Lineman Kelly still deals daily with tragedy

No matter if he makes the Giants as a long-shot and goes on to do great things on the football field, no matter if he gets cut and moves to another team, no matter if he leaves the game and embarks on a new career path, Lewis Kelly will carry a sadness inside him.

It's with him when he practices in the heat and humidity, when he rams into a defensive lineman in a 600-pound scrum, when he hits the pillow at the end of a long day.

"It's gonna be there, be there for the rest of my life,'' Kelly said. "I just got to deal with it.''

As an offensive lineman trying to battle his way onto a Giants roster surprisingly full of capable players at that position, Kelly knows he's in for a football battle. It is nothing like the struggle he'd had to endure in his personal life. Later this month marks the three-year anniversary of the death of Rakiva Kelly, the wife of Lewis Kelly, who was four months pregnant with the couple's first child when she passed away from a blood disorder known as thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura. Rakiva Kelly was 24.

"She was the one,'' Kelly said during the first week of training camp, taking a pause to reflect prior to lunch. "She was my friend. She was my buddy. She was everything else. She was the one who was always in my corner, no matter what.''

They met while playing cards at South Carolina State and hit it off immediately. "It was like we had known each other forever,'' Kelly said.

Rakiva was diagnosed with the disease in January of 2001. The disorder can be exacerbated by pregnancy. Still, when Lewis was playing in Frankfurt for NFL Europe, Rakiva became pregnant. Lewis headed to camp with the Vikings in the summer of 2002 believing his life was in order. Thanks to a holdout by left tackle Bryant McKinnie, Kelly was moved into the starting lineup. His career was on the rise, his happy family was set to expand.

On August 25, 2002, Rakiva passed out twice, lost all her energy. She was taken to Methodist Hospital in Minneapolis but her condition would not stabilize. "I guess the pregnancy was too much for her, for her heart,'' Kelly said.

The couple was told Rakiva had lost the baby. Four hours later, Rakiva died.

"I didn't know what to make of it,'' said Kelly, who describes himself as a religious man. "Kind of shook my faith a little bit. It hit me, it was a devastating blow and I just didn't know what to do.''

He left the Vikings for two weeks and upon his return started five games, a career high. Yet he was not right.

"I mean, I cared about what I wanted to do and I didn't want to let nobody else down, but it was like a piece of me was gone, a big chunk of me was gone,'' Kelly said. "It was just a mental struggle, that was the big thing. I should have taken the year off in '02 when it happened but I tried to go on, everybody was telling me to go on.''

For a time, bitterness dominated his emotions. "Everybody on the team was having children and their careers were taking off, I was wondering why it was happening to me,'' he said. "I had to let it go, to move on with my life. I see guys with kids and I'm happy for 'em. Hopefully one day it will be me. I just have to wait.''

After playing in only five games in 2003, Kelly was cut by the Vikings last summer. He took off the 2004 season to gather himself and served Methodist Hospital and its affiliate, Park Nicollet Clinic, with a wrongful death lawsuit that is still pending. "I don't think I'm at liberty to talk about that,'' he said.

Kelly never mentioned the void in his life to his new teammates. After he was signed by the Giants, defensive line coach Mike Waufle informed a few of the linemen about Kelly's history.

"If they do know, they haven't said anything,'' Kelly said. "Nobody has said anything or made mention of it.''

In some cases, avoiding the subject was by design.

"I know a little bit about what happened to him,'' center Shaun O'Hara said. "It's one of those things I've known about it but there's no easy way to talk about that. You don't want to bring it up because you don't want to pry into someone's personal business, you don't want them to think people are feeling sorry for them. If he's not thinking about it you don't want to make him think about it. If he would ever say anything I would be there in a heartbeat for him. When you think about having a bad day and you think about some of the bad things he's had, there's no comparison.''

Kelly picked a tough year to make the Giants roster, as there are more quality offensive lineman on the scene than usual. He's backing up at both guard spots and at left tackle and didn't help himself by failing the conditioning test on the very first day.

"I sometimes sit and wonder what would have happened if they were still alive, where would I be, how would I be?'' Kelly said. "I feel my competitive spirit coming back a little bit. It's coming back to me slowly by the grace of God. I thank him for it.''

Kelly knows that he was married for exactly 414 days, time so precious and so very short. Far too short.

Has he changed? "I learned to look for people who as I say are 'on my team' and try not to deal with a bunch of people who are just there just because of who I am and what I have,'' Kelly said. "I value relationships a lot more now than I did before. I try my best to take it one day at a time.''

It is not easy. No day is easy.

"But by the grace of God he got me through it,'' he said. "He gave me the strength to get up every day, to continue to fight, not give up.''

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