A Graceful fight: Paqui Kelly’s two battles with breast cancer inspire Kelly Cares Foundation

Paqui Kelly, wife of LSU football coach Brian Kelly, with her daughter Grace after the LSU spring football game. PHOTO BY: Monie Walters

Brian Kelly is preparing the day’s most important meal.

The eggs are beaten, the sliced bread ready to soak, a hint of cinnamon in the air.

The memories evoke mixed emotions for Grace Kelly, middle child and only daughter of LSU’s new head
football coach.

“To me,” Grace said, “I was like, ‘Oh, yay, Dad’s doing dad stuff.’ ”

It wasn’t a daily occurrence throughout Grace’s childhood.

But, for a stretch, it was very necessary.

“His one thing for us for breakfast was his French Toast,” Grace said. “That was his signature breakfast meal for us. And they were good. “That’s when I knew it was a good day, was, ‘Dad’s making us French Toast.’ ”

A good day for Brian, Grace and her two brothers, however, likely meant a lousy one for Paqui Kelly.

“I’d come downstairs,” Grace said, “and he’d be in the kitchen for once making breakfast, and (he) just
said, ‘Mom’s asleep, make sure if she wakes up you go upstairs and you check on it.’ ”

It’s 2007.

Brian Kelly had left Central Michigan, his first FBS head coaching stop after winning two NCAA
Division II national championships at Grand Valley State, for Cincinnati the prior December.

Four years and nine months past her first battle with breast cancer, Paqui was diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease yet again, the form of it different but the nature of the beast no less aggressive.

Grace was 7 years old then, initially mostly oblivious to what was happening, simply thrilled the father who frequently spent more time around his football team than his family finally was cooking for the kids.

“I can honestly say that’s when I would see him home the most, was that second time around,” Grace said. “I couldn’t imagine how hard that must have been on him, timewise and stress-wise, because my mom had to put on hold raising three kids, and my dad had to take the reins for those mornings and afternoons that she couldn’t even pick us up from school.

“That’s one of the first times I was able to see my dad more ‘be there’ for my mom rather than the opposite way around. Because I couldn’t remember the first time (she’d been diagnosed with cancer.) Things were much different for him the first time around as well.”

The first time Brian was still a DII coach.

His profile wasn’t nearly as high as now, and the stakes – though still lofty – weren’t

“But the second time around he was at his second DI school, and really making an impact
at Cincinnati,” Grace said.

“So when he was home more, it was much more apparent for us – to see, you know, ‘Something’s wrong; Mom’s not doing well.’ … He had to put all three kids on his shoulder while Mom was recovering.”

Brian did all he could, both times, but Paqui also understood he had a football team to

“The first time Brian was like, ‘I want to go to these things,’ ” Paqui told Tiger Rag, referencing her many appointments and treatments. “I go, ‘Honey, you know, at this juncture’ – and I don’t mean to laugh at it, but it was kind of funny, because I said – ‘you’re the only thing that’s really normal for me right now, is your bad hours.’ ”

Coaching football, fighting cancer and raising three young children, however, wasn’t all the Kellys were shouldering at the time.

The couple initially had created the Brian Kelly Family Foundation, but shortly after filing paperwork Paqui got ill and plans never got off the ground.

She and breast cancer first crossed paths in December 2002, when a baseline mammogram revealed two small cysts.

Brian Kelly had just completed a 14-0 season and won the first of back-to-back national titles at Grand Valley State, a public university in Allendale, Michigan, which is situated 170 or so miles west of Detroit across the state on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Paqui, a teacher then, was busy prepping high school students for their chemistry exams.

She figured odds were practically infinitesimal a biopsy would prove cancerous. But six months later a preventative lumpectomy showed otherwise. Paqui had follow-up surgery, then endured three months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation treatments.

It’s why she’s such a big proponent for guarding against a disease that, according to the American Cancer Society, presents a 1-in39 fatality rate for women.

