Irish Extra: Football 101

June 30, 2015

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A line of 600 women wearing brilliant pink Fighting Irish t-shirts and a kaleidoscope of blue, gold and green Irish football jerseys stretched from the stately brick and wrought-iron gate of the University of Notre Dame’s LaBar Practice Field, winding along Leahy Drive down toward Alumni Stadium.

Football 101, one of the crown jewels of charitable events in the South Bend area, was about to kickoff.

The event is part of the Kelly Cares Foundation, which was founded by Fighting Irish football coach Brian Kelly and his wife, Paqui, and has been a major player in benefiting breast cancer prevention, awareness and early detection.

“What is most important is that we’ve raised a half a million dollars over the last five years that have gone right back into breast cancer research,” Brian Kelly said on a perfect Tuesday night as the cheerful crowd started to gather on the practice field to sample appetizers from top local restaurants.

Kelly was particularly touched by the way the local community has opened its hearts to the event, which is in its sixth year.

“To raise a half a million dollars, and to do it with with sponsors like Meijer’s, First Source, Four Winds Casino, St. Joseph Health Systems, those that are local, and Under Armour, that’s the exciting part. You have local sponsors, 600 women from our original 300, and a half a million dollars going back into the community … we’re able to continue to momentum. That’s pretty exciting stuff.”

Paqui Kelly warmly greeted Football 101 participants and posed for photo after photo with groups of Fighting Irish fans who are stepping up in the fight against breast cancer.

“This community opens its heart to a lot of events,” Paqui Kelly said. “I don’t know how to explain the Michiana area, because it’s like no other. It’s not just the involvement. It’s the outside stuff. The people at St. Joe Regional have helped us every year with stuffing bags, registration … and being part of the Secret Sisters.

“There is a collaboration of non-profits in this town that is truly humbling and amazing, that people who want to do good can do good because there are so many helping hands.”

Paqui Kelly said that while many of the participants are local, some have made 14-hour drives from Louisiana to participate in an event that gives women an up-close look at Fighting Irish football. Participants meet coaches and players, tour facilities, and get an in-depth tutorial and demonstrations of college football.

“I told my husband I was going to get tackled, and he’d better plan on meeting me at the hospital,” laughed first-year participant Toni Votava of South Bend. “I didn’t know what to expect. But this is fantastic. I love it.”

Votava and her husband have one daughter who earned her bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame and another daughter who earned her law degree from Notre Dame. Now retired, the Votavas came to watch Notre Dame football games through Mr. Votava’s job at G.E., when they were entertaining clients.

“I like to watch football, and I like to ring my bell when Notre Dame scores a touchdown,” Mrs. Votava said. “But I don’t know all the details. This will really help me understand the game.”

Beth Rex, Notre Dame’s director of football administration, is a driving force in putting together the event.

“This is quite a mix of ladies,” Rex said as she watched Irish football coaches mingle with participants. “Definitely the majority of participants are local, but we do draw people from all over the country. Two years ago, we had a lady who came in from Texas. She drove up for the event, and turned around and drove home the next day.”

The Kelly Foundation event has become a trendsetter nationally.

“This year, we have someone from the (Denver) Broncos, who is part of their Game Day Experience, here to see what we’re doing,” Rex said.

Rex has seen first-hand the impact Football 101 has made in the fight to raise funds for breast cancer research and prevention, and she’s seen the impact it has made in helping women develop knowledge of football.

“I grew up with two sisters, so there are three girls in the family,” Rex said. “My Mom (Doris Raitz) started coming to (Football 101) when Brian started them in Cincinnati. She’s been here every year since, from Cincinnati to here at Notre Dame.

“She’ll call me now on a Sunday and say, ‘Why didn’t you guys do this?’ or ‘Why didn’t you do that?’ and I’m like, ‘Who are you?’

“I’ve asked her, ‘Where are you getting this?’ and she said she’s learned from her years at Football 101. Ladies are definitely picking information up. I think the fan base is great anyhow. Women know a lot about football and they’re really becoming great fans.”

Joyce Howlin of South Bend is a Fighting Irish fan who has attended all six of the Football 101 events.

“My cousin (Leslie Drake) comes from California every year,” said Howlin, who carried an Under Armour Notre Dame football adorned with autographs of Irish coaches. It’s a great opportunity to have fun.”

Howlin said that Football 101 has enhanced the Fighting Irish football experience for her.

“I cheer for the Irish … nobody else,” Howlin said emphatically. “I have the Leprechaun (tattooed) on my back.

“I’m an Irish convert. My husband and two daughters graduated from Notre Dame. How can you not walk on this campus and be awed?”

After the social hour, Notre Dame football players went through teaching drills with the women against the iconic backdrop of Notre Dame Stadium and Touchdown Jesus. In the lore of traditions on the college football landscape, the Kelly Foundation’s Football 101 clearly stands tall as one that matters.

By Curt Rallo/special correspondent