'You're just trying to make them smile'
Mike McCarthy wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He is not, no matter what you may have heard, a bad golfer.
The Green Bay Packers coach is sitting in his third-floor office at Lambeau Field, trying to sum up last weekend’s fundraising event for the University of Wisconsin’s American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison. He and his wife, Jessica, adopted the hospital as their legacy family charity four years ago, and after bringing in roughly $500,000 in its first three years, the Mike and Jessica McCarthy Golf Invitational raised a record $325,000 last weekend.
“Bad? I wouldn’t say bad,” he says with a wide smile, preparing to launch into his golfing resume. “I’m average. A lot more potential than performance, let’s say that.
“Now, you’d like to have me on your scramble team. I can hit shots. I actually played golf at a pretty good level at one point in my life. You know I was on the golf team in high school for two years? Then finally the football coach said, ‘Enough.’ I used to miss practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays for golf tournaments. I’d shoot in the high 70s, low 80s. But I stopped playing when I got to college. The bug has just never hit me.”
As a result, his game is definitely rough around the edges. Gary Wolter, the CEO of Madison Gas & Electric, was in McCarthy’s foursome. Although Wolter is quick to point out that McCarthy drained back-to-back 20-foot puts on holes 14 and 15 to start a five-birdie run to close the round, his scouting report on McCarthy the player is brutally honest.
“He hits the ball a long way, but it’s not always straight,” Wolter says with a laugh. “He could be a lot better if he played.
“But I’ll tell you this: I had not met Mike before. I will probably never talk to him again. It’s not like we’re buddies. But being out playing with him, the highest praise you can give somebody is that he’s a good guy and you would ask him to be in your foursome (again) and have a beer with him afterward. That’s the guy he is. I’ve played in enough celebrity golf outings, and a lot of these guys, playing in a foursome, you can tell they don’t want to be there. They’re on their phone, on their email – he was nothing like that.”
With training camp starting in late July, there’s a good chance McCarthy won’t play another hole the rest of the summer. But if that turns out to be the case, at least he’ll be going out on a high note, given how his team finished last Monday at the Legends of Bergamont
“We won the tournament,” McCarthy says, proudly. “In all my years of playing in charity events as an assistant coach, coordinator, head coach, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team that even came close to winning.”
Then, a pause.
“But I was the worst player on the team.”
The worst player on the team. So why, you might ask, are we spending so much time (506 words, to be exact) establishing McCarthy’s golfing bona fides – or lack thereof? Why not focus on the other aspects of the weekend – from the year-long planning and organizing he and his staff do, to the visits he and Jessica make at the hospital on Sunday morning, to the gala he presides over on Sunday night at Monona Terrace?
Well, you have to understand a couple things about McCarthy. One, despite his tough-guy Pittsburgh exterior, the father of five – he and Jessica have daughter Alex, sons Jack and George and toddler daughters Gabrielle and Isabella in their blended family – is a good man who can be a downright softy at times.
And two, the last thing he wants is for you to see or read about that. He has no time for drama or syrupy emotion. After all, this is the guy still hasn’t forgiven himself for dropping to his knees during the Arizona Cardinals’ game-winning fumble return for a touchdown in overtime in the 2009 NFC playoffs – a moment of raw devastation captured by NFL Films’ cameras for the world to see. This is the guy who famously said “I’m not in the mood for drama tonight” after getting hosed by the NFL’s replacement refs last September in Seattle. He’s not particularly thrilled with the idea of this story to begin with, other than the attention it’ll draw to the cause that is near and dear to him.
So when the conversation shifts to him going to room-to-room at the hospital visiting patients on Sunday morning, or to the tears that 600 donors saw in his eyes as he spoke Sunday night, well, the tough-guy coach would rather talk about what a crummy – ahem, average – golfer he is.
“Let’s not make the whole article about me getting emotional now,” he scolds. “It’s because I care. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m there for a reason.”
