A dream comes full circle for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

BOSTON — Paul Kelly can smile now about the days when Boston Patriots owner Billy Sullivan would drop 500 to 1,000 tickets in his lap on a Friday night with the hope that Kelly could find some willing souls who would make Fenway Park seem less awkwardly empty.

Kelly, hired by Sullivan to help get the aspiring American Football League franchise to be taken seriously in what was then loyal New York Giants country, didn’t even bother taking his young sons along — their ages (under 10) and the Pats’ uninspiring footing in a world dominated by the established NFL a double-fisted deterrent.

Five decades later the script has completely flipped, and not just where the now NFL-bullying Patriots are concerned.

The youngest of Paul Kelly’s sons, Brian, brings a football team into one of baseball’s most hallowed venues on Saturday night, six miles from Brian’s childhood home in Chelsea and 47 years after the then-vagabond Patriots left Fenway for good.

And tickets for even the Kelly family’s “real” relatives in the 37,673-seat facility are precious and hard-to-come by commodities.

“I know Brian knows this is history,” Paul said of the third of the 23 matchups between Catholic football rivals Notre Dame and Boston College to be staged somewhere other than the teams’ respective campuses.

But Paul also knows Brian’s CFP No. 4 and AP fifth-ranked Irish football team (9-1) is trying to breach history on its own terms, independent of crashing BC’s party for a Shamrock Series game in a venue the Eagles (3-7) long ago considered routine, having played more than 100 home games there between 1914 and 1956.

And sentimentality — returning home to coach for the fourth time in his career and third while leading ND — generally takes a back seat where the younger Kelly is concerned on what he still very much considers a business trip.

“This one’s different than the other ones, for most of us, for me,” Paul said. “The excitement and the stuff they have planned are entirely different from when we went back before.

“This is a home game for Notre Dame, and Notre Dame is really going to take over the city for a couple of days. We’re going to have a family reunion — just a really great weekend for us. As for Brian, he’s never been one to say this game’s bigger than that one.

“He’s pretty hard to read sometimes as far as his emotions — except when he gets upset on the sidelines.”

BC does have a history of doing that to Notre Dame head coaches in the throes of national title runs. The Eagles did so in South Bend in 1993, toppling a No. 1-ranked Irish team, 41-39, the week after Lou Holtz’s last title contender pushed a top-ranked Florida State team off the top of the mountain.

And in 2002, they defrocked an unbeaten Tyrone Willingham team on a Cinderella run, 14-7, nine games into his first of just three seasons as the Irish head coach.

They didn’t sideswipe Kelly’s 2012 Irish team, though, a 21-6 ND triumph that BC hosted four miles down the Commonwealth Avenue, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill.

This Eagles team brings the polar distinctions of fashioning the nation’s No. 1 total defense and the worst-in-FBS (No. 127) offense into the matchup.

“We'll be playing for the Frank Leahy Trophy. So a trophy game,” noted Brian Kelly of one of the most obscure details of the matchup.

Paul Kelly too looks at the game through a different and less-scripted prism, though he embraces every bit of the pomp the Shamrock Series label brings with it.

Saturday night is a reminder to Brian Kelly’s father just how far his son has come in a profession that Paul himself was not only slow to embrace, but never really saw coming.

Paul was a Boston Alderman, and Brian gave every indication that he’d follow him into politics as early as his time as a high school student at all-boys, all-Catholic St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass. The younger Kelly played football there, as a 5-foot-8, 155-pound offensive guard, and Paul saw a passion but not a trajectory.

"Now in college, he was pretty good but I thought he was an overachiever in high school," Paul said. "When your son is an offensive guard, it's hard to watch him, and not the ball, even if it is your son.

"But I remember one play where the running back had a real long run. And when he got into the end zone, he came running back down the field and found Brian and hugged him. So I imagine he threw a great block. But I must have been looking down and missed it. That's the most vivid memory I have of his high school days."

In the one game Paul was able to make it to during Brian’s senior year at Assumption College, there was a scrum early in the game and Brian ended up getting ejected when the sides finally separated.

After college, Brian straddled both worlds, politics and coaching, before plunging into coaching for good, much to the initial bewilderment of his father.

“When he graduated from college, I expected him to have a job where he had a future,” Paul said. “And he ends up at Grand Valley State, a Division II school in Allendale, Mich. I didn’t even know where Allendale, Mich., was.

“I can remember driving out there for the first time, and for miles and miles and seeing nothing but farmland. I had never been to Michigan. And all I could think about was, ‘My God, he came all the way out here to start a career?’

“He was a GA (graduate assistant), believe it or not, and probably making just enough money to go shopping once a week. We were still sending care packages when he was coaching at Grand Valley State, so it was a bit of a struggle.”

That doesn’t mean the Boston memories for Paul and Brian don’t come flooding back this weekend, like when Paul took Brian and his brother (Paul Jr.) to Game 1 of the 1975 World Series, a 6-0 victory for the Red Sox in Fenway in a series they eventually dropped, 4-3.

Or the long drives Paul made every morning from Andover to Danvers, to drop his sons off at St. John’s Prep, and then to his job in Chelsea, and then back again at the end of the day.

“I looked at it as an investment,” he said. “My boys became young men there. It was worth every minute in the car. It was the right decision.”

But heavy in the memory mix is the right decision Brian himself made, to close the door on something he had a great aptitude for and a paved road to success — politics — to see how far he could coax a dream.

Saturday night it comes full circle.

“I realized once he left Assumption to go to Grand Valley,” Paul said, “once he made that change moving from where he was born and brought up — in Massachusetts, New England — to go out to the Midwest — where he had no family, no friends to speak of — he was serious.

“He wasn’t going out there to get away from anybody. He was going out there to learn the craft and the trade of how to coach football. It was at that point I became convinced that’s what he wanted to do, and I was going to support him 100 percent.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

The father of Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly, Paul Kelly Jr., is reminded this weekend with the family's return to Boston of the career fork in the road Brian took decades ago. (SBT File Photo)