Paqui – whose mother is originally from Spain, and whose Spanish-origin nickname loosely translates to ‘happy’ – couldn’t have been pleased with those those odds as she failed to make it past the critical full five-year marker of remaining in full remission.

Yet Paqui, whose given first name is Francisca, tried to stay strong.

Whether she was or not.

“She always put on that face for us,” Grace said.

Cincinnati somehow went 10-3 in Brian Kelly’s first year as coach of the Bearcats, despite all he was dealing with at home during that 2007 season.

In the months that followed Paqui had another lumpectomy and – between then and the following August – underwent more chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and, eventually, reconstruction.

A young Grace didn’t know what to think, but in short time she began to understand more and more.

“I don’t think I got the full effect of what was going on until I started seeing her lose her hair going through chemo,” she said. “I remember one day specifically I was home alone with just her, and she was in bed, and I come in, and she’s the most energetic, happy-go-lucky person you’ll ever meet.”

A smile hiding her pain.

Then there was the time Paqui needed help getting to the bathroom. The pride in her didn’t want to ask her young daughter, but she had little choice.

“She never tried to show that weakness – or, that struggle – and, as a kid, she made it easier for me to understand in the sense that there are hard times and there are good times,” said Grace, who graduates from Notre Dame this month. “They come and go in waves, and, you know, some days are really good and some days are really bad.

“That’s all I grasped as a 7-year-old during the situation, was, ‘Oh, she’s not up on her feet.’ ‘She’s tired.’ Or ‘She really doesn’t feel good.’ Because that’s the kind of person she is. She’s got to be down and out to not be able to get out of bed. … The one thing my dad told me during those times was, ‘When she’s having those (days), just be there.’ ”

Grace was as willing, and able, as a 7-year-old could be.

“The first time around I definitely was too young (to understand any of it),” she said. “That second time around, I think it hit the whole family just a little harder. And as the middle child, I kind of was trying to figure out … in the sense of (being) the only girl too … how I could help my mom, as a woman, to get through these tough times.”

It’s late in 2009.

Brian Kelly would soon be leaving Cincinnati for Notre Dame. Paqui is well down the road to recovery. The revived foundation needs a new name, and ideas are bounced around.

“There was the ‘Paqui and Brian Kelly Foundation,’ ” Grace said. “Or the ‘Brian and Paqui Foundation.’ “Then we landed on Kelly Cares just before we got the job for Notre Dame, and figured out a logo as well, and it just stuck.”

Now Brian Kelly, a Boston area born-and-bred man with Catholic Irish-American family roots, is coaching another new school.

The Kelly Cares Foundation’s logo – a lucky Irish clover, shaped to contain an X and O with Brian’s chosen profession in mind – will stay the same but adopt a purple tint as a nod to LSU.

The not-for-profit’s name and tagline – “A playbook for hope” – remains the same.

So too will its mission of strengthening communities and inspiring that hope by investing resources to improve health and education.

“We left it broad,” Paqui said, “because both of us (she and Brian) are in education, both of us understand the health struggles people go through. “If you fix, if you help, education and health, the community always benefits.”

The foundation has donated more than $5.9 million since its inception in 2008. Its long list of beneficiaries includes countless cancer research entities, schools, scholarship funds and more.

Its work is inspired by Paqui’s life experiences and supported by her seemingly endless energy.

“She’s an extremely busy woman, period, regardless of what she’s pouring herself into,” said Patti Glascoe, the foundation’s director of finance and board treasurer. “But she pours herself into whatever she does at 110%.”

Paqui is an active tennis player.

She devotes time to her own mom, who’s been living near the family and Notre Dame.

“Coach keeps her (Paqui) busy,” Glascoe said, “and in these past few months (so does) this new season that we’re in life, in her life – the move from up here in South Bend down there. “Although she has three adult children, and none of them live at home, that keeps her busy, because … she’s a mom, even when the kids aren’t there.”

But Kelly Cares?

“She’s very passionate about the foundation, about everything it stands for,” Glascoe said. “The foundation is probably the top thing that keeps her busy.”

That’s because it reflects an intersection of personal circumstance and charitable endeavors.

Seeing how much better she had it compared to others dealing with similar situations made her realize just how much hope a foundation’s work can provide.

“When I actually became the patient and had to leave work and take that time to heal … Brian would say, ‘How are you doing today?’ ” Paqui said. “Reality was pretty pointed that my insurance was covering all of my absent time, and when I’m sitting there going through treatments for seven months the first time through I was not worried about ‘Do I get medicine for me or do I get medicine for my kids?’

“I had great insurance. I called it ‘red carpet cancer,’ if there is such a thing. But all the auxiliary things that happen when someone becomes ill are real apparent. Like, does the spouse sit there during chemo and sit with the wife, or whoever? Or do they go to work? Or do they have grandma or grampa? Do they have support system?

“I honestly can tell you,” Paqui added, “I had more people (helping) that I could have used during my recovery.”

Not everyone is as blessed as Paqui, who had a village of support from within the Cincinnati Bearcats family the second time around. Wives of other coaches would regularly check on her when she needed to sleep or simply rest.

When Brian couldn’t, they’d help make sure Grace and her brothers – older Patrick, now an LSU offensive graduate assistant coach working with Tiger tight ends, and younger Kenzel, who’s finishing his sophomore year as a Grand Valley State linebacker – made it to school on time.

The first time she had cancer, fellow teachers pitched in to help, some driving 40 minutes to the Kelly home just to ensure the three kids – all under 5 years old at the time – were eating well.

“She’d go in for her treatment or whatever,” Glascoe said, “and … she’d learn that people had no way to get to and from their treatments. “People didn’t have money, or they didn’t have the family or the friends – they just didn’t have that kind of a community to help them. That is what drove her, her and Brian, to say, ‘We’re blessed, we can help, and we need to do that.’ ”

Paqui was moved.

So when she dove headfirst into the foundation shortly before leaving Cincinnati for Notre Dame, bringing awareness to the reality early screening is critical to cancer prevention and finding ways to help others who couldn’t always help themselves, Grace didn’t doubt her mom could handle it all.

“I learned to never ask the question of ‘Oh, you’re going to do that too Mom?’ a long time ago,” she said, laughing. “Because she has to have everything on her plate at once. “That’s the kind of people my mom and dad are, I believe, to their core. If they’re not doing something, they’ve got to be doing something else, whether it’s for work or to make a difference. That’s always their goal, is to be doing ‘something.’ ”

Promoting early detection measures really does hit home for Paqui, no matter where home may be.

“I became a real advocate for doing your annual checkups,” she said. “If I had waited until I was 40 to do my mammogram, I probably wouldn’t be here to tell you my story.”

The move from Notre Dame to LSU, then, doesn’t mean the foundation is going away.

Au contraire, it invigorates the Kellys to know there’s a new pool of donors to tap into and a new list of potential beneficiaries Louisiana’s new first family of college football to help.

The Tigers might not have the national following the Irish do, but LSU’s reach still is far and wide in – and beyond – a state that according to louisianacancer.org has the country’s third-highest death cancer rate.

“They (her parents) made that very clear from the beginning, from when we got here,” Grace said. “On the first visit we met with three or four different doctors here … to find ways for us to integrate (the foundation) within LSU now.”

The Kellys, according to Grace, don’t just want to replicate what Kelly Cares meant to Notre Dame.

Their aim to double its impact, no small task amid challenging times for fundraisers as inflation soars and a pandemic that’s crippled America still hasn’t been brought fully under control.

COVID-19 took its toll on Kelly Cares.

Prior to the pandemic, the foundation’s largest fundraiser was its annual black-tie gala in New York City replete with a cocktail reception, dinner, auctions, live entertainment and an afterparty.

One or two golf outings were staged annually.

An event called “Football 101,” interactive with a focus on breast cancer research, was open to women only. Notre Dame football coaching staff members taught ladies about the game and had them participate in drills.

“Paqui’s Playbook Series” was held weekly in October, breast cancer awareness month. Zumba classes drawing 1,000-to-1,500 were held in Notre Dame Stadium, a cocktail reception called “POP” (Power of Pink) was held and Paqui hosted a dinner to which 25-to-30 cancer survivors were invited.

Cash flowed in under the watchful eye of five foundation employees who kept busy year-round.

Once COVID hit, however, no events were held for about 17 months. Fundraising dollars dried up. According to Glascoe, the staff was trimmed to just herself plus Paqui.

Last year, after restrictions on large gatherings were eased or lifted, two golf events were held, thanks largely to a small army of foundation friends and volunteers.

Through it all, much like when she fought to be cancer-free, Paqui was a portrait of serenity, a calming influence on anyone and everyone prone to freaking out around her.

“It takes about two seconds, and she doesn’t even try,” Glascoe said. “There’s something she’ll say or do, and it’s, ‘Bam. Positive.’ ”

It should come as no surprise that when Brian exited Notre Dame for LSU late last year, leaving behind a dream job for one he perceived to have more resources and a clearer path to a national championship, not to mention a team of shocked Irish players still uncertain at the time if they’d crack the four-team College Football Playoff field (they did not), Paqui rolled with the punches.

Grace was the one who had the hardest time coming to terms with things – and not just because she’d gone from Notre Dame’s daughter of the coach to its daughter of the former coach.

“I don’t think (Paqui) was worried foundation-wise how it was going to translate here,” Grace said while in Baton Rouge for LSU’s April 23 spring game. “I think she just wanted to make sure her work wasn’t going to be having to go from ground zero again down here.

“Of everyone, I was probably more taken back and kind of stressed about it – because (the job change) had been in the works for a little bit. She’d been more in-the-know than us three kids. “I think her worry was more how … just the (foundation’s) logo itself would be able to translate to LSU, because it’s a
clover. We were worried it sucks; ‘oh, it’s a clover.’ ”

The Kellys have trademarked their version of the symbol, which is so meaningful to the family Grace wears the clover as a tattoo.

“It’s right on my side,” she said, “so right by my breast as well, just as a little triad to (her parents).”

The Kelly family’s fundraising efforts in Louisiana already are underway.

On June 7, Brian and Paqui along with the Tiger Athletic Foundation, LSU’s fundraising arm, and football program are hosting the inaugural Golden Cleats Combine for women. Open to Bengal Belles members, it’s an LSU-tailored extension of Notre Dame’s Football 101, evidence the Kellys are open to whatever it takes to get donation dollars flowing again. Which is what the efforts of Kelly Cares, and Paqui in particular, ultimately are about.

Brian Kelly is director of the board. According to Glascoe, he plays an active role in the foundation. Paqui, the seven-person board’s president, runs major decisions by him. But he toils more in the background while his wife does the heavy lifting.

“If you don’t know her, you don’t know how humble she is,” Glascoe said. “But she, I’m sure, gets a lot of satisfaction, especially when she sees that the foundation is doing positive things.”

To those who work most closely with her, Paqui is a down-to-earth woman who doesn’t brag and boast.

To LSU football fans, she’s the new coach’s wife.

But to Grace, she’s a mom – cancer-in-remission since 2012 – who borrowed her daughter’s name while fighting a war with real-life consequences.

She did it, as a 7-year-old now 22 best recalls, with grace.

“Her mindset throughout the entire thing kept her whole family positive,” Grace said. “We never had to think of the bad. She always looked at the good, and what could turn out to
be better.

“She never let that affect her family, and how she was a mother to us. She put health concerns to the side to make sure we were happy kids, and not to think of it as the end-all be-all. “That alone makes a difference in how we confronted the situation, because if she was happy and she was positive about it there was no way we couldn’t be. I think that makes a huge difference in how we grew up too, in just making sure to see the light in even the darkest side of things.”

It made French Toast from a man much more comfortable on a football field than hovering over a frying pan that much tastier too.

“That’s where they’re both very similar,” Grace said of her mother and father, “is they always put their family – us kids – first, before we could see their hardships and their struggles throughout the whole situation.”

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