Yes, he is.
Amy High wants to make one thing perfectly clear: While she has no idea whether Mike McCarthy can coach a football team or hit a golf ball, she knows what he can do for a family in crisis.
She is standing outside American Family Children’s Hospital, talking on her cell phone as a stiff breeze comes off Lake Mendota. It is several days after McCarthy visited her 14-year-old son, Hunter Hepler, in his hospital room, and a little over a week since Hunter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He’d been out of surgery roughly 72 hours when the Packers coach came to visit, and at that point, Hunter hadn’t said more than a word or two.
“He really wasn’t even awake. He would open his eyes once in awhile,” High says. “But when coach McCarthy came in – we told Hunter he was coming – he opened his eyes, he kept his eyes open the entire time he was here. He even said, ‘Hi, coach.’ It was just amazing. He hadn’t done that for any of us. It was an incredible experience for us. It was encouraging.
“I don’t know a whole lot about football, but Hunter told him what position he played. Coach McCarthy said, ‘If you can rush the passer, that’s where the money’s at.’ And Hunter smiled and said, ‘OK, Coach.’ That was just really incredible. I don’t think he realizes how much of an impact something small like coming in for a visit means. That just meant the world to us. Hunter still remembers. His speech therapist will come in and she references that day every time she talks to him.”
High’s experience with McCarthy is, remarkably, the norm. Amanda Watter is a Child Life assistant at the hospital. Her job description is to “just make the hospital a little more fun, brighten the kids’ day,” which sounds like an almost impossible task. But she and her colleagues do just that, and McCarthy’s room-to-room visits are among the best ways to do it.
“He is amazing with the patients and families. Just the impact that he has with them is incredible,” says Watter, who has toured the hospital with McCarthy the past two years. “It’s amazing to see the interaction he has with them. Their faces just light up with excitement when he walks into the room. He’s a very personable and genuine guy. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s just able to get down on the kids’ level and they just … that impact he has is amazing.
“I think it’s more than Mike McCarthy even knows. We’re just so lucky that we have his support here at the hospital. He’s just such a genuine guy. It’s just really neat to see.”
By the grace of God, McCarthy says, he and Jessica have never been in these families’ situations. But as a parent, it’s not hard for McCarthy to put himself in their shoes. When he first started making the visits, he admits, he wasn’t so sure of himself. In 2011, he was able to bring the Lombardi Trophy from the team’s Super Bowl XLV victory with him to each room. After back-to-back disappointing playoff exits, he doesn’t have a trophy to carry around as a crutch.
But he doesn’t need it.
“I don’t want to say I’m more comfortable, because you’re never comfortable in that situation. I think I do a better job of knowing what to say, if that makes any sense,” McCarthy says. “Let’s be honest, there’s always a couple rooms you walk in there and you … you have some tough moments.
“With Hunter, he’s a football player from this small town. He’s laying there sleeping; his head is all bandaged up. He’s a big kid; you can see he plays high-school football. His dad’s a big guy; his grandfather’s a big guy.
“I said to him, ‘Hey Hunter,’ and all of a sudden his eyes start opening. He woke up, and his mom started crying. So then, I just kept talking to him. Wow. That was powerful. He told me he played defensive end. We had a short conversation. Then you walk out of there and you go, ‘Boy …’ You’re just trying to make them smile.
“You know what the good thing about Sunday’s visit was? I think the first four or five kids I saw, they were going home. They stuck around just to say hello. You get to be part of the joy of going home. That’s a big win.”
Hunter was not one of those kids. His road to recovery will be a long one. From tiny New Rome, Wis., which is about 20 minutes south of Wisconsin Rapids, he’s still in the hospital in Madison. Once he heals from surgery, he’ll be going five days a week to Chicago for six to eight weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Even though his doctors termed his surgery a success, there were cancer cells they simply couldn’t get. After the radiation and chemo, Hunter will rest before starting 10 months of maintenance treatments. On Wednesday, his doctors told him that he won’t be playing football this fall.
