A tale of love, loss and Peyton Manning

Originally Published: December 18, 2006
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Ever wonder why games played by millionaires matter so much to so many? Before you watch the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night, there's a story you should hear, about hope, and loss, and love.

It's about a couple from Mississippi named Mark and Kris Kelly.

Kris Kelly
Photo by Mark KellyCassidy, 11, and Kayden, 7, make their RCA Dome message clear for their mother.
He's a youth minister. She was a schoolteacher. Both of them dedicated their lives to helping kids, and both of them loved all things Manning. Archie. Peyton. Eli. Didn't matter. Their dogs are named Archie and Manny, for goodness' sake.

"My relationship with the Mannings started the same way any other person's in the Mississippi Delta did," Mark cracks. "I was born."

Kris' favorite was Peyton. For their 10th wedding anniversary in 2000, Mark surprised her with a trip to Indianapolis to see the Colts play. It was a wonderful memory, one of many they'd made together. Their careers were rewarding, their children healthy, their lives rich.

That changed on July, 6, 2002.

Sadly, it's a common conversation. A pain leads to a scan leads to a doctor walking into a hospital room, turning off the television and saying, "You have cancer."

Peyton Manning
AP Photo/Tom GannamHow long was Kris Kelly a Peyton Manning fan? Only forever.
Their world stopped turning. But you've got to know Kris and Mark. Fighters, man, both of them. Tougher than nickel steak. So they fought. But it wasn't easy, especially at first.

"Then the package came," Mark says.

A friend who works in Indianapolis got a Tennessee No. 16 jersey signed. It still hangs on the wall. "To Kris," Peyton wrote. "Get well soon. Peyton Manning."

"It was like the chemo just went away," Mark says. "She latched on to that jersey so tight I thought she was going to rip it."

Autographs don't beat cancer, of course. Hope does, and the Kellys had enough of that to go around. Less than a year later, the doctors did another scan. She'd won. For now, at least, their lives could resume; she was back in the classroom, he was back with his kids. Their two daughters certainly loved having everything back to normal.

That's how it stayed, until July 2004. The cancer was back. Tough ol' Kris Kelly beat it again. It came back. She beat it again. Finally, on Dec. 18 last year, the doctor called a final time. The cancer had returned. This time it was really bad.

Over the next 10 months, Mark sent e-mails to his friends and family. They are terrible to read, especially if you know the ending. One step forward, two steps back. There was even a brief moment when it looked like they might beat this again.

Kris hurt so bad, and big, burly Mark could do nothing about it. Trips to the emergency room were awful; their daughters would stare at them like mama wasn't ever coming home again. Those are memories that keep a man up at night.

Photo by Mark KellyKris and her daughters, Cassidy and Kayden, lived for the Colts and Peyton Manning.
Bright spots were few.

One of them, of course, was the Colts. They'd seen Peyton Manning play before cancer had changed their lives. By God, they were gonna do it again. Their first try was when Indy played a preseason game this year against the Saints in Jackson, Miss.

Kris was in so much pain that morning. She couldn't walk. They got a wheelchair. Crowds outside were awful, the idiots running the game practically strip-searched people coming into the stadium and by the time they made it inside, it was a zoo. Mark tried to push the wheelchair up the ramp, but it was just too much.

"Fifteen more feet and we could have seen the field," he says. "I finally had to turn around and mow my way back down the ramp and get out of that hellhole. The most pitiful sight I have ever seen is my wife in her wheelchair and my 7-year-old with her Peyton Manning jersey on outside of that stadium on the side of the road crying."

They didn't give up. A friend got hotel rooms, and a flight, and tickets, and Mark and Kris and the girls were gonna see a Colts game together in Indianapolis. The game was in early November. It was circled on their calendars.

The trip wasn't going to happen. Kris got sicker and sicker. On Oct. 2, they were back in the hospital. Doctors tried everything. Nothing seemed to be working. Their spirits were low, man, as low as they've been.

Archie Manning
AP Photo/Michael ConroyArchie Manning's 10-minute phone call was a highlight of Kris's life.
Then Mark's cell phone rang.

"Mark, this is Archie Manning."

Someone had given Archie the number, told him their story.

"I hear your wife is a big fan."

Mark handed the phone to Kris and said, "Somebody wants to talk to you."

She took the phone, listened for a moment and then burst into tears. You just feel so alone when you're being slowly killed by cancer, and this tiny gesture meant the world to a family. They talked for 10 minutes. It might have been the best 10 minutes she'd had in years. Do you believe in angels? The Kellys do.

Eight days later, the doctors told them nothing else could be done. Mark canceled the tickets. She wouldn't see the Colts play. She wouldn't teach a class again. She wouldn't see her daughters walk down the aisle. He began his next e-mail: "This is the one that I have dreaded having to send."

Everyone knew but her. One night, she turned to Mark and said she was getting to Indianapolis no matter what.

Photo by Mark KellyKris's dog could really only have one name: Archie.
He exhaled.

"Baby, we can't go see him play," he said, gently.

He told her the tickets had been canceled. The air left the room. Hope left with it.

"She really had no idea," he said. "After I got her calmed down, reality set in and she understood. I really think that is when she started the slide."

You know how this ends. On Oct. 23, Kris Kelly died after a four-year battle with cancer. Mark was by her side. A few hours later, he tapped out an e-mail to family and friends. "The two men that loved her more than any other two men -- me and her father -- were holding her hands as she took her last breath," Mark wrote that night.

Except that wasn't the end. Not exactly. Someone got in touch with Archie Manning, who'd say sheepishly a few months later, "You always wish you could do more." Manning got Mark and the girls tickets to a game, right down next to the field. They were free. The hotel comped their rooms. They had a limo to the stadium. The Kellys were going to see the Colts play after all.

And you know something strange? There might be a lot of tough days ahead, but on this day, if only for one day, their family felt whole again. Don't let anyone tell you that Kris Kelly wasn't with them. She was right there, watching Mark watch the girls hold up a sign for everyone to see. It read: "Look mom! We made it!"

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Kris Kelly was his seventh grade math teacher. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com,.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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