By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
Kelly Walsh will forever be linked to her well known father, Bill, who is one of the most popular and successful football coaches in South Jersey history. He’s a Holy Spirit icon, and generations of boys credit him with turning them into men during their time in the Navy blue and gold jerseys. But it’s an association that Kelly said she doesn’t mind one bit, and the bond she shares with her father is one she is savoring every day, especially considering what the tough-as-iron old ball coach is going through these days.
Less than two years ago, Bill Walsh — a current assistant football coach who has been at Holy Spirit for decades and helped build the Spartans into a South Jersey powerhouse — was diagnosed with ALS, more commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” after the famous New York Yankees player who died June 2, 1941, at just 37 years old. ALS is a degenerative nervous system disease that slowly weakens the muscles and impacts physical function, and the life expectancy typically is somewhere between two-to-five years after diagnosis. Coach Walsh is fighting for his life while his only daughter is navigating her high school years, trying to be a dependable and capable player for the Spartans’ field hockey and softball programs while at the same time keeping her grades high and trying to enjoy a teenage experience that most kids take for granted.
It hasn’t been easy.

Holy Spirit junior Kelly Walsh has been a key contributor and leader for the Spartans’ field hockey and softball team while simultaneously dealing with a difficult situation at home, as her father, legendary Spirit football coach Bill Walsh, battles ALS. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan)


Making things even more difficult is the fact that the teams she plays for have struggled the past couple of years and are in the midst of rebuilding projects. The softball team made some major strides last spring, winning nine games, including the team’s first state playoff victory in more than a decade, but the field hockey team went winless during Kelly’s first two seasons. The junior said there were times when she questioned why she’s been putting in so many hours of hard work to try to improve when the wins weren’t coming, but, when you are the offspring of coach Bill Walsh, giving up is not an option.
“It’s frustrating and there are times when I want to just stop and rethink what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and change the way things are, but even if we are in a slump and not doing well, there’s nothing you can do to get yourself better besides just keep pushing through. For my team, I’m going to give my best effort because if I don’t, how are we ever going to get better as a team? And I think everyone does that. The feeling of what it’s like to win makes everything 10 times better,” she said. “This is my first year at Holy Spirit that we’ve gotten a win in field hockey, and that’s very satisfying. And the whole structure in softball last spring was different. We all loved it, we were so close as a team and with our coaches. Coach (Steve) Normane coming in made such an impact. Sports is an escape for me. You come to practice and it’s fun, it’s not something I dread going to every day.”
On Sept. 21, Holy Spirit’s field hockey team traveled to Woodbury and won, 6-1, picking up its first victory during Kelly’s high school career. The Spartans followed that up with a 1-0 win over Buena Regional on Sept. 28.
Being unwilling to yield to adversity is a trait that both Kelly and her mom, Cindy, have shown in abundance the past two years as their family faces the most difficult challenge it could ever have imagined. They all have learned to lean on each other and the support of a wide network of Holy Spirit players, coaches, alumni and friends, as they try to make the best of each day. A fundraising effort named “Walshy’s Warriors” was set up, including its own Facebook page, and various other sports teams and communities have held fundraisers to help raise money for ALS awareness and research in honor of coach Walsh, and to help pay for the mounting medical expenses the family is dealing with.
“I am so proud of the young woman Kelly has become, especially dealing with adversity. I love Kelly and Cindy more than they will ever know,” coach Walsh said through a text message, since he has lost the ability to speak. “Cindy’s strength has been what has kept our family together as we battle through this disease. Thank you for doing these stories on my girls!”
“She’s learned a lot from Bill. She saw him rebuilding teams and he never gave up, so I guess that’s where she learned that from. No matter what obstacles come your way or what you have to face, you just have to keep going, not quit, and persevere. I’m unbelievably impressed with her. She’s shown tremendous strength and is continually supporting Holy Spirit. Every day she’s like, ‘OK, let’s go, we’re going to win this game today.’ She continues to strive, and she learned that from Bill, and maybe a little bit from me. I think she’s been handling things extremely well. She puts a lot of focus and time into her sports,” Cindy Walsh said. “I think we’re learning every day. Different situations present themselves, and obviously we’re very tight in this family. Sometimes you get really stressed out and things fly.”
“It’s humbling to see the support. Everyone is very supportive and so good about (everything that is going on). Everyone handles it well. Obviously, I get questions on a day-to-day basis, like, how is your dad? What’s going on? But it’s not something I can’t handle and it’s not something I don’t like to talk about it. I appreciate anyone’s support who tries to talk to me. I’ve grown an incredible amount from this situation,” Kelly said. “I have a small, select group of friends I know I can count on. But it’s crazy being around kids my age or kids in school and see what their worries are, and seeing how they sweat the small stuff. I just feel like my brain and mentality is so far beyond that. I have such a different perspective on everything about life. If they come to me I know how to tell them to move on from (high school drama) and that there are bigger concerns in life and things to worry about. I feel like going through this helps me provide advice for other people going through difficult situations. It’s not easy to deal with. I use things as an escape, mostly school because of all the support that is there, and sports. Softball is one of my biggest escapes. When I’m on the field, my focus is just on the game.”

