Family suits up for the Irish

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 26, 2014

By Jim Buice

The Clemmons Courier

When Kelley Ryan talked about his experience as a participant in Notre Dame’s 2008 football fantasy camp, the Clemmons resident compared it to a line from “Field of Dreams.”

He was addressing fellow campers in a return visit in early June with his two sons, Christian and Brett, and brought up a familiar scene from the famous movie.

“In the first banquet we have, we do a quick introduction with a little bit about yourself and what brings you there,” Kelley said. “So when I got to talk, I said I was here in 2008, and I made a reference from ‘Field of Dreams’ asking, ‘Is this Heaven,’ and I said,

‘No, it’s South Bend.’ And I said, ‘I could have sworn it was Heaven.’ But now I’m here with my two sons, and now I know it’s Heaven.”

Kelley has been a lifelong Notre Dame fan, and his two sons followed in his footsteps. So the Ryan guys, along with their wives, made the trip to South Bend June 3-7 for the annual camp. 

The campers (ages 25 to 70) were trained by the Notre Dame coaches, staff and former players and then played a real game with full uniforms, coaches, trainers and announcers in the stadium.

“The thrill of putting on that blue and gold jersey and then sliding that helmet on is incredible,” Kelley said. “And I was there with my two guys.”

Kelley’s infatuation with Notre Dame started when he was a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., when he started watching the weekly Notre Dame game football highlights narrated by Lindsey Nelson.

“I developed a love for Notre Dame football, and then it just became Notre Dame,” Kelley said. “People have asked, and I have joked with them, ‘If they’re shooting marbles, I’m rooting for them.

“It started in high school, then raising family, college and everything else. Notre Dame is a love of mine, and my guys have developed it. You’re up there with 43 other guys that feel the same way. It’s kind of a support group.”

Kelley turned 60 in February and thought it might be time to make a return to South Bend with his sons — Christian, 30, and Brett, 27 along with all three of their wives — for another camp. 

“It’s been six years since I’ve been up there, and this just fell together,” he said. “I thought I would make this kind of a 60th birthday present for me and the guys. It’s not quite a mid-life crisis, but it fit in nicely, and it’s a good excuse to use. It got me there.”

Kelley recalled his first trip to Notre Dame in 2008. 

“It was tremendously emotional, and other guys were feeling very similar,” he said. “Everything was phenomenal when I walked into that varsity locker room and saw that blue floor with the gold ND in the carpeting there and realize all the people that have been in that locker room. It’s overwhelming. I get emotional thinking about it now.”

The same was certainly the case this time around, especially with his sons in tow.

Kelley, who has bachelors’ and masters’ degrees in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is a grief counselor for Hospice & Palliative CareCenter. He and his wife Susan have been married for 37 years and live in Clemmons West. 

Christian is married, lives in High Point and attends UNC-Greensboro where he is studying social work. Brett lives in Winston-Salem and is a part owner and general manager of Meineke Car Care Center in 




The fantasy camp, which runs three and a half days, started on a Tuesday afternoon with equipment fitting.

“It’s the full coaching staff and full training staff that they have for the real players with you,” Kelley said.

Then on Wednesday morning, all the campers get up and have breakfast at 7 a.m. and are taken over to fields to dress out for the morning practice. Team offensive and defensive meetings follow (all the players get to choose the positions they want to play), and then it’s time to hit the field to practice for an hour and a half.

“You go through the warm-ups and drills just like the players with the coaching staff,” Kelley said. “Then you come off the field and take your stuff off and put it all together 

and throw it on a bin. When you come back from lunch, it’s hanging in your

locker all washed and dried and put away, just like the team gets.”

The same practice routine follows in the afternoon, and after the first two practices, the coaches have seen enough to pick their teams, which are announced at dinner after an address from Brian Kelly, the head coach of the Fighting Irish.

On Thursday, the campers follow the same routine with the respective Blue and Gold teams. Kelley played the offensive and defensive lines and some at tight end and defensive end, as needed. Christian and Brett played defensive back and wide receiver.

“There is something going on from 7 in the morning to 10 at night,” Kelley said.

Then it’s time for game day on Friday.

“The golden rule when you get up here is to make it to the game,” Kelley said. “You don’t want to hurt yourself before the game. They have training regimens that they put you on to get in shape. I worked out for six months before going up there. The game is flag, but let’s just say you come back battered and bruised.”

One of the big differences this year compared to 2008 is that this time the players wore pads and helmets. The other is that the game itself was played at Soldier Field, the longtime home field of the Chicago Bears, instead of the legendary Notre Dame Stadium because field turf is being installed there this summer.

“The entire Notre Dame Stadium is torn up as far as the field goes, so we were not able to use it,” said Kelley, who added that players still got to go down the tunnel entering the stadium for photos. “That presented a bit of a challenge to accommodate us because playing in Notre Dame Stadium is a big piece of this.

“So they made arrangements, and we were bused to Soldier Field in Chicago and got the royal treatment up there. We played the game and had the awards banquet in one of the levels in the press box that was set up for catering. Then we bused back to Notre Dame.”

The Ryan guys all played together and were on the winning team.

“Christian is the only one who scored,” Kelley said. “After we scored a touchdown, he

got to kick an extra point in Soldier Field.”

Kelley said that the boys played some Pop Warner football but never anything beyond middle school.

“I never played anything but sandlot and then some flag football in my 20s when we were still in Richmond,” Kelley said. “I never played full contact other than getting the heck beat out of me in somebody’s back yard.”

Certainly, it was a trip, and a game, they’ll never forget.

“Susan was saying to the wives of the boys that it’s the shortest hour of your life when you’re on the field because the game goes by so fast but the one you’ll talk about probably the longest,” Kelley said.

Kelley has enjoyed the game-day experience at Notre Dame in the past and looks forward to a reunion for the campers this fall when the Irish play host to Northwestern. The family also enjoyed Notre Dame’s visit to Winston-Salem in 2011 for a game against Wake Forest.

But the Ryans watch most of the Notre Dame games on television and have a ritual for game day.

“The guys show up a little before kickoff, and the oldest son (Christian) spreads out a Notre Dame banquet on the back of the couch, sets his football down, has his wrist bands that I brought him from 2008 camp, and he sets those out and puts his jersey on just before kickoff,” Kelley said. “I put on my jersey. You get a white and blue jersey to bring home with you. Wherever Notre Dame is playing that day, that’s the jersey I put on. We do that for every game.”

Kelley has enjoyed meeting some former players and those who are on the current roster in his camps and has some favorites, including Joe Montana, Ricky Watters and Reggie Brooks.

“Coach Lou Holtz sticks out and that 1988 national championship team and some of the guys I got to meet,” Kelley said. “And Ara Parseghian is a legend and was coaching when I first started watching. I think Brian Kelly is doing a great job with the team now.”

Another real season is just around the corner, but for Kelley and his sons, the 2014 Notre Dame fantasy football camp will be etched in the memory bank forever.

“This is a dream come true for Kelley and his sons to share this,” Susan said.