During a film session following Loyola’s 35-3 loss to Brother Rice in Week 4 — its second consecutive defeat — several players spoke in front of their teammates.
One of them was junior Christo Kelly, a starter on the offensive line. Kelly first listened and then stood up.
“I was taking it all in,” he said. “People talked about just because we are Loyola that doesn’t mean we are given anything. When it was my turn, I talked about my brother and about how much he would want to be playing. It seemed to be something the team rallied around.”
Kelly, of course, was referring to senior Hugh Kelly. A projected starter in the secondary, Hugh suffered a season-ending injury during the summer.
“I know how much football means to him, and when I found out he was going to miss the season, it was one of the worst experiences of my life,” Christo said. “To see him suffer like that and not be able help him was tough.”
Although Hugh didn’t play one down this season, he was on the sideline for every game, including Nov. 24 at University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign, where Loyola earned a 13-3 win over Brother Rice to capture the Class 8A state championship. The Ramblers’ eighth win in a row delivered the program its second state title since 2015 and third overall.
Christo was on the field when senior quarterback Jack Fallon took a knee to run out the clock to end the game. Once the celebratory chaos subsided, Christo said he looked around for Hugh. The brothers found each other near midfield and shared a hug.
“By far, one of the greatest moments of my life was to see him so happy,” Christo said.
Added Hugh, “I was overwhelmed with joy. I’m so proud of him and our whole team.”
Hugh was set to play a big role for the Ramblers this season. As a junior, he was eighth on the team with 59 tackles. He also totaled two tackles for loss, two pass break-ups and one interception.
But Hugh tore the ACL in his left knee while working out with teammates in June.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Christo said. “It didn’t fully hit me at first.”
That happened when Christo broke the bad news to Loyola head coach John Holecek.
“We were in the hallway, and I couldn’t get out the words,” Christo said. “I started choking up, and [Holecek] did the same. That showed me how much he cares about us. I went into the locker room and cried for a half hour.”
In the days and weeks after Hugh returned to his Wilmette home following surgery, his teammates constantly came by to spend time with him. It reminded Hugh that he remained an important part of the team.
“That was nice,” he said. “It took my mind off of things. I’m grateful to have such awesome friends.”
Brutal was the word Brendan Kelly, Hugh’s father, used to describe his son’s unfortunate injury. Nonetheless, the situation enabled Brendan to witness the powerful bond that exists between Loyola athletes.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Brendan said.”They treated him as a family member.”
Christo was touched by all of the support his brother received.
“I don’t know if people realize how much that meant to him and us,” he said.
Products of St. Francis Xavier, both Christo and Hugh started in the Class 8A state final last season, a game Loyola lost 23-14 to Lincoln-Way East at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
“They climbed the mountain last year,” said Brendan, the father of five boys. “It’s not easy to get to where they did. I told Hugh and Christo very few people who play sports get to experience what they did. Yes, it was tough not to win, but it was great accomplishment to make it.
“To do it again and win is a blessing and too much ask for. It’s beyond words.”
Although Hugh was forced into a supporting role this season, he did what he could to contribute by attending practices, team dinners and all of the games.
At some point during pre-game warm-ups, Hugh and Christo made sure find each other.
“He wanted to play more than anything,” Christo said. “I can’t comprehend how hard it was for him this year, and I did the best I could to be there for him. We hugged before games, and he always wished me good luck.”
In the Memorial Stadium locker room, the Loyola players took turns taking photos with the Class 8A state title trophy. Hugh and Christo were lucky enough get their opportunity to make an everlasting memory.
“It was surreal,” Christo said. “It’s something I will never forget.”