“It’s going to be a long haul,” High says. “He’s 14, and he’s 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds. He’s a great big, strong kid. That’s another thing that makes this very difficult. This would be his sixth year of playing football, and they had to tell him he’s not going to be able to play – and he may never be able to play. I don’t think he quite grasps it all right now.
“We’re taking it day by day and trying to be encouraging for him. That’s why anything like that visit from Coach, we cherish.”
Jim Gilmore wants to make one thing perfectly clear: The speech was phenomenal, no matter what the guy who delivered it says.
Gilmore, the development program manager at American Family Children's Hospital, is in his car, driving north on U.S. Highway 151. He’s on his way from Madison to Green Bay, where he’ll sit down with McCarthy, Packers staffers Lisa Waeghe, Matt Klein and Cathy Dworak and others to “break down the film,” to so speak, of last weekend’s event.
Gilmore was in the audience last Sunday night for McCarthy’s speech, and he walked around the hospital with the coach earlier in the day. So he knew where McCarthy was emotionally when he took the stage.
“You know Coach. He’s the master of preparation,” Gilmore says. “As he stated that night, he put a lot of time and thought into that speech, and he felt he was prepared to deliver it. I’ve known Coach for four years, and I think one of the most difficult things to control as it relates to the hospital and his visits is the emotional impact of those visits.
“He had to compose himself a couple times coming out of those rooms. And I’m sure as he’s up there talking in front of 600 people, all these thoughts are going through his mind. But I tell ya, Coach is so genuine. He’s the gruff football coach on the sidelines but he bares his soul when he’s in that hospital.”
Gilmore’s appreciation for McCarthy’s commitment is very personal. A decade ago, Gilmore was a senior account executive at WISC-TV in Madison when his 13-month-old son, James, was diagnosed with leukemia. His wife, Kim, was pregnant at the time.
“We lived in that hospital for four months,” Gilmore says.
Later, after James recovered, Gilmore began volunteering at the hospital, then decided that wasn’t enough. He left the television business to take his current job at the hospital in 2006. James, now a seventh grader who’s “trending to be the tallest Gilmore,” according to his dad, was among the former patients who participated in Sunday night’s event, as he introduced ex-Packers center and radio/TV broadcaster Larry McCarren.
“To look at him today, you’d never know James was sick a day in his life,” Gilmore says. “I almost feel like this is a life’s calling after what we went through. We’re just so grateful for everything Coach and Jessica do for us. Four years into it, we’ve raised nearly $850.000. This year, it’s $325,000-plus, and we’re not done counting yet.”
Which is all wonderful, and McCarthy couldn’t be prouder or more excited about the future of the event. But he’s still ticked about losing it during his speech. He should be better than that, he says.
“You know, it’s not comfortable talking publicly for me. And then, to get emotional, it’s hard to put yourself out there,” McCarthy says, shaking his head. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ But it doesn’t feel right to me. You’ve got 600 some people there, and you put so much time into it. I mean, I typed it up, I had it in a book – I never do that. I wanted to really do a good job. And then I get up there, and hell, I was on the second line … and I was off the reservation. I lost my spot; I didn’t know where I was. The emotion takes you over.”
McCarthy stops and takes a deep breath, to make sure the emotion doesn’t take him over again. He recalls hearing the Gilmore family’s story for the first time, shakes his head again and summons one of the signature phrases of his coaching philosophy.
“You talk about ‘stacking successes,’” McCarthy says. “You’re trying to make sure your child gets through one day to have another day. You can’t really get into their world, you can only support it. After hearing James’ story, that’s how I look at it. I’m just there to show support. I’m just trying to help.
“Jessica and I, we’re kind of learning on the run here. This thing is only going to get better.”
Unlike his golf game. And that’s perfectly fine.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.