbelievable.”

Seven-foot center and captain Dennis Clifford led the team out to Kelley to surround him as he received the award from Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel.

“You’re fighting back tears,” Rahon said. “We all love him so much. You’re really happy for him, but at the same time it’s bittersweet because of the condition he’s in.”

Before the game could even start, the team was being tried emotionally.

“Me being one of the closer guys to DK, it was really emotional for me,” Anderson said. “He’s been my motivation since he’s been going through this whole thing. If he can fight that every day, what’s a workout? What’s practice? What’s studying for a test? All of that stuff isn’t important when you look at the grand scheme of someone fighting for their life.”

Kelley attended nearly every BC game during the season, and would still watch practices. Despite the disease steadily gnawing at him physically, he fought to stay involved.

“He came into the office and worked here just as long as he possibly could,” Cameron said. “Boston College means everything to Dick. When he hasn’t been here physically he’s been here in spirit.”

Kelley’s entire family was in attendance to see him receive the award. Unannounced, a group of guys he worked with at the Plex years ago all showed up. Two college classmates brought their kids out from Pennsylvania.

“To receive the honor from the USBWA was humbling, but my time in Conte Forum that day was unforgettable,” Kelley said. “Suffice it to say that receiving the award in front of so many special people and receiving an incredible ovation from the Conte Forum faithful-all while surrounded by the players, coaches and colleagues I love-was something that will forever be etched in my mind.”

Donahue had a message for his players before the game.

“Coach told us before the game, ‘You don’t necessarily have to go out and win it for DK, but you have to go out and give everything you have in this one game for him and in his honor,'” Rahon said.

With time running out, Rahon sank an and-one 3-pointer to take the lead from Virginia. He was knocked to the floor as the ball fell through the rim, and then sat up slightly, pumping his fist in appreciation while Anderson came over to help him up.

Kelley was only a few feet away on press row. What would end up being the game-winning shot happened right in front of him.

“It was just like it was meant to be,” Rahon said. “At the time you’re not really thinking about it, but right when it went in I was like, ‘Oh thank goodness. That one was for DK.’

“That’s DK’s magic. He’s such a good human being. I can’t think of a better script to write on his day.”

After the game, the entire team walked to the other side of the court to thank Kelley.

“I went over and said, ‘That one was for you DK,'” Rahon said. “‘We love you. Thank you for everything.'”

Kelley nodded at them from his chair, overwhelmed.

“What happened at game’s end was something I never could have anticipated or expected,” Kelley said. “It meant the world to me because I love those kids. They are a remarkable group of caring, respectful young men. I tip my cap to Steve Donahue. He recruits the players and he sets the tone for the program. We at BC are lucky to have him because we’re going to win, and win the right way.”

When the players were done thanking him, Kelley felt another pair of arms wrap around his body.

“As I slowly turned my chair around to leave with a big smile on my face, I received a bear hug from behind from a jubilant head coach-much happier for me than for himself,” Kelley said.

And that will be Kelley’s legacy on this program, motivating those around him to be better and do better, simply by being himself.

“Now, you see him and you make eye contact and he smiles and he gives you that look and you know he’s proud of what you’re doing, he’s proud of who you’re becoming,” Rahon said. “Even though he can’t express it with words, his facial expressions say it all. To find a guy that genuinely cares so much about you and loves you, it’s something that not many people in this world have the ability to do, to express that and make other people feel that caring about you. He’s really just an inspiration to all of us. No matter how bad you think your situation is, you can always help other people, and for that we’ll forever love DK and what he’s done for us.”

To donate to Dick Kelley’s care, click here.


May 2, 2013