Little Kelly Jo, the darling of the end zone

After the events of September 11, Notre Dame felt it was important to hold an event in the Stadium, with representatives of all the agencies and departments who work on game day, to test our ability to respond to a potential major attack.  Being in charge of crowd management, I had to provide a large group of my regular Usher Crew.  I was also asked to bring in many extra volunteers to serve as “fans” in the seats.

None of us were told what the scenario was going to be, but we were told that we were going to approximate a nearly full student section.  We scheduled approximately 15-20 percent of the various critical Game Day persons in Notre Dame Stadium (e.g. Law Enforcement; Medical Staff; Fire and Paramedic Services; Ambulances; Concessions; Maintenance & Ground Crew; and Ushers, etc.).

I asked for usher volunteers to work this.  In order to get persons to act as the “victims” in the Student Section, I asked my Ushers to bring relatives and friends.  I also announced I would use this as an Usher recruiting day.  In those days, we had far more Usher applicants than we needed, so this was a nice drawing card.

This was a very large undertaking for me and while I was running all over the place, making sure everything was going well, I suddenly had a thought.  Yikes.  I had neglected to place a person at the location (Gate D in those days) through which everyone would be admitted into the otherwise closed stadium.  Ugh.  I ran to Gate D and found this attractive young lady, soon to be known as Little Kelly Jo, sitting at a desk checking in everyone.  She looked to be around 18.  I presumed she worked for one of the organizers or perhaps the Athletic Department.

When I asked her who she was working for, she said “I came here as a volunteer to accompany my dad, who is one of your new ushers.”  She added, “It looked like a sign-in sheet was needed, so I decided to create one.”  I told her “WOW! You are going to be a GREAT addition to the program.”

She declined and said “I wanted to accompany my dad on the drive down from Grand Rapids and I need to concentrate on school work.  Thanks for the offer.” I said “NO!  You MUST join the program and I already have a spot picked out for you.”

She was too nice to say no again…but I could see that I hadn’t closed the deal.  I said “You are going to work in the North End Zone and be my personal assistant.”  Fortunately, the day went well.  And, fortunately, my combination of high pressure and smooth salesmanship worked and she came aboard.

Little Kelly Jo became my “Messenger.” The position of Messenger/Errand Runner was created in the Stadium Usher Program because there is a lot of paperwork, such as attendance sheets, to be sent to the main office, and because there were never enough radios to get information passed around the Stadium.

Cappy and Kelly Jo pose in the end zone at Notre Dame Stadium.

Messengers report directly to one of the top 25 Supervising Ushers.  Usually the Messengers were between 16 and 21 and were often the children and grandchildren of Ushers.  Often, they aspired to become full Ushers when they hit age 21.

She was instantly a major success, efficiently carrying out the many tasks I assigned her.  She had “the knack.”  If there was ever a teeny time I might have been angry about something, all I had to do was look at Sweet Little Kelly Jo’s winning smile and all was well with my world.

She was the sweetheart of the end zone.  I often used her as an escort to accompany various VIPs around the stadium or perform important tasks.  While she was very low on the actual organizational chart, it was soon well understood that she was to be considered as representing El Jefe. 

My favorite anecdote about her football expertise occurred near the end of the 2006 Notre Dame-UCLA game.  Late in the game, with the Irish losing 17-13, we marched down the field.  On fourth and one, from the UCLA 35, Brady Quinn was stuffed on a keeper and UCLA had the ball with 2:20 remaining.  There was a large group of Field Pass folks in my end zone.  We were all in a funk.  Kelly said to each and every one of us, “Don’t worry, Notre Dame is going to win,” and “Brady will lead a comeback.”  Charlie Weis had saved all of his timeouts and our defense stiffened. 

UCLA punted and we got the ball on our own 20, with 55 seconds and no timeouts remaining.  Kelly kept assuring everyone, in her sweet little voice, “Don’t worry.”  Brady completed a 21-yard pass to Jeff Samardzija.  He then hit on a 14-yard pass to David Grimes, who toe-tapped it to make the catch as he flew out of bounds.  There were now only 27 seconds on the clock but still 45 yards to go.

