Scrolling through Instagram on a typical Friday afternoon in October, Bridget Reynolds saw something she couldn’t swipe past.
There knelt Brian Kelly, a briefcase and neck pillow tucked under his left arm, holding up two fingers with his right hand posing with some of Notre Dame’s defensive players before the team boarded its flight to San Diego for the Navy game.
Rocking sunglasses and headphones dangling from his neck, Kelly did his best to fit in with cornerback Julian Love, defensive Micah Dew-Treadway and Nick Coleman crouching next to him and eight more teammates standing around them.
Kelly’s presence couldn’t be missed at the center of the photo snapped by Katie Meyers, the social media senior program manager for Notre Dame football.
Reynolds, a lifelong Notre Dame fan and graphic designer in Nashville, Tenn, wanted to make sure no one missed it. She sent it to a friend and then posted it on her Twitter account @bridgetgoirish. But she zoomed in on Kelly, cropped out most of the other players and captioned it with “I CANT BREATHE.”
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, we are going to have a field day with it,' as soon as I saw it,” Reynolds said. “I just knew."
Reynolds was right. Quickly the image of Kelly became a meme of sorts with Twitter users making jokes with it and adding Kelly to other photos.
Jessica Smetana, a producer, showrunner and podcast co-host at Sports Illustrated, joined in on the fun.
“I was in a meeting and I immediately just stopped what I was doing and passed out on the floor,” Smetana said. “It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen."
She posted the original photo and a cropped version focused on Kelly with the caption “YALLL I AM DEAD” to her Twitter account (@jessica_smetana). With more than 15,000 followers, her tweet helped spread the image.
“Now that I work for Sports Illustrated, it's hard for me to figure out if people care about Notre Dame football or just like making fun of Notre Dame football when they like my tweets,” said Smetana, a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame. “A lot of it's making fun of me or Notre Dame football. I didn't know how many people were laughing with me or laughing at Brian Kelly or both.”
Shane DeLeon wanted in on the joke too. He was a little late to the initial wave of memes, but he contributed by coining the hashtag #BKHomeboy and creating photoshopped versions with Kelly kneeling in various photos. He (@SupermanTDJesus) took requests from fellow Twitter users for ideas and offered a cutout version of Kelly that others could use for their own creations.
"It just seemed like I might as well share the opportunity,” DeLeon said. “I put the picture in and removed the background and did a very rough cut up removing things. Then I just basically said, 'Everyone go crazy because I'm about to.'"
DeLeon, a contributor and podcast co-host for a Notre Dame fan blog called “Her Loyal Sons,” was prolific in his photoshopping. He slid images of Brian Kelly onto photos of Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson face down on the turf in Notre Dame Stadium, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer eating pizza after a Big Ten Championship loss, Michael Jordan dunking from the free-throw line, Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston and many more.
DeLeon even hid a tiny version of Kelly kneeling in a “Where’s Waldo?” illustration. The craze extended well into the weekend after Notre Dame beat Navy 44-22. One fan even dressed up as #BKHomeboy for Halloween.
But why did this photo of Kelly resonate with so many people? Plenty of Kelly photos have been shared on social media during his Notre Dame tenure, but few have drawn as many laughs as this one. Previous images of Kelly that spread so quickly were typically of him being angry, not something like this.
"Brian Kelly, for the first seven years of his time with Notre Dame, was super buttoned up and very serious,” Smetana said. “He seemed like he was always kind of angry or in a huff about something. The last two seasons specifically, he has just been so much nicer and kind of laid-back. This was the extreme version of that new laid-back, players' coach, kind of personality."
"It's funny because I spend a lot of time on the Internet reading about Notre Dame and you always will see on message boards that he's lost the locker room or whatever," Reynolds said. "Just to see that was kind of funny. Also, it's just because he's so stoic at game time and even in the player walks out at Notre Dame. He's just all business. To see him like that, he looked like everybody's dad or uncle and it was weird."
DeLeon described the relationship between college football coaches and their fanbases as stepparents and stepchildren.
“They come into a family that's already established and now they're the new head of the family,” DeLeon said. “The first few years are always awkward. Everything is highly scrutinized — all their goods and all their bads.
“The reason why this caught on, in light of that, is over time you watch your stepparent and you learn their ins and outs. After a while you've seen them at their best and at their worst. Eventually it becomes just fun to see them be silly. That's the phenomenon that we're experiencing now.
“You see Brian Kelly cutting loose and being willing to put himself in these weird positions with these funny poses. Maybe he's aware of it, maybe he's not. Now that it's year nine, we know pretty much all we're going to know about him. It's just fun to see him do something lighthearted like this."
Notre Dame’s football program embraced the pose. Wide receiver Chris Finke, linebacker Jimmy Thompson and Coleman mimicked Kelly for a photo on the sideline at the Navy game. Later Meyers added Kelly to the photo for Finke to tweet the next day.
The following Monday, Chris Charizopoulos, director of creative design for the football program, took the original photo of Kelly kneeling with the defensive players and turned it into the cover of a fake CD mixtape.
Finke admitted this week that if he scored a touchdown in the Navy game, he was going to strike the Kelly pose in the end zone. He got a kick out of it too.
"It's because he's so business-like and very proper in the public eye,” Finke said. “People probably don't see the side of him where he's having fun with his players like that and interacting with us and joking around with us a little bit in between the serious times. People were probably just a little surprised to see that."
Finke said he wasn’t surprised, even if that was the first time he’d seen Kelly strike that pose.
The meme likely won’t go away anytime soon. A new way to incorporate the photos surfaces every few days — especially on game days. Everyone seems to be in on the joke.
“If Brian Kelly reads this,” Smetana said. “I want him to know that I'm laughing with him and not at him this time.”
*A full collection of #BKHomeboy tweets was gathered here by @IrishElvis, but be warned that some explicit language is used in at least one of the tweets. I've embedded several below.
how many points did Notre Dame win by pic.twitter.com/Z534qu1CW7— Jessica Smetana (@jessica_smetana) October 28, 2018