The Holy Spirit field hockey team went winless during Walsh’s first two years of high school, but this year the Spartans have two wins and a tie on their record, showing the improvement that Walsh has helped lead. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan)


Kelly, a Galloway resident, could have gone to Absegami, but said it was a foregone conclusion since the day she was born that she would be a Holy Spirit Spartan for life.
“I’ve grown up around Holy Spirit my whole life. I always knew the whole environment of what it was like and the connection everyone has. Now that I go there, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Everyone knows what everyone is like, and there’s never a time when people aren’t supporting you. Everyone has your back and it’s like a family structure,” she said. “I think my favorite thing about him coaching there and being surrounded by the school for my entire life is the connection I have with the football team. It’s so special, the bond they have as a team, and the way they include me in it and the respect they have for not only me, but for him. (After I graduate) I’ll miss everyone being so close. Once you go into the real world you don’t see that bond that a school can have. It’s rare. The people, as a whole, it’s just something you don’t find everywhere. It’s something that won’t be with me forever, but it’s something I’ll always remember. I feel like no matter how old I get, I’ll always go back to Holy Spirit.”
And now that she’s a junior, Kelly is beginning to be known for much more than just being coach Walsh’s daughter. She’s a starter in both field hockey and softball and has become a team leader in both sports, as well as in the school in general.
“She’s a very strong person and a great little athlete, she has a great personality, everybody loves her. She’s a very caring person, so I had no doubt that she would be succeeding in the way that she is now,” her mother said. “I feel so strongly about the school and how supportive they are, not just of us, but of other people as well. When I send my daughter to school there every morning, I feel relief, I feel peace of mind and I know she’s taken care of there and if she needs anything, they are there for her. There is such great support there, it’s amazing. How can you not be happy about that as a parent? The kids there are such good kids. I don’t know, something about the kids at that school, they are just so respectful.”
It’s not easy, however, to move out of a shadow that is as long as the one cast by a guy like Bill Walsh. Then again, Kelly said she doesn’t want to move too far away from the constant comparisons, because she is proud of everything her father has meant to Holy Spirit, and his identity there will, in some ways, always be part of her identity.
“I make it know that I want to be my own person. Everyone knows him because of all the things he’s done and people he’s impacted, but that helps me and motivates me to make another impact. It’s hard having to be able to be my own person. It’s a challenge, but it’s a base for me. I had to come in and show more and be more outgoing about who I am as a person,” she said. “When he’s not at school, or if he’s not in the same vicinity I’m in, I find myself trying to be like him and give to people what he gave to others.”
Kelly said she hopes that she can one day be mentioned in the same breath as her father when it comes to traits such as leadership, hard work and dependability. And perhaps that day is already here.
“I hope people see me as a leader, that’s an important thing to me,” Kelly said. “I like to be a role model for younger players and I like to be involved in team bonding and making my teams stronger. Just being a good example.”
The example the Walsh family has set while facing a deadly disease is, well, exemplary. They all admit they have their good days and bad days, and hope people understand that when they are having a bad day it’s just something they have to get through. Taking things “one day at a time” is a time honored coaching cliche when talking to the media, but in this case it’s all Kelly, Cindy and Bill can do. Just savor every day for what it is and hope they are making a positive impact on the Holy Spirit community, and beyond.
“It’s been hard to pick up on what each person is feeling and how to make things better, but you just have to go with the flow. Like my mom says, we just try to take it one day at a time and make the most of it,” Kelly said.
“We take it day by day and see how things go,” Cindy added. “I just want to get my daughter off to a college that she will love, and go from there. Take it one day at a time.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays