Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Kelly Cares Foundation Presents: Football 101 at the University of Notre Dame

Major questions confront two things I love: football and the University of Notre Dame. Passionate voices, questions, and commentary frequently bring the sport and the university into the to subject o verbal spars and daunting debates. Though ND is much larger than just the game on the gridiron, it's unrealistic to think of this Catholic university and its development without football. So, taking a pulse on the game is necessary for all stakeholders. As an alumna and a loyal fan, I feel as though I have a little land to defend. I had no idea when I signed up to participate in Kelly Cares: Football 101, that I would leave with so many treasured memories, new friends and a few answers to the big questions.
The Kelly Cares Foundation, an organization that aims to strengthen Communities and inspires hope by investing resources to improve Health & Education has been hosting Football 101 for ten years.  As listed on their website, women who participate in this fundraiser will
Join Coach Brian Kelly and Paqui Kelly along with the Notre Dame Football Program for a behind-the-scenes look at Notre Dame Football! Learn football basics from the entire Notre Dame Football team and coaching staff, enjoy cocktails and hors-d'oeuvres, and tour the locker room, classrooms, and facilities in Notre Dame Stadium, LaBar practice facility, and the Guglielmino Athletic Complex. All proceeds will benefit the Kelly Cares Foundation.* 
All proceeds raised from Football 101 support breast cancer initiatives, cancer research, and patient advocacy. 
I was already in the Midwest and so I drove from the Whistling Straits golf resort in Koehler, Wisconsin to my home away from home, Notre Dame. This event wasn't new to me, as I have joined friends at Cal Berkeley for their iteration of Football 101 (known as the "Cal Women's Football Huddle" under former Coach Jeff Tedford and "Pigskins and Pearls"—a name that doesn't exactly resonate with women in the Bay Area—under former Coach Sonny Dykes. I knew, however, this experience would be different for me because of my connection to the players on the field and who they represent, the coach at the helm, the shared traditions, mission, and values of the program. I wanted to get a better sense the individuals, the team and the program are 20+ years after graduating. How are we different? How are we better? What can we be proud of? What might others need to understand?
With Dolly Duffy, Executive Director of the Alumni Assoc and Paqui Kelly
As I have written about before, "A Season with Notre Dame Football" enhanced my enjoyment of watching Notre Dame football. This HBO Sports program followed Team 127 through the 2016 football season. Over the course of 12 episodes, I got an insider's look into all that is involved in making the program run. I loved "meeting" the players. No longer was DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire just a quarterback, one was a talented actor and the other was pretty good in the batting cage. I could see up close and personal that Linebacker Joe Schmidt was named a captain for his emotional leadership both on and off the field. Jaylon Smith remains the strongest and possibly most underappreciated linebacker I have ever seen. Will Fuller might have been soft-spoken off the field, but that rocket speed on it?! It's still burning in my memory.

Kicker Justin Yoon. Guaranteed you will hear fans
yelling "YOON!!!"
Football 101 affords women the chance to see the players in their domain, where they are working their full-time job. I loved seeing these young men, between the ages of 18 and 22 in leadership positions—running us through drills, helping us to throw the pigskin to the target, earning their kudos and getting their afirrmation—"nice spiral!" or "good throw--almost!!" I enjoyed getting a sense of their personalities. For example,  Justin Yoon, remained focused, emphasizing proper form for kicking, so we too could get the football through the uprights. And, as much as I enjoyed talking to quarterback and fellow Californian, Ian Book about his two-sport experience in high school (he also played lacrosse), from his confidence and posture, it was hard not to guess who QB1 is for Fall 2018: Brandon Wimbush.

After an hour on the field, each group—named after past Notre Dame coaches or traditions—migrated to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex where we sat in the Isban Auditorium, much like the players do for team meetings and watching film. Here, former quarterback and now Director of Player Development Ron Powlus gave us a wonderful presentation on the 4 for 40 program. 
Playing football for the University of Notre Dame is the opportunity of a lifetime. There’s no doubt about that, and even the most jaded and pessimistic fan has to admit that Notre Dame Fighting Irish football players walk away after their 3-5 years in South Bend with a first-rate education and a degree that will give them countless opportunities to have fantastic careers. 
It’s actually something you’ll notice when you hear Notre Dame fans talk about why recruits should choose to attend the school: unlike all those football factories out there, Notre Dame provides a unique combination of great academics and world class athletics for an amazingly well-rounded experience that sets them up for life. “4 for 40” is the trite mantra tossed around; that is, 4 years at ND sets you up for the next 40 years of your life.
Though Pat Rick believes this "pitch" doesn't make Notre Dame as special as we think, I disgree. As I listened to the depth and breadth of this program, as I heard players give their own testimonies to the experiences they have had as a result of the "4 for 40" philosophy, mission and resources, I couldn't help but walk away impressed, proud, grateful and more. I know that playing a D1 sport, especially one like football is incredibly demanding today. It comes with stressors that extend far beyond what I ever knew. But I also learned what these young men gain. Whether its service to the local South Bend community or financial management, sexual assault awareness or mental health education, football players at Notre Dame are being formed for much more than four years...possibly even forty. Today, they have the ability to study abroad for a given window of time; others get internships. Those experiences say to me that having Notre Dame football player on your resume is much more than x's and o's. The gridiron is a comprehensive classroom.

We visited the locker room, the equipment room. the weight room (WOW!!!). We heard from the Strength and Conditioning coordinator and his team, got healthy snacks from Kari Oliver—Sports Nutrition Advocate, and met in small groups for a Q & A session with a panel of student-athletes. I earned a Kelly Cares green hat (I love their logo) for correctly answering that the Irish operate a 4-2-5 Defense. My eyes were feasting on the signage that proclaims team rules and philosophy. I marveled at photographs of past greats forever captured in their athletic glory. In particular, I enjoyed seeing what NFL teams have drafted Irish alum. And, it should come as no surprise, but every meeting room had a cross hanging on the wall. After all, we are ND.

As anyone of the nearly 250 women who attended Football 101 what was the highlight, and I think we will give the same answer: the fashion show. Yes....a fashion show! Emceed by both Paqui and Brian Kelly, our group sat in the Loftus Center as 12 women, escorted by 12 different football players modeled clothing from the Warren Golf Course, Hammes Bookstore and a local fashion store. As they walked down our runway, we heard the stories of these women—who are survivors of cancer. We heard about their struggle and we heard about their triumph. Several were still undergoing treatment. Too many had lost family members to cancer. This conclusion was especially meaningful because Paqui was able to share her own story and how blessed she is to have emerged from the battle, twice. I was touched by the fact that her husband, the head coach, got out of the way for much of this event. BK made sure Football 101 was a chance for Paqui's efforts to shine. The football coaches and teams were simply there to lend their hands and hearts and bring us together.

Why play football? Should college athletes be paid? Can Notre Dame still compete in Football? I walked away with so many new insights and perspectives into these questions and so much more. Thank you Paqui and Brian Kelly for sharing Notre Dame in this special way.  Your "Playbook of Hope" continues to yield victories. Blessed be....

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