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Tragedy, Tears and Triumph

Published on October 27, 2016

by Drew van Esselstyn

This story appears in FCA Magazine’s March/April 2017 issue. Subscribe today!

As he prepared for the biggest game of his life and his school’s opportunity to return to the lacrosse national spotlight, North Carolina’s Patrick Kelly could tell his coach was burdened. It was a Saturday afternoon last May in Columbus, Ohio, and Joe Breschi—in his eighth year as North Carolina’s head coach—had slipped away from the team hotel for a couple hours.

Later that evening, Breschi broke from his usual rah-rah approach. He choked up as he told his players what the weekend meant for him personally.

The following morning, just hours before an NCAA quarterfinal matchup versus third-seeded Notre Dame, Kelly—a captain and leader of the team Bible study—made Breschi tear up. He honored his coach for recruiting and leading 40-some young men so well. More importantly, he just wanted Breschi to know they were all there for him and the coach’s family.

“It was incredible,” Breschi says. “You could feel the intensity and passion and energy just elevate to something that was really special. They were loose, excited.

“That’s the best game we’ve ever played in my time at North Carolina.”

Notre Dame, boasting the nation’s top-rated defense, was overwhelmed. The Tar Heels raced out to a 10-2 lead, and then hung on for a 13-9 victory that sent them to the NCAA semifinals and—eventually—the school’s first men’s lacrosse national title in a quarter-century.

After the game, Kelly embraced a bawling Breschi.

“He just grabbed me and was saying, ‘Thanks. Thanks so much,’” says Kelly, an FCA Lacrosse alum. “He was just so happy.”

That was the final, freeing release for a coach and a team that had experienced a spectrum of emotions in a 48-hour span. The trip to Columbus involved much more than a lacrosse game. It was a chance for Breschi to visit a nearby cemetery so he could spend time with his late son.

•  •  •

Michael Breschi was born on Sept. 16, 2000, while Joe was preparing for the fourth year of his first head coaching job at Ohio State. At that point, lacrosse was almost exclusively an East Coast sport, which Joe knew from his time as a high-school star in Baltimore and an All-ACC defenseman at North Carolina.

How could he get this Midwest program to compete—and recruit—with powerhouses like Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Virginia, Duke and, of course, North Carolina?

Needless to say, there were many sleepless nights for both Joe and his wife, Julie. But not necessarily because of lacrosse. Michael, the couple’s first child, was prone to colic as an infant.

“I’m glad he didn’t sleep,” Joe says now. “We spent a lot of time together between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. I’ll never regret time spent with Mike.”

Coach Joe Breschi led the 2016 Tar Heels to the school’s first lacrosse national championship in 25 years.

Fortunately, since he became a head coach, Joe has always made it a point to be home in the evenings. His teams practice in the mornings, which meant dinner and baths and story times on a regular basis.

Michael took his first steps at 1 and soon became a fixture at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. He was the lacrosse team’s unofficial team mascot, often found on his dad’s shoulders at practice or wrestling with the players when they came over to the Breschi house.

“He was fun,” Joe says, “and he had an unbelievable smile.”

When he would leave Michael’s room and turn out the light each night, Michael was fond of saying, “Hey, Dad, thumbs up!”

Life was good. Samantha joined the family in 2001 and Abby in 2003, the same year Joe led the Buckeyes to their first NCAA Tournament appearance.

But then, in the spring of 2004, Michael was in the parking lot at his preschool when he was hit by a car and killed. A family of five suddenly became four, dealing with unspeakable pain, anger, frustration and heartache.

The Ohio State family did its best to rally around the Breschis. It was the middle of the season, and Joe tried to dive back into coaching, though he didn’t travel with the team for awhile. Eventually, a counselor confronted him with how much his sadness was affecting Julie and his young daughters.

He started talking to God “a lot,” and an old college teammate became a lifeline.

Bryan Kelly played with Joe for three years at North Carolina (and Joe was an assistant when Bryan was a senior on the Tar Heels’ 1991 national championship team), but life had taken them in different directions.

“I just knew how much I cared about Joe, his marriage, his family,” says Bryan, who coaches at Calvert Hall in Baltimore and is integrally involved with FCA Lacrosse. “I just felt God really calling me to stay in touch with Joe.”

