Shopping for smiles as Kelly Cares Foundation and Notre Dame football give back

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

MISHAWAKA — All I want for Christmas is … pickles and string cheese?

Those were among the items in the shopping cart being pushed around by Notre Dame backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec Sunday at the Grape Road Meijer store as he helped a young boy from the Michiana area navigate a $100 shopping spree.

Presumably to be spent on toys.

“He’s from the Pittsburgh area,” ND head football coach Brian Kelly offered of Jurkovec. “I’m surprised he doesn’t have pierogis in there.”

Eventually Jurkovec and his partner, 5-year-old Mitchell Wheeler, found the toy aisles during the eighth annual Shop With a Player event, headed by the Kelly Cares Foundation and the Pokagon Band. Elementary and middle school students from South Bend, Mishawaka, Granger and the Pokagon Band were again each paired with an ND football player and given a $100 Meijer gift card with which to shop.

“You’ll get an 8- or 9-year-old girl shopping for her mom or dad,” said Kelly, who co-founded the Kelly Cares Foundation with wife Paqui. “And I just think that other-centeredness affects our players.

“They see how fortunate they are for what they have. And I think when they leave here, they feel better about themselves, because they get a chance to spend time with these kids.”

Kelly and the Irish players found out their bowl destination and opponent later in the day, the Camping World Bowl Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla. The Irish (10-2) will face Iowa State (7-5) in the first-ever meeting in football between the two schools.

Kelly said Notre Dame won’t stage its first bowl practice until Saturday, and the early sessions will lean more toward developing young players, who may or may not play in the bowl game, than actual prep with the veterans for Iowa State.

“They’ve played enough football. The guys who have 700-900 plays, they don’t need 2 ½ weeks of preparation,” Kelly said. “I just think that there’s so many good, young players that you can go out there with the opportunity of letting them practice … without the worry of, ‘If I make a mistake, I won’t get any more reps.’”

The Irish players — young and old — made plenty of math mistakes Sunday in trying to calculate how close they were to the $100 spending limit. Kelly singled out walk-on lineman Logan Plantz as a player who consistently is able to do the math well and come within pennies of the target.

A couple of new wrinkles at this year’s event were the presence of a couple of elves — big ones — 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end Cole Kmet and 6-1, 289-pound backup center Colin Grunhard, and someone in a Santa Claus suit.

That would be 6-4, 292-pound grad senior offensive guard Trevor Ruhland, who seemed to scare off as many kids as he delighted. Ruhland’s pants were a few inches too short and very baggy in the seat and legs.

“We got (Santa) a Peloton,” Kelly said with a laugh about the lack of a traditional Santa build. “We want him to be around. We want to do this for another 10 years.”

Paqui Kelly would love nothing more. It was her idea to start the event seven years ago. And each year it seems like there are more partners involved, including local law enforcement and area Boys & Girls Club of St. Joseph County.

“We were just trying to find ways to give back in a fun and giving way,” she said. “We’ve just been really blessed. It’s a great giving community and (it) allows us to great things.

“The idea of giving and the kids having the opportunity to give themselves at Christmas time — that’s what the whole spirit of Christmas season is.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola and wide receiver Joe Wilkins help Fernando Navarrete, 8, carry his gifts during the Shop With a Player event, Sunday afternoon at Meijer on Grape Road.
Santa (Notre Dame offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland) and a couple of his elves (tight end Cole Kmet and offensive lineman Colin Grunhard) walk the aisles during the Shop With a Player event, Sunday afternoon at Meijer on Grape Road.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book shops with Ariana Adcock, 5, during the Shop With a Player event, Sunday afternoon at Meijer on Grape Road.
Mitchell Wheeler, 5, shops with Notre Dame players Phil Jurkovec (15), Kevin Austin Jr. (4), and Kendall Abdur-Rahman (22) during the Shop with a Player event, Sunday afternoon at Meijer on Grape Road.