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The football coach, the girl with cancer, and the bracelet that binds them

There was no way he would remember. Simply no way. The head football coach at Notre Dame meets how many people in a year -- hundreds? Thousands? Not to mention all the other different factions he deals with on a daily basis -- players, recruits, donors. There was no way he would remember the 10-year-old girl he'd met months prior. Especially not on a day like today, the opening Saturday of the season. There would be too much on his mind, if the memory of that encounter was still even there. But, still, Shawn Keller tuned in anyway. Just in case.

First, let's back up a bit. It's February 25, 2015. Shawn and Sarah Keller have just learned their daughter Sadie has cancer. They are shaken, as are all parents who learn their 7-year-old daughter's body is now betraying her. Sadie's specific diagnosis is acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of cancer in children. The bone marrow in her growing body produced too many white blood cells, and those excess cells were now poisoning her. The normal-kid things Sadie liked to do before the diagnosis -- playing soccer, swimming, creating artwork -- are put aside as she fights the enemy within. The road ahead called for two and a half tough years of treatment. Soon, the port in the left side of her chest would become infected, confining her to the hospital for a month.

Fast forward now to April of that year. Sadie is in weekly treatment, and her parents are in regular meetings with her oncologist. While Shawn and Sarah talk and listen and ask questions, Sadie sits near, her face buried in an iPad. When the family returns to their suburban Dallas home, Sadie wants to borrow Sarah's phone. She barricades herself in her mom's closet. When she emerges, Sadie has a video she'd like Sarah to upload to YouTube.

"When she made that video and she knew so much Shawn and I started crying because we couldn't believe that she was sitting there on her iPad but completely engaged and listening to every single thing that we were being told and understood it without asking any questions for confirmation," Sarah Keller told FootballScoop. "Very, very early she put herself into this position of being an advocate and really advocating for children going through the same thing as her. One thing she says in her video is, 'I really hope this video helps you feel more comfortable and not be so scared.' She's someone who doesn't like surprises and likes to know exactly what's going to happen. We didn't know and she didn't know what was going to happen. Every day was a new, crazy thing that was happening to her body. When she realized that, that made her afraid because she didn't know what to expect. She thought, 'Well, if I could help other kids know what to expect then maybe they won't be so afraid.'"

Fast forward a few months now. It's the fall of 2015, and Christmas is approaching. Sadie, now eight, has the same person on her mind as every other eight-year-old on the planet: Santa Claus. "She was having a conversation with her oncologist and she asked her doctor, 'Does Santa come to the hospital?' She was so worried that Santa was going to go to her house and take presents to their house instead of taking them to the kids in the hospital," Sarah said. "She came home that night and said, 'I think we should collect toys because I hated being in the hospital and I'm just scared they won't get much.'"

Soon after that conversation, Sadie's Sleigh was born. The goal was to collect 300 toys for her fellow patients at Children's Medical Center of Dallas. More than 1,300 came. In 2016 Sadie's Sleigh became an official non-profit organization -- the Sadie Keller Foundation -- with a new goal to distribute 2,600 toys to patients at Children's in Dallas and Cook Children's in Fort Worth. She collected more than 5,000.

Sadie kept making videos, chronicling her experience with cancer so other kids could know what to expect. One of those videos caught the eye of someone at ESPN. Jimmy V Week was approaching, and ESPN wanted permission to use a clip of Sadie's videos in its promotions. The Kellers said yes.

Skip ahead now to May of this year. That connection with ESPN led to an invitation to the Dick Vitale Gala. Sadie was an honored guest of Dickie V himself. The gala brought in a record $3.12 million for pediatric cancer research. "Dickie V treats these kids like gold. On stage he would put his hands on the kids' shoulders and tell their stories. 'This is Sadie! She collects toys!' He knew everything about all of these kids and really made them the focus of everything he was doing," Sarah said.

"Sadie was a big hit at the Gala this year with her incredibly inspirational story that she shared with many," Vitale told FootballScoop over email. "She touched our hearts."

That's Sadie below, second from the right.

 Credit: Jimmy V Foundation

Credit: Jimmy V Foundation

Vitale hosted a luncheon the following day at his Sarasota, Fla., home, where college sports celebrities like Urban Meyer, Bill Self and Charlie Strong interacted with the actual stars of the event.

As the coaches and the families mixed and mingled, the Kellers happened to meet Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

"Brian took time out and talked to my boy Grant, he just turned 13 and he likes football. Brian talked to him a good 10 or 15 minutes just about football," Shawn Keller told FootballScoop. "While that was going on Sadie decided to give Brian a bracelet, and he was very honored to take it. He took it around his wrist and was talking to Sadie about how proud he was of her and what she was doing. He said, 'You watch this fall. The first game of the season you're going to see this wristband on.' Me and Sarah were like, 'Okay, well it was nice of him to say that.' I'm sure he gets bracelets all the time."

Sadie Keller 1

"All the kids are just amazing," Kelly told FootballScoop. "What struck me about Sadie was her grit and her toughness. I just fell in love with her personality and her demeanor."

The Kellers left Florida invigorated and returned to the task at hand. Sadie is now clear of weekly treatment, promoted to only -- "only" -- monthly treatments. The Sadie Keller Foundation has expanded. Sadie has coordinated and distributed 168 Milestone gifts, presents to children hitting major marks in treatment, to children across the country. Preparations are underway for Sadie's Sleigh this Christmas, with a goal of 10,000 gifts to kids at four Dallas-Fort Worth area hospitals, with Sadie's Elves spreading that cheer nationwide. She partnered with Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin to speak before Congress, lobbying for the RACE For Children Act. Only four percent of federal cancer research dollars go toward to children's cancers. Sadie wants to change that. "She honestly has gotten through all this focusing on other people, helping other people and helping kids get through childhood cancer," Sarah said. "She's just your normal kid that has turned a really difficult diagnosis into good."

Now let's bring it back to last Saturday. The Kellers are at home. Shawn has just watched his beloved Iowa beat Wyoming. He turns the channel to Notre Dame's game with Temple and waits for shots of the Irish's head coach. Just in case. When NBC's cameras catch Kelly on Notre Dame's sideline, what Shawn sees stuns him. The same green, orange and white bracelet Sadie gave Kelly under that tent in May is on Kelly's left wrist.

Sadie Keller 2
Sadie Keller 3

"It just blew her mind and it blew our minds," Shawn said. "A guy that's so busy with everything he's got going on, whether he had that bracelet on the whole time or he just remembered to put it on for the game, that just goes to show the caliber of person that he is."

"Her whole face lit up," Sarah added. "She was like, 'Oh my gosh he's wearing it!' All of us were just so impressed. He kept his word for her. He made these kids his priority not just for that night but he's continuing to make these kids his priority by showing his support four months later."

In fact, Kelly put that bracelet on the moment Sadie gave it to him and never removed it. He also wears two more bracelets from other pediatric cancer patients. "We're football coaches and we ask our guys to push through when they get a little tired," Kelly said. "These kids are examples of that times a thousand."

Sadie's work continues. Next week she'll be back in Washington to address the Children's Cancer Caucus and lobby Congress on behalf of childhood cancer research. The girl who has devoted her life to putting smiles of the faces of children with cancer will go back to work, knowing the head football coach at Notre Dame thought enough of her to put a smile on hers.