Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly throws first pitch for a cause

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly stood on the squishy brown turf that lines the edges of Four Winds Field a few minutes before 7 p.m. on Thursday night, calmly rubbing a baseball as a giant bird mascot named “Swoop” flapped its wings to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” down the third base line. With his wife Paqui by his side, Kelly — sporting a white button-up shirt, blue jeans and sunglasses — smiled for photos and shook hands with fans before making his way to the mound.

This routine was, well, routine.

Thursday marked the tail end of the Notre Dame head football coach’s First Pitch Parade, the third stop in a summer that also included honorary heaves at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. This time, Kelly and Co. stopped by the South Bend Cubs game, simultaneously raising awareness for the Kelly Cares Foundation.

But their pitch wasn’t technically “first.” That honor went to Croc, the green, gangly crocodile mascot, who lofted a rainbow pitch into the comically oversized glove held by Stu, a lovable bear donning a tiny blue hat and flashy red cleats.

This was a tough act to follow.

“We’re proud to have the Kellys of the Kelly Cares Foundation,” the announcer bellowed, prompting Paqui to unleash a pitch that bounced a few inches in front of the plate. Brian’s offering thumped into the mitt of Cubs infielder David Bote, who requested to catch for the sole purpose of making his sister-in-law — a South Bend native and Notre Dame football fan — jealous.

In that case, mission accomplished.

#NotreDame coach Brian Kelly, wife Paqui bring heat for first pitch of SB Cubs game.

A video posted by Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) on Jul 23, 2015 at 4:03pm PDT

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Then, there were more photos. More handshakes. More autographs. Kelly attempted to sign a mini nerf football held by a baby in a gold Notre Dame t-shirt, but the baby bit down on the football like a chew toy, refusing to let it go. As he descended the ramp to the locker room, the sixth-year Irish coach signed another baseball and miniature gold helmet from fans leaning over the railing.

This was a spectacle, the same kind of spectacle that greets the Kelly’s every time they appear in public.

But it was a spectacle with a purpose.

“Our mission is really to help others under the pillars of education, community and health,” Paqui Kelly said of the Kelly Cares Foundation during a radio interview with South Bend Cubs play-by-play announcer Darin Pritchett in the top of the fourth inning. “Although that seems very broad, it gives us the opportunity to help a lot of people in a lot of different venues.”

The idea for the foundation, in part, was inspired by the significant adversity encountered in Paqui’s life.

“I was unfortunate to have cancer twice, but my fortunate end of it…was that I had great medical support and family support and I was able to get through it twice,” said Paqui, who twice beat breast cancer, wearing a pink shirt and hat. “Part of our foundation was founded with the idea of giving back and helping those other people that were not in the same situation.”

The football coach’s end of the interview was more lighthearted, as Kelly joked about former player Tyler Eifert’s equally powerful and wild golf swing and recapped a recent reunion with Irish greats Joe Theismann, Tim Brown and Jerome Bettis. When Pritchett remarked that 6-foot-1, 240-pound Great Lakes first baseman Justin Chigbogu looked like he’d make a good fullback, Kelly quipped, “What is a fullback, by the way?”

On a sunny, picturesque Thursday night in South Bend, the football questions were few and far between, shelved in favor of a worthy cause and a baseball game.

Business could wait ‘til August.

Until then, batter up.

#NotreDame coach Brian Kelly giving an interview in the radio booth at Four Winds Field.

A photo posted by Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) on Jul 23, 2015 at 7:16pm PDT

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Notre Dame Head Football Coach Brian Kelly poses with the South Bend Cubs coaches Thursday, July 23, 2015, as the Kellys and others throw out ceremonial first pitches at the South Bend Cubs-Great Lakes Loons baseball game at Four Winds Field. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ
Notre Dame Head Football Coach Brian Kelly throws a pitch Thursday, July 23, 2015, as the Kellys and others throw out ceremonial first pitches at the South Bend Cubs-Great Lakes Loons baseball game at Four Winds Field. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