The Gift of Giving Back: Notre Dame football team gets into holiday spirit

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

MISHAWAKA — The first thing young Dakota put in his shopping cart Sunday was himself.

Well, 6-foot-8, 315-pound Notre Dame left offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey actually did the honors.

Shortly, thereafter — with a $100 gift card to spend presumably on himself — Dakota was joined in the cart by a pillow that he was buying for his dad, then candy for his nephew and toys for his pets.

“It’s really touching,” said ND head football coach Brian Kelly, who, along with wife Paqui, presided over the sixth annual Kelly Cares Foundation’s Shop With a Player charity event, Sunday at the Meijer store on Grape Road.

“We’ve had many times in the six years here that kids are using their entire $100 on a brother, a sister, a mom or a dad. You see them buying diapers for their sister or their brother. It’s really nice to see even the young kids not just thinking about themselves.”

Roughly 200 kids, in the elementary school/middle school age group, from the South Bend and Mishawaka communities and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi took part in the event, getting bused to the Notre Dame campus and only being told they were being part of a special project.

That’s twice the number of shoppers from past years.

“I said, ‘Does anybody want to shop?’ And half of them didn’t put up their hands,” Brian Kelly said. “So my lead-in was terrible this year. So then I went, ‘Does anybody want to shop with a $100 gift card?’ Then everybody put their hand up.”

The Pokagon Band, Meijer, Royal Excursion, local and state law enforcement, Papa Vino’s Italian Kitchen, Chili’s Grill all were major players in the eventful afternoon that included lunch with the players at Papa Vino’s and Chili’s.

“The offensive linemen were the first at the table and the last to leave,” noted Brian Kelly.

Once at Meijer, the toy aisles were gummed up by shopping carts and gawkers trying to get glimpses of their favorite Irish players. Running back Josh Adams, who had battled a chronic ankle injury for most of the season, took a cart to the ankle but escaped relatively unscathed.

Linebacker Jonathan Jones had a clever strategy, parking the cart away from the madness and bringing items back to it as needed. Linebacker Te’von Coney appeared to get separated from one of his shoppers temporarily.

“It never gets old,” said McGlinchey, who has been a part of the event for five of its six years, “but it never gets easier in terms of strategy. We tried to plan on the way over what we thought we’d want to buy, but you get here and you end up wandering around until something catches your eye.”

Many of the players had two shoppers each this year. McGlinchey was one of them, as Dakota’s sister, Beverly, tagged along and bought presents as well.

Panic set in for some of the players when they were coaxed by their kids to tread down the Barbie aisle.

“There’s a lot of learning going on,” Brian Kelly said.

The 14th-ranked Irish (9-3) finished final exams on Friday and resumed practicing on Saturday for their Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl date in Orlando, Fla., with 16th-ranked LSU (9-3). The team was scheduled for light practices Sunday and Monday before getting into more grinding sessions Tuesday through Friday.

The players will be free to go home for Christmas after Friday’s practice. They’ll reconvene in Orlando on Dec. 26, with the first practice resuming in Orlando the next day.

“This is a respite for our players,” Kelly said of the charity event. “It’s about being other-centered. They’re very fortunate being on the Notre Dame football team. They’re blessed, and this is their opportunity to give back, an opportunity to share some of things that they’re fortunate to have. They’re still kids too.”

The Kelly Cares Foundation is in its ninth year. Inspired by Paqui Kelly, a two-time breast cancer survivor, the foundation’s identity centers on breast cancer awareness and prevention, but stretches itself in many other directions, such as Sunday’s event.

“This is the fun stuff,” Paqui Kelly said. “This is about community and these kids having the ability to do something and empowering them. It’s special. And I think the players enjoy this as much as the kids do.”

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Notre Dame running back Josh Adams (33) and linebacker Asmar Bilal (22) shop with local kids during the Shop With a Player event, Sunday at Meijer on Grape Road in Mishawaka. (Tribune Photo/CHAD WEAVER)