That meant phone calls and texts three or four times a week, every week, for a year. Sometimes it was just a quick check-in, other times something much deeper.

2017-0304-subscribenow“God gives us a heart of compassion and caring, and I knew Joe needed people in his life to get through this,” Bryan says. “I watched Joe’s faith evolve and grow.”

Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel connected Joe with a coaches Bible study. Jim Schmidtke, on staff with Athletes in Action, found Joe in the bleachers one day and gave him some powerful words of encouragement: Michael was in paradise, and God would say when it’s time for a family reunion.

“How peaceful is that to believe?” Joe says. “I can’t imagine not believing in heaven and God.”

•  •  •

On the two-year anniversary of Michael’s death in 2006, Julie dropped off Samantha and Abby at practice. Samantha ran straight over to one of the trainers she was close with. Abby affixed herself to Joe’s leg, and he soon put her on his shoulders and kept coaching.

“He is the same in front of his daughters as he is with his players,” says Scott Hodgson, an Ohio State assistant in 2006 and now an FCA area representative in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “That just provided a window into who Breschi is as a father and coach.”

Bringing It Home Devotional: On His Watch

Will we trust God when this life doesn’t seem to make sense? Will we wait on Him and believe
He is working all things for good? Read more

Two more daughters were added to the Breschi clan: Lucy in 2005 and Emily in 2007. Joe stayed at Ohio State through the 2008 season, before getting the call to head back to North Carolina and restore a once-proud program. The Tar Heels tallied 12 Final Four appearances and four national championships from 1980 to 1993, but neither had been accomplished since.

Joe had seen the fruit of a team Bible study at Ohio State, so he and one of his assistants, Brian Holman, offered the same opportunity in Chapel Hill. They partnered with Mike Echstenkamper, a longtime Athletes in Action staffer, and were blessed to have an influx of recruits who had been trained up as FCA Lacrosse players.

Stellar leaders like Thomas Wood, Matt Higbie, Frankie Kelly, Patrick Kelly, and now Stephen Kelly aimed to go against the grain of the typical lacrosse culture.

Breschi and Holman stepped out of the team Bible study, in part to free up the players to be completely transparent, but they continued with their own using the FCA Coaches Bible. The team Bible study was a great success. On the field, however, was a different story.

The Tar Heels remained a tournament team, but they never went far during Breschi’s first seven seasons. He consistently reeled in highly ranked recruits, but the Final Four was elusive.

Breschi and Holman thought 2015 would be a breakout season, and UNC entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 overall seed with a 13-3 record. But a lackluster loss to Maryland in the quarterfinals only bolstered the Tar Heels’ label of chronic underachievers.

“I remember giving (Joe) a hug, and we’re both crying,” Holman says. “Joe says to me, ‘I’m doing everything I can.’ And I said, ‘I know. You are, and we are. And ultimately it’s going to be God’s time if and when this occurs. It’s not in our time and not on our watch. It’s on His watch.’” 

•  •  •

The first couple months of the 2016 season weren’t promising. The Tar Heels floundered, losing twice at home before spring break to find themselves squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble with an 8-6 record at the end of April.

In the two weeks that followed, they practiced and celebrated at graduation parties for seniors, then gathered as a team on the day of the NCAA selections.

North Carolina squeaked in as an unseeded team, and then beat Marquette in Milwaukee in the first round. That led to the quarterfinal matchup with Notre Dame at a neutral site: Columbus, Ohio.

Breschi reached out to Nick Myers, his former assistant who succeeded him as head coach at Ohio State. The two men are exceptionally close; Myers calls Breschi his mentor and someone who helped him “understand what a man looked like.”

The two programs are tight as well. They play once a year in the “Thumbs Up” game that benefits the Michael Breschi Scholarship Fund, awarded to an Ohio State player who most exemplifies Michael’s spirit.

FCA Lacrosse: Miracle on the Mountain

Even if you could, you wouldn't want to do something Frank Kelly III did 25 years ago: book 20 non-redeemable flights to Colorado with no clue who was going to fill the seats.

Read more

So, it came as no surprise at all to Myers when Joe texted him, asking him about taking the 20-minute drive out to the cemetery where Michael is buried.

On the drive out there, “we did what we always do,” Myers says. “We laughed, we joked, we kept it really light, and then Coach got to spend some intimate time alone.”

