ATHENS — The late 1970s Benedictine football teams were good. Really good. Among the players on its roster were brothers Steve and Bob Kelly, Jim Blakewood and Chris McCarthy. They would all go on to UGA and play significant roles on the Bulldogs’ 1980 national championship team.
There was also Brian Whelan, who would go on to play a somewhat lesser role at Notre Dame.
It was a thrill when the close-knit friends who attended the all-boys Catholic school in Savannah found out late that fall that Georgia and Notre Dame would be meeting in the 1981 Sugar Bowl. Nobody could’ve dreamed what a huge part they’d play in it.
Well, the Kelly brothers at least.
“The week that Georgia beat Florida [26-21 in Jacksonville] is the same week that we tied Georgia Tech,” said Whelan, a backup punter for the Fighting Irish. “And that’s when they took over as No. 1. The following week we beat Alabama (by a score of 7-0), then we found out we were going to play them. So I was very excited. We actually all got together back in Savannah before the game because we were out of school before everybody took off for New Orleans.”
Whelan never made it to New Orleans because he wasn’t selected for the travel roster. But he watched the game with intense interest from Savannah. He and the Kelly brothers were about as close as you could get as friends and teammates. They’d played football together since they were 6 years old, from youth league all the way through high school.
Understandably, Whelan almost didn’t know how to react when the biggest play of that Sugar Bowl happened. Georgia had just tied the game 3-3 on a 46-yard field goal by Rex Robinson late in the first quarter. Now the Bulldogs had to kick off back to Notre Dame.
That’s when Robinson unleashed a kickoff that “hung the football a mile high,” according to the call of legendary announcer Keith Jackson. Inexplicably, neither Jim Stone nor Ty Barber, Notre Dame’s return men, bothered to field it. Each thought the other had it and neither could hear the shouts in the deafening din that was the New Orleans Superdome that day. They both ran out from under it.
Robinson’s kick landed unfettered on the 5-yard line. Amazingly, the ball bounced straight up rather than into the end zone. By the time Stone got back to the 3-yard line to try to corral it, a red blur wearing No. 23 for the Bulldogs launched headfirst into both Stone and the ball. It was Steve Kelly, whose collision jarred the ball loose and sent it dead left.
Closing in from that direction happened to be his older brother by 16 months, Bob Kelly. He smothered and cradled the loose ball and Georgia had possession at the Notre Dame 2. Herschel Walker scored two plays later to give the Bulldogs a 10-3 lead it would never relinquish.
“The luck of the Irish, I guess,” quipped Bob, playing off his family’s heritage as Irish Catholics.
Echoed Steve: “It was one of the luckiest plays you could possibly imagine. But it was just one play in a dream season. We had our share of breaks, but we made a lot of them, too. You have to to go undefeated.”
Steve and Bob Kelly trace the genesis of that play back to their days growing up in Savannah and their daily competitions back home. Bob was the older of the two, but Steve was the better overall athlete. So they were always competing at everything.
“Steve was the better player,” Bob said. “He was really a good running back. He could juke me in a two-foot-wide hallway. But on those kickoffs I always told him I was faster and would get down there first. We were always racing to be the first one down the field.”
Actually, Bob Kelly was the outside man on the left side of Georgia’s kickoff coverage unit and he was assigned to provide outside containment. Steve lined up one position inside of him and was charged with following the football. Both did their jobs well on that particular play.
After the turnover and subsequent Georgia score, the Bulldogs seized momentum. That became only more pronounced after another Notre Dame turnover led to another UGA score early in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs hung on in the second half and won their first consensus national championship since 1942 despite being outgained 328 yards to 127. Four turnovers were the difference, none bigger than the one involving the Kelly brothers.
“People still associate me with that play,” Steve Kelly said. “For 37 years it has made for a lot of easy handshakes living in the state of Georgia. But just being part of that team was incredible.”
For Notre Dame, it was another crushing defeat in a season of disappointments. Coach Dan Devine announced in preseason camp that he’d retire at season’s end, and the Fighting Irish lost to Southern Cal in the regular-season finale. Now this.
“Certainly the main factor for us was stopping Herschel [Walker],” said Whelan, co-owner for ZeroOutOfPocket, a supplemental insurance company in Atlanta. “And then Georgia’s defense. That was the height of Erk Russell and his days and that was really more of the discussion, whether our big ol’ offensive line could move the ball against their smaller and quicker defense.
“There was a little bit of letdown because of losing to Southern Cal that year. But from our standpoint there was an outside chance of playing for a national championship and we were going at it that way.”
It was a huge day for the Kellys. Their parents, Bob Sr. and Jan, were sitting in the Superdome to watch their sons and daughter Ann, who was a UGA cheerleader.
“My dad was the first person we saw,” Steve Kelly said. “He came in the locker room after the game. My recollection is just how proud and happy they were.”
Said Bob: “My father would come to Athens every Thursday and play poker with us. Everybody on the team knew him. We had a big party at Pat O’Briens. My dad had played basketball at Tulane and one of the waiters recognized him. We went there for a Hurricane, but we were so exhausted from the whole thing.”
Bob Kelly Sr. passed away in 2006.
The Savannah boys remain close friends and all live in Atlanta today. Steve lives in Alpharetta and works in real estate after retiring from the paper industry. He and his wife have three children, the youngest a 17-year-old son.
Bob lives in Buckhead and also works in real estate. Both of his daughters graduated from UGA, as did Steve’s two daughters.
Bob is godfather to Whelan’s children, all of whom followed their father to Notre Dame. In all, 17 of Whelan’s family members — including his father who played for Frank Leahy — have matriculated at Notre Dame. His daughter was captain of the water polo team.
All of them plan to be at the game when Georgia and Notre Dame finally play again on Sept. 9 in South Bend.
“I’ve had all kinds of newfound friends since the game was announced,” joked Whelan, who gets Notre Dame season tickets every year. “They’re all trying to get tickets.”
But the Whelans and the Kellys are covered. They plan on reconvening in South Bend for the game.
“My problem is I just wish we were in better shape going into this game as far as players go,” Whelan said. “We’ll see. At least if we lose we won’t have to wait but two years for the rematch this time.”