Brady hit Jeff again, this time well inside the sideline.  Jeff stumbled a little, then regained his footing and sped into the end zone showing the ball to two of my ushers waiting right behind the back end line.  They remember it well, to this day, because I moved them to that spot because we had such a large crowd taking up space in my end zone where they were normally assigned. 

Little Kelly Jo was likely one of the few ND fans in the stadium who was confident that Brady could lead us on that winning drive.

By the way, at that time, this game was only the third time in ND Football History where the Irish achieved a comeback win in the final 30 seconds with a touchdown pass.  The other two wins were so famous that they each had memorable nicknames.  The “Chicken Soup Game” was named after the fluids Joe Montana was fed at halftime because he was so ill.  His three TD passes in the final eight minutes capped a 35-34 win over Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.

The “Snow Bowl” win over Penn State, in 1992 featured Rick Mirer finding Jerome Bettis with a TD pass and Reggie Brooks for a two-point conversion and a 17-16 triumph.  A blizzard made the field unrecognizable. 

Over the years I closely followed Little Kelly Jo’s life.  She began as a 19-year old freshman at Western Michigan, so I started calling her “Little Kelly Jo Bronco.”  She was an outstanding student, graduating with a degree in Elementary Education.  She became a first grade teacher.  She earned an award for her teaching.  Not long after she became an “Instructional Coach,” after receiving her master’s degree.  She remained as my messenger into her late 20s, well beyond the age at which the others were kept.  If I were still working, she would be the oldest “Messenger” in program history.  LOL.

I was happy for her when she met Joel DeLorge, a fine young man, and got married.  But I knew that there would be children coming and that I was going to lose the sweetheart of the end zone (all 15 of the big burly guys I had work that assignment treated her as I did, as if she were our daughter).

Kelly told me at one time that her mother died, at age 34, of an aggressive and deadly form of breast cancer.  As the oldest of three girls, Kelly had to take on a lot of family responsibilities at a very young age.  She did the cooking, cleaning, and homework-helping, all the while having to attend to her own school work and growing up.

In her own words, “As I grew older and became a mother myself, I often wondered if I was going to have the same fate as my mother. I did not like thinking about my son growing up without me, or my husband growing old without me.  In December of 2017, while my students were at recess, I received a phone call from the doctor’s office.  The nurse said you must wake up with a dark cloud over your head wondering if today is the day you’re going to get breast cancer.  That scared me.  I immediately met with my doctor.  My breast MRI had come back with a slight change in my lymph nodes.  I met with various medical professionals.  They all said the same thing — It’s not if; it’s when you will get breast cancer.  They also said it would go quickly and they would try to keep me as comfortable as possible.  I looked at my three-year old son and cried thinking I most likely wasn’t going to be around to see him turn four.

 “I thought of my mother and how horrible she must have felt knowing she was leaving us. That’s not a feeling I would wish upon anyone.  I also remember watching what she went through.  I decided to have a prophylactic double mastectomy, a major surgery.  I debated if I should have the procedure.  I prayed about it.  I decided to do it.  I wanted to grow old with Joel and our precious son.  I had the dream team of doctors in Grand Rapids.  My surgery and recovery went well.  My sisters decided to have the same procedure.  The three of us had the surgery around the same time.  It was comforting going through the same experiences together.  Our time is precious.  I love building memories that we can cherish a lifetime. We do not know when we will be called home to the Lord.  I try to make the most of every moment with my family.” 

Anyone want to guess what Kelly Jo named her son? 

I told Kelly I would like her permission to write this story for this website.  This was her reply:  “Yes, you may write an article about our wonderful time together.  You may also write about my health.  Hopefully it will inspire at least one person to be proactive with their health or maybe even give someone the comfort and courage they might need in that moment in time.  Having a double mastectomy is scary.  But I am so thankful I was brave and had the procedure done.  If not, I most likely would not be here now.  This past September, we celebrated Brady’s ninth birthday!”   

Kelly and Joel often take Brady to the campus.  She has pointed out to him the spot in the end zone where, on October 13, 2007, I arranged for him to come down on the field and propose to her.

Go Irish, Little Kelly Jo Bronco, and Brady!