“Being able to give back; service; community, it’s all what Notre Dame represents."
– Irish head coach Brian Kelly at Thursday’s Football 101 fundraiser.
When Paqui Kelly was first diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2003, her children were 6, 3, and 2 years old, respectively.
Well-aware of the gravity of the situation, Paqui and her husband Brian – entering what would be his final season as head football coach at Grand Valley State – approached the diagnosis as they do most aspects of their life together: with a healthy dose of humor.
“I remember when the test came back the first time; they had done a lumpectomy and the test to see if it’s cancerous (and told us): ‘Don’t worry, 999,999 out of a million come back fine,” Paqui Kelly offered in reflection.
“So Brian kept calling and I hadn’t heard yet, and one day he called and said ‘Did you hear from the doctor?’ and I said: “Well, honey, you know I’m one in a million right? Just not the one you want me to be…”
It was the first of two cancer diagnoses for the Kelly family - the second occurrence in 2007.
“I took it lighthearted but that’s me personally and how I’ve dealt with it and how we’ve dealt with it,” Paqui said of her family’s recurring battle with breast cancer. “We’ve done things different. I had my kids shave my head both times to let them feel like it wasn’t the sickness that was doing it. The medicine was doing it.
“You try to figure how your family will deal with it best.”
When it came time to cope with the immediate future, her husband wisely followed his wife’s lead.
“I drew a lot of that inspiration off the first (occurrence) and the way my wife handled it with a young family, so it was easy for me because I saw how strong she was and I needed to be that way,” Brian Kelly said. “I think the first time was a little bit more difficult because it shook me.”
Paqui knows her case is unique, and that not all cancer survivors were as fortunate during their respective battles.
“For me I tried to keep things as normal as they could be. The only thing that changed for me was that I didn’t work. My kids handled it pretty well and we had a good core group of people (helping)…we had to turn away help, and that isn’t the truth for everybody,” she noted.
“That’s one of the reasons we feel the need to promote the Kelly Cares Foundation – we can help people a little that may not have be as fortunate as us.”
Football 101 – The Experience
The Kelly’s have hosted similar Football 101 events during the coach’s prior stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. South Bend’s first outing drew its (2010) planned capacity of 300 women (an occurrence that guarantees a minimum of $3,120 was raised Thursday evening).
Expect the event to grow in the future.
“I think the way it’s handled has been tweaked,” Paqui said of the 2010 edition. “Because it’s our first year here we don’t want to go too big.
“We think it’s a fun way to learn football. It’s a great social setting and it’s not as long as a golf outing that the guys might like,” she continued. “Mom’s don’t get that much time, so this works a lot more with the women’s schedules.”
Paqui was well-versed in competitive sports growing up though football was not a priority in her all-girl family.
“There are a lot of women that don’t understand it, and if no one’s really explained it to them, this is a really safe environment and fun environment.
“The staff does an unbelievable job. I’m never bored and I’ve been doing it for (six) years plus now and I seem to always learn one more thing…plus the rule changes keep me on my toes.”
Coach Kelly offered a preview of the night’s festivities.
“We really try to give them an inside perspective; we’re going to bring them in the locker room. I’m going to talk to them like I’d talk to the team coming out so they get that feeling,” he began. “All they see is us playing the game. We want them to see the preparation up to playing the game; the things that are necessary for you to be successful, so they’re going to get a behind the scenes look at all that preparation.”
On hand for the tutoring sessions was the bulk of the Irish coaching staff, including offensive line coach Ed Warinner; running backs coach Tim Hinton; defensive line/special teams coach Mike Elston; tight ends coach Mike Denbrock; defensive coordinator Bob Diaco; defensive backs coach Chuck Martin; outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks and the majority of the Irish quarterback unit, including Dayne Crist, freshmen Andrew Hendrix, Luke Massa, and Tommy Rees, and walk-on QB Matthew Mulvey. Also readily visible was punter Ben Turk, who assisted Elston (near my main media vantage point) with the complicated mechanics of punting the football.
Former Irish defensive lineman and ESPN personality Mike Golic led the participants out of the tunnel to kick-off the proceedings.
(Note: other team and staff members could have been in attendance, the event was spread over the 100-yard field).
“I think what we’re trying to do more than anything else is make it available to as many as we can,” Kelly stated of the event’s framework. “The ladies obviously have a great understanding of the event. We may look to have a football 101 for some media people…or go with 001,” he joked.
The Kelly’s personal experience served as an impetus for Thursday night's Football 101 event, but the couple’s altruism extends beyond breast cancer research.
“Our focus with the Kelly Cares Foundation has a three-pronged approach,” Paqui explained. “One is Education; another, Community – to reach out within the community and (third) Women’s Health: we’re not keeping it specific to breast cancer because there are other women’s issues as well.
“Obviously as a two-time survivor we wanted to make sure we could help people, even if they weren’t breast cancer survivors, but through another avenue.
“The funds generated to this event will go specifically to educating women on women’s health issues.”
Coach Kelly noted the significance of the Football 101 event on Notre Dame’s campus.
“You’re moved by different events in your life,” he offered. “And one of the things about my wife and I (is) we met on a college campus. I was the head coach at Grand Valley State and she was the head of financial aid – I thought she’d be a good person to know,” he quipped.
“It’s always been about campus and community, and then obviously her personal affliction with cancer and breast cancer and beating that. We said ‘these are two of the arms that we have to have in our Foundation' with the third being, whatever community we’re in, we want to be supportive (of it), because that’s where our family’s going to be raised.”
With 300 women signing up in what was essentially one week’s notice; Football 101 is guaranteed to make an encore appearance in South Bend next summer.
"For us, this couldn’t have been an easier fit…actually seeing the kind of event and support we received from our community; with everybody pitching in and we’ve only been here six months, it just tells you a little bit about how special South Bend is," Kelly noted.
“Cleary what we want to be able to do is provide something special. And being here at the Stadium, being here at Notre Dame, it doesn’t get any better,” he stated before adding:
“Now there’s a selfish reason too, because we want all of the ladies that are here to be able to be experts on Monday like everybody else…especially you guys. So we’ve added more experts to the mix; it should be great fun.”