When her brother died, she wrote a moving tribute on a frisbee. Now, his memory is being shared from one city to the next.
When Natalie Kelly lost her brother Nelson Kelly in a Sept. 2021 car crash, the grief of losing her “best friend” was almost too much to bear. After all, the siblings had been “attached at the hip” since they were kids. Their mutual love of the sport known as disc golf, formerly known as frisbee golf, made them even closer.
“I was really good at throwing the disc, but he’d still make fun of me, in a loving way,” Natalie, who lives in Ontario, Canada, tells Yahoo Life about the flying-disc sport, with rules similar to those of golf, played on nine- to 15-hole courses. For years, along with their mutual friend Stewart, the trio became avid disc golfers, routinely going on day trips to various courses to laugh, play and forget about their problems. Those are the moments Natalie misses the most.
“When he was killed, it crushed us all. I know my life is always going to be a little bit worse without him, and I have to live with that somehow,” she says. Since Nelson’s death, Natalie has paid tribute to him in a number of ways — including a tattoo with the letters “DEGU,” which was on his license plate. “It stood for ‘don’t ever give up,’” she explains.
Her level of devotion reached new heights last year, when she and Stewart commemorated the one-year anniversary of Nelson’s death by writing a special message on a few disc-golf discs — smaller and denser than regular frisbees, designed to fly faster and farther — and placing them at their favorite courses, hoping fellow players would enjoy a game in honor of his memory and share their experience on social media.
“This disc is in memory of Nelson Kelly,” the message reads. “Please toss this hole for him, then leave on next hole for next player. If found on last hole, please take to a new course. Post pics on IG, #NelsonKelly952.”
Natalie also created an Instagram account, where she routinely posts photos and fun memories of Nelson’s life: “I loved him so much, I want to keep his legacy and memory alive with this disc and account,” she captioned the first post, featuring an image of one of the discs.
What happened next was unexpected: In the following months, the discs traveled across various parks and courses in Ontario, all of them picked up by kind strangers who played a round in Nelson’s honor and shared photos with the hashtag #NelsonKelly952, which has collected 45 posts to date.
This week, however, one went international when Buffalo, N.Y.-native Adam Jacobs picked it up at an Ontario disc golf course and decided to bring it across the border to the U.S. He shared a photo of its journey in an April 23 post to a disc-golf Facebook group, where it's been liked nearly 200,000 times and shared by over 10,000 people. "Hope everyone keeps it moving," he wrote.
For Jacobs, who’s been playing disc golf for over 10 years, being able to keep Nelson’s memory alive through the sport he loves felt personal.
“I have an older brother, so I can only imagine what Natalie had to go through,” he tells Yahoo Life, noting that he’s lost an aunt and a grandmother he was especially close to. “It's so hard when you lose somebody before it's their time to go. This is a great way for Nelson to be remembered. I wanted to move it on and keep it going.”
Natalie says she’s received messages of support from as far away as Spain, Germany and even South Africa. “I thought it'd travel to a couple courses around Ontario,” she says of the discs and their story. “I never imagined in a million years it would take off.”
Though she's of course still mourning — along with her parents and other sibling, plus Nelson’s widow and 5-year-old son — Natalie says they’ve all found comfort in the fact that the world gets to experience, through the magic of social media, the kind of joy Nelson prompted others to feel when he was still here.
“I never met Adam, we’re all strangers, and that’s the most beautiful part about this,” she says. “It just blows my mind in today’s world, because so often there’s such negativity in the news. It’s wonderful to see this have such a life. I hope Nelson is watching.”
As the orange disc continues to travel across America (its latest stop was in Lake Erie, as of April 27), Jacobs says he and other disc golfers are eager to see where it lands next. "I want to keep an eye out to see where it goes," he says. "People are really responding to it. I hope it travels far and wide."
Natalie, who is also a cancer survivor, hopes Nelson's story can help others who are grieving their loved ones to feel "hope" when they feel there is none.
"Tell your people that you love them while they are here, don't wait," she says. "It goes a long way. Don't be afraid to say stuff that will make you feel vulnerable. You're gonna make somebody's day, and that's more important."
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