GREENVILLE, Miss. (BP)–-Football legend Archie Manning and his NFL quarterback sons Peyton and Eli always have been special to Mark Kelly.
“I guess my relationship with the Manning family began the same way any other person’s in the Mississippi Delta did -– I was born,” said Kelly, youth minister at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss.
In the fall of 2006, a phone call from Archie Manning proved to be among the happiest moments for Mark’s wife Kris amid a deadly battle with cancer. The disease claimed Kris’ life on Oct. 23 of last year. Yet another gracious gesture from Manning came to Kelly and his daughters Kayden and Cassidy a few weeks later.
“All those things brought a ray of light in a very dark situation and made my wife happy,” Kelly recalled. “That will never be forgotten. Cancer can’t steal that from my girls.”
While the Mannings were in Kelly’s sports DNA, Kris wasn’t so fond of the famous football family until they started dating each other.
“I can remember being offended that she had never even heard of the Manning family when I first met and fell in love with her,” Kelly said of Archie, an Ole Miss star from 1968-70, former quarterback of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and father of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and New York Giants quarterback Eli (who also followed in his father’s footsteps at Ole Miss).
“It didn’t take her long to find out she had better familiarize herself real quick,” Kelly said.
“She still wasn’t all that impressed until she started watching [Peyton] play at the University of Tennessee,” Kelly continued. “She immediately became a fan of Peyton, not just because of his quarterback ability but how he handled himself on and off the field.”
When the Indianapolis Colts drafted Peyton Manning, the Kellys instantly became fans of the team, who will face the New England Patriots on Sunday in the AFC Championship game. Kris’ admiration of the quarterback family grew stronger after reading “Mannings.” Written by Archie Manning, the book gave Kris an insight into a family she knew little about at the time.
For their 10th wedding anniversary in November 2000, Mark surprised Kris with a trip to see the Colts play the Patriots.
“That was an awesome time for both of us and in the top three unbelievable experiences we had in 16 years of marriage,” Kelly said. “Little did I know at the time that six years later I would be back without her.”
While Kelly has experienced such tragedies in his life as watching his brother and best friend die from gunshot wounds, he said the worst day of his life was on July 6, 2002, when doctors diagnosed Kris with cancer.
For the next four and a half years, Kris underwent a series of tests and chemotherapy.
“When she was first diagnosed, we were all scared,” Kelly said. “But there were those times when my wife was happy.” One such time was October 2006, when Kris received a personal phone call from Archie Manning. For the few minutes they talked, Kelly said it seemed like cancer had left her body.
“Those 10 minutes on the phone with Archie were special, but not the best for her,” Kelly said of his wife, a schoolteacher in Greenville. “Her best 10 minutes were when she was taking a kid with a bad home life and making him feel special. Even though she wasn’t feeling that very well with cancer, she tried her best to make an impact in others’ lives.”
Mark and Kris had planned to travel to Indianapolis in the fall to watch the Colts play. But by then, Kris’ condition had deteriorated so much that Mark canceled their trip.
When he broke the news to her, she was quite upset, Kelly recalled. “By the time I calmed her down, reality set in and she understood why we couldn’t go to the game. That is when she started the slide, I believe.”
On Oct. 16, 2006, Kris left the Mississippi Baptist Medical Center in Jackson so she could spend her remaining days with her family and friends in Greenville. A week later, she passed away.
“Watching her die is something I never want to relive,” Kelly said. “But when she left this world, the only thing I could say is it’s OK.
“I kept saying it over and over,” he added. “She was OK, but my life wasn’t. She was done with it and didn’t have to wait for more CAT scans or PET scan results. That’s OK and all right with me.”
Two weeks after Kris died, Kelly received an extraordinary surprise. Thanks to a series of phone calls from friends in Mississippi, Kelly and his two daughters received tickets to a Colts game on the 10-yard line courtesy of Archie Manning and the Colts organization, along with three complimentary nights at the Radisson Hotel and a courtesy limousine to fulfill a promise Kelly made to his wife -– taking his girls to watch the Colts play.
Reminiscing on the experience, Kelly emphasized that while the Mannings have been a special part of the family’s life, there is much more to life than just football.
“Our lives wrapped around our family and loving and helping each other,” Kelly said. “It makes Kris’ journey through cancer mean something when her story touches somebody’s life and that makes it OK. I can breathe another breath because someone else’s life has been touched by what we have been through.”
This article first appeared on BPSports, on the Web at www.bpsports.net.