When Breschi returned to the team hotel, he gave a brief speech to his players before their team dinner.

“‘Thank you for bringing me home so I could visit my son today,’” he remembers telling his team. “I started crying. For them to see that, to feel that … They absorbed it.”

The cemetery visit, Breschi’s speech and Patrick Kelly’s impassioned plea to his teammates set the stage for North Carolina’s inspired victory over third-seeded Notre Dame.

•  •  •

Back in the Final Four for the first time since 1993, North Carolina faced Loyola (Maryland) in the semifinals. A second straight week of near-perfect practice produced an 18-13 victory and a spot in the national championship game.

“We were peaking at the right time,” Patrick Kelly says.

On the title-winning team were 14 student-athletes who had competed on FCA Lacrosse teams.


Top-seeded Maryland, winners of 16 in a row, presented the final hurdle. The Tar Heels jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first quarter—the same type of fast start that had propelled them past their previous three opponents—but Maryland clawed its way back to a 6-5 deficit by halftime.

At halftime of every national championship game, the NCAA honors the 25th anniversary title team. This time, it just so happened to be that 1991 North Carolina team that Breschi and Bryan Kelly were a part of. Earlier that day, Breschi had sent an email to the guys coming for the reunion and asked them to help encourage his team as they returned for the third quarter.

“I think you can make a difference,” Breschi wrote.

North Carolina twice overcame two-goal deficits in the second half, most notably when Patrick Kelly set up one goal and scored another for a 13-13 tie with 3:22 to go. The game went to overtime, where Chris Cloutier scored to give North Carolina its long-anticipated national title.

A celebration of the Tar Heels’ past and present ensued. Only one man from the 1991 team was missing: Steve Muir, who had died after a battle with cancer the fall before.

Muir’s jersey number was 32. Cloutier’s shot was North Carolina’s 32nd of the game. It flew into the back of the net with 32 seconds elapsed in a man-up advantage.

Perfect timing.

 “Was God’s hand at work?” Breschi says. “Without question, and in so many ways.”


Bringing It Home Devotional: On His Watch

By Sarah Rennicke



“Be still in the presence of the LORD, and wait patiently for him to act.”  — Psalm 37:7


Will we trust God when this life doesn’t seem to make sense? Will we wait on Him and believe He is working all things for good?

North Carolina men’s lacrosse coach Joe Breschi has walked through dark valleys and forged through long stretches of uncertainty, carrying the heartache of losing his young son, Michael, while working to rebuild a once-prominent lacrosse program. Through seasons that extended into years, Breschi surrounded himself with people who picked him up and kept him accountable through Bible study and leading his family, and he poured his heart into his team. In his pain, he kept pursuing God’s best for the young men entrusted to him. The path to an eventual national title was never clear, but Breschi believed in God’s ultimate purpose and refinement for His glory. And, when the Tar Heels came out on top, it was sweet mercy that came from sour circumstance.

God’s timing can be confounding to our human understanding, but He is not bound by limited thinking. As much as we’d like to sweep away the pain and confusion or tie up loose ends, it’s not up to us to pull things together. If we rush into what isn’t ready, we can actually end up missing what’s best, because we’re not content to be patient. We want immediate results, when it might be to our greatest benefit to wait and watch events unfold. Sometimes our inner work is more important than external situations, and God is more interested in making sure our hearts are whole than skimming over them to fix life’s happenings.

We need to simply rest, taking our hurt, confusion and narrow perspective to God and letting Him move through the mystery of His ways. Where we might think He’s delaying our rescue, He’s actually working all things out as He intends. And He won’t let us fall through the cracks. Not on His watch. Our job is to trust, release our hold on the guesswork of timeline, and be still and know that He is God.

Who are we to question God’s ways, purpose or timing? He sees the other side of the map, the span of eternity, where we only focus on the small points of the here and now.

Let Him lead. Where He takes us, when He moves, and where we end up is, ultimately, perfect. 


• What is the hardest part for you when waiting on God?

• How can you live out each day being active in your faith while still hoping for God to act?

• In what ways can you pour into the people around you in your time of wait?


