John D. Kelly IV, MD, is a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. He focuses his blog on helping surgeons reduce stress while achieving balance in their practices and families.

BLOG: Kevin Reilly and the power of belief

Attendees at the recent Arthroscopy Association of North America Annual Meeting in Orlando were treated to presidential guest speaker Kevin Reilly’s testament on the power of belief in overcoming adversity. He shared that a focused and positive expectancy can overcome any obstacle; even the loss of an arm to cancer.

Kevin Reilly was a football superstar, earning All East honors at Villanova University as a linebacker before being drafted by the then World Champion Miami Dolphins. His NFL career brought him to Philadelphia, where he served as captain of the special teams before being traded to Boston where he was a starter. At 6 feet 2 inches, 235 pounds, he bench-pressed 400 pounds and sported a 4.75 sec. 40-yard dash. Indeed, he felt invincible.

In 1975, Reilly developed a peculiar ache in his left shoulder. Years of testing and biopsies ultimately revealed a desmoplastic fibroma, which was enveloping the neurovascular bundle of his left upper extremity. Failed attempts at surgical resection eventuated in a forequarter amputation, including loss of his left arm and four ribs.

Despondent and feeling alone in his hospital bed, Reilly was told by the hospital support staff  that he would never again lead a productive life. Exercise, sports and gainful employment were going to be out of the question, at least according to his hospital counselors.

Phone call

Demoralized, dejected and grieving the loss of his limb and “life,” Reilly received a phone call from Robert Patrick “Rocky” Bleier, an NFL legend and former Vietnam veteran. Bleier, in a moment of brilliant perception, sensed Kevin’s mindset and gave his testimony on how he lost a good portion of his foot due to a grenade blast in Vietnam.

He too was told that his life would never be the same. Yet, through belief and hard work, Bleier ascended to Pittsburgh Steeler stardom status and attained four NFL Super Bowl rings. Bleier urged Reilly to never quit and to will the life he desired.

Product of belief

Armed with the knowledge that he alone could create his future, as well as a strong faith in himself and his God, Reilly transcended his disability in every way. He became a leading salesman for a large company, completed a marathon, broke 90 in golf and readily demonstrates to onlookers how to successfully tie a tie one handed.

He enjoys a brilliant broadcasting career, gives frequent motivational speeches and has authored a successful book, Tackling Life: How Faith, Family, Friends, and Fortitude Kept an NFL Linebacker in the Game.

He believed he could create the life he desired.

Reilly’s story is a powerful vignette on resiliency which ushers forth powerful lessons for orthopedic surgeons, especially those afflicted with burnout:

  • Surround yourself with positive people. If some of your inner circle of friends focus on negativity, time to find some “Rocky Bleier” analogues.
  • Control your mind. Negative thoughts can prompt most of us into despair. When we recognize negative, dysfunctional thoughts we can create “space” from them and return to our anchor — the present moment.
  • Believe in your vocation and your abilities. Expect every patient encounter and surgery to go well, and chances are they will. The first creation before any surgery is what we hold in our minds before we gown and glove. When we expect and believe in good outcomes, they are more likely to follow.


Reilly shared that the following poem brought him great solace during his recovery:

A Winner’s Creed

If you think you are beaten, you are

If you think you dare not, you don’t:

If you would like to win but think you can’t,

It’s almost a cinch you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost;

For out in the world we find

Success begins with a person’s will,

It’s all in the state of mind.

Life’s battles don’t always go

To the stronger or faster hand;

But sooner or later the person who wins

Is the one who thinks “I Can”

  • author unknown



Disclosure: Kelly reports no relevant financial disclosures.