Ryan Kelly returns to Colts with a heavy heart following daughter's death

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INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan Kelly sat on a hospital bed, watching tears roll down his wife’s face as she held their daughter.

By that point, Emma and Ryan had been at Community North for almost two full days. A rush to the hospital, followed by the heartbreaking news that Mary Kate had died at 19 weeks, a point in the pregnancy when there is just a 1% chance of losing the baby, as Emma wrote on her Instagram page later.

Then she had to deliver the baby.

Emma spent 24 hours in labor, Ryan at her side, holding her hand, until Mary Kate came into the world.

“It wasn’t in God’s plan for our sweet girl,” Kelly said. “We had to say goodbye, the hardest thing that either of has ever, and hopefully will ever, have to go through. But this is about my wife, and the rock star that she is.”

As Kelly sat there on the hospital bed, he saw love pouring out of Emma.

“A love that I’ve never seen before,” Kelly said. “The strength that she possesses, I know, transferred to our daughter, who watches over us now. I’ve never been more proud to be her husband.”

Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly (78) and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz (2) meet on the field during warmups Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, before the regular season opener against the Seattle Seahawks at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly (78) and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz (2) meet on the field during warmups Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, before the regular season opener against the Seattle Seahawks at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

***

The Kellys had been home for only a day when the Colts kicked off a monumental game against the Patriots.

The counters in their house were covered with flowers and other gifts from people reaching out in their moment of grief.

“(Stuff) we never wanted,” Kelly said, not because of the gifts or the gestures themselves, but because of the reason they were there on the counter. The gifts they wanted were supposed to arrive in another 21 weeks. “Obviously, it just goes to show how many people care about us.”

Kelly’s brother, Mike, and his wife were there that night, part of the circle of family and friends that closed around the Kellys.

“At that time, it was the darkest day ever,” Kelly said. “We never thought there’d ever be light again.”

Kelly watched his team pound the Patriots, watched his offensive line overpower New England, watched Jonathan Taylor rip through a hole and run away with a game the Colts absolutely had to have.

His phone began to buzz.

The news, the details were not supposed to be public yet — that’s the Kelly’s news to reveal — but the Colts and Patriots knew. New England center David Andrews opened his news conference by saying his heart was with his counterpart on the Indianapolis offense. Patriots coach Bill Belichick did the same.

Indianapolis coach Frank Reich sent Kelly a clip from the locker room.

Because of the importance of the game, the Colts’ history with the Patriots, the team gave the game ball to team owner Jim Irsay, who immediately turned it around and gave the ball to Ryan and Emma.

“I just feel for them so much tonight, with what they went through. I know how much you guys love them. Just remember, when you’re with the Horseshoe, you’re really at a place that authentically cares about you, your wife, your kids,” Irsay said in a speech captured by HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” “I’m so honored to get this ball. … Let’s please give it to Ryan and Emma, because that’s who really deserve it tonight.”

Kelly says he and Emma have watched that clip at least 100 times.

***

The Colts told Kelly to take all the time he needed before returning to the field.

And he knew immediately that he wouldn’t play against Arizona.

The Kellys had buried their daughter on Tuesday. The next day, Wednesday, was the first day they’d be in their home by themselves, without any family or friends. If he’d tried to play, Kelly would have had to practice on Thursday, then leave on Friday, on Christmas Eve.

“I just imagined my wife being by herself on Christmas, and that was just the hardest thing ever to me,” Kelly said. “I knew there was no way I could be ready. … That’s the hardest, being in your house, where you’ve made so many memories.”

Mentally, Kelly knew he wouldn’t be able to focus on beating the Cardinals, and the Colts, led by Reich, Irsay and general manager Chris Ballard, supported their center at every step.

“What we’ve said to Ryan is take all the time you need, we’re 100% behind you and Emma,” Reich said last week. “When you’re ready to take that step then we’re right here. I’m not going to push that. … There is no perfect formula for how to handle those situations.”

Irsay, Ballard and Reich have always been in lockstep on a player’s personal life; there are some things that are bigger than football, even when it feels like the race for the playoffs is all-encompassing.

“We’re in our own world, we come in every day, we have our routine, and then normal life hits you,” Taylor said. “It makes you reevaluate everything.”

The Colts kept preparing for Arizona, putting in the game plan, then adjusting it as COVID-19 hit the roster, kept taking out players all the way up until kickoff.

But the Kellys were never out of their thoughts.

In another “Hard Knocks” clip, aired in this week’s episode, starting quarterback Carson Wentz is warming up with backup Sam Ehlinger, agonizing over how much he should reach out to Kelly, how much space to give him. Wentz and Kelly began building a relationship last summer — Kelly said in interviews that they spent time at each other’s houses this offseason after Wentz moved to the area — and the quarterback was searching for the right way to send a message.

“I just want him to feel loved,” Wentz said.

***

Kelly returned to the Colts this week.

“Certainly, (Wednesday) was probably the hardest day,” Kelly said. “Walking back into the office and just seeing people. They don’t know what to tell you. Unless you’ve been in that situation, you don’t know what to say.”

T.Y. Hilton greeted Kelly with a hug, a promise that he’d be there for him with whatever he needed. For most of the Colts, that’s the message: Whatever Kelly needs, they are ready to do it.

The football field is part of what Kelly needs right now.

“Selfishly, coming back to work keeps my mind on football, and it helps me to heal,” Kelly said. “It feels right to be back. I know that being here is where I need to be right now. It doesn’t make it easier. Take it minute by minute, and that’s kind of how it goes.”

A part of Kelly is back on the field with the Colts.

A part of him is still at home with his wife, “the rock star that she is.”

“I feel bad, because my wife is at home, she’s taking care of the dogs, grieving by herself,” Kelly said. “But I know that she’ll get through it. … I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

Because of his fame, because of his place in the NFL as a three-time Pro Bowler, Ryan and Emma have been forced to go through unimaginable grief in the public eye, a double-edged sword in a tragic time.

But Kelly met with the media who cover the Colts on Thursday, taking the opportunity to thank everybody who had been there for them since they lost Mary Kate. Their family and friends. The Irsays, Reich, Ballard, Indianapolis director of player engagement David Thornton. His teammates. The doctors and nurses at Community North.

“And lastly to the thousands of people we’ve never met who have shared their stories of loss, you have helped us in ways you would never know,” Kelly said. “Hearing your stories, and knowing we’re not alone, have brought us light in all this darkness.”

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indianapolis Colts' Ryan Kelly returns after death of infant daughter