Psalm 46:10

Isaiah 40:31

James 1:3-4


Father, sometimes it is so hard to see what you are doing when I am swimming in a sea of uncertainty, when I’m plagued by pain and unsure of when the struggle will end. Please help me step back and let you take over my life and heart, and trust that You are working all things out for good, in Your perfect way. Amen.


FCA Lacrosse: Miracle on the Mountain

Remembering the first FCA Lacrosse team at the Vail Lacrosse Shootout in 1992: Its historic run and the lasting impact continuing to be made.

By Drew van Esselstyn



“We had no idea who was going to come,” Kelly III says, “but we said we’d take a step of faith.”

His investment with his wife, Gayle, racked up more than $6,000 on their personal credit card, but it paved the way for the first-ever FCA Lacrosse team, slated to compete in the prestigious Vail Lacrosse Shootout.

In the summer of 1991, around 60 youth lacrosse players were at FCA Sports Camp at Gettysburg (PA)College, a steep increase from the nine enrolled just four years earlier. With the campers tucked in for the night, Kelly III, Dan Britton and a couple of other coaches headed to a local pizza joint and started talking about the possibility of participating at Vail the following year.

Britton, now FCA’s director of international ministry, called to register in The Shootout but was put on a long waiting list. Space opened up the following May, in 1992 (just one month before competition began), but the tournament directors needed an answer the next day. Kelly III booked the flights, and the recruiting began.

“We’d tell guys, ‘We’re going to Colorado for a retreat, and by the way, bring your lacrosse equipment,’” Kelly III says.

The five staples were Britton (Delaware), Kelly III (Cornell) and his three brothers: Bryan Kelly started on North Carolina’s 1991 national championship team, five years after David Kelly had done the same with the Tar Heels, and John Kelly played for Washington (Maryland) College.

TeamPhoto webSoon, they added to their numbers. Goalie Steve Mason (Roanoke) joined on, and George Glyphis (Virginia) and Steve Paletta (Cornell) teamed with Bryan Kelly on the defense. Frank Kelly Jr., known as “BF” for “Big Frank” in lacrosse circles and the father of the four Kelly brothers, came along as the team’s chief ambassador.

While the FCA team had some star power, it lacked depth, an issue exacerbated by playing at altitude against larger, more-established programs in Vail. Still, they made quite a run.

After a victory in its opener, FCA advanced to the quarterfinals to face two-time defending champion Green Turtle, a team led by Gary Gait (the Michael Jordan of lacrosse) and Dave Pietramala (the best defenseman in the sport’s history).

“If there was a spread,” Bryan Kelly says, “it would have been an 8- or 10-goal differential. What happened is they probably stayed out a little later the night before than we did. We took it pretty seriously, pulling that one out 9-8 in double overtime. That was special.”

FCA’s run—dubbed the “Miracle on the Mountain”—continued with a semifinal victory over Team Colorado. The opponent in the championship was Mount Washington, a historic powerhouse that featured goalie Quint Kessenich (Johns Hopkins) and tournament MVP Darren Lowe (Brown).

Mount Washington outlasted FCA, 10-7, in a game Bryan Kelly remembers being so tired he “could hardly move.”

“We gave them a great fight, but personally I never want to watch that game because all my memory from a lacrosse perspective is I was in so much pain physically.”

But the experience was worth so much more than the result.

“God really moved not just on the field, but more importantly off the field, relationally,” Bryan Kelly says. “We got to share our hearts and really challenge each other spiritually and in how we grow in our walk with the Lord.”

TeamPrayingThose remain the same goals 25 years later for FCA Lacrosse, which has swelled to nearly 700 combined coaches and athletes at its coed lacrosse summer camp, still held at Gettysburg. Kelly III is omnipresent there as a coach, encourager and leader.

FCA Lacrosse teams now number more than 100 in the States and internationally. The quality of player drawn to FCA Lacrosse teams remain high as well, and the idea of them contending at national tournaments is not as farfetched as it seemed back in 1992.

“God can do immeasurably more than you could ask or imagine if you give your life to Him,” says Kelly III, who was inducted into the FCA Hall of Champions in 2013. “When I look at what God’s done, I’m blown away. It’s not like I had a clear vision for FCA Lacrosse and we went and accomplished it. The Holy Spirit has led the whole thing.”



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Photos courtesy of Jeffrey A. Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications and Joe Caulfield