One-on-one: Packers’ McCarthy opens up about helping children in need

GREEN BAY – In a cozy space just outside the press room inside Lambeau Field, Mike McCarthy settled into a chair, took off his white baseball cap with the embroidered “G” on it and ran his hand through his short hair.

“There’s nothing …” he said, before pