Notre Dame Pre-Game: The Kelly Connection

By Tom O'Toole
Photo by Patrick O’Toole

Among the Notre Dame pre-game traditions, the Irish tailgater is both one of the longest-lasting and fastest-growing. In fact, it has been said that on game-day Saturdays, the makeshift tent/RV city set up outside of Notre Dame Stadium has a population equal to the tenth-largest city in Indiana. But my job before the Notre Dame-Pitt game was to find one that had both tradition and charm, and a logical choice seemed to be the Kelly’s.

A sign above the tents said the “Kelly Family Tailgate” was established in 1960, and it was clear upon entering the tent that all subsequent generations were represented. My first encounter was with a St. Mary’s co-ed from New Jersey, and when I asked her what made Notre Dame (and tailgating) so special, she searched to find just the right words.

“The legacy and tradition here…is hard to explain,” said the sophomore, who for age reasons decided to remain nameless, “but once you experience Notre Dame, that feeling never leaves. I think it also helps that, unlike many state schools [Notre Dame-St. Mary’s] is an enclosed campus, a city unto itself.”

My next “Kelly” interview was with the next Irish generation, Tom Hansen, Notre Dame Class of 1974. “Notre Dame’s tradition is special because it is passed down from generation to generation, from grandfather to father to son. Plus Notre Dame has the only true national following…”

“But don’t the other great college football traditions—USC, Michigan, Alabama, Nebraska—claim a national following too?”

“They do—but none of them are equal to the Irish,” Hansen explained. “Oh, I give the Nebraska fans credit. They travel very well, as exhibited by the sea of red last week at Northwestern…and even when they played here they somehow got a lot of Irish fans to sell their tickets…”

“You mean during the Davie era?” I asked, shivering at the memory.

“Yes. With the game tied in the last two minutes and Notre Dame with the ball and a chance to win, Davie instead ran the clock out—and lost in overtime,” Hansen edgily recalled as if the game had taken place yesterday. “But perhaps the tradition that really makes Notre Dame unique is its Catholic Faith.”

Bob Seals and the author

On to a third generation, I spoke to a gentleman enjoying his golden years under the Golden Dome, Bob Seals. “I started out as Don (the tailgate’s founder) Kelly’s driver,” Bob recalled. “It started small, with my one limo and a couple of Kellys and six packs in the back. But it sure has grown…”

“Do you still drive for them?” I wondered.

“No, I’m retired. I used to not only drive a limo but a motorcycle too,” Seals explained, and the picture he painted of a younger Bob leading the cycle pack while wearing a full coyote skin brought a chuckle to my heart.

“But you still come,” I encouraged him.

“Yes. I’m no longer a driver. I’m part of the family,” Seals paused. “But my legs are starting to bother me, so this may be my last year here…,” but sensing the scene was becoming maudlin, Seals changed the subject.

“Another Kelly tradition are those bushes,” Seals said, pointing to a healthy row of trees behind us. “Do you know why they’re so green?”

“Nooo..” I replied, taking the bait.

“Because we water them so much!” he replied, waiting until I got the joke before he cracked up laughing.

Faith, family, and football, mixed with a few drinks and that inexplicable sense of Irish humor. The Kelly Family Tailgate had it all, and, with Seals as adopted family member, even a little bit extra. And as I walked away toward the Stadium, I thought about how if this was indeed Seals’ last tailgate season, it was great that this exciting undefeated Irish team was letting the former easy rider go out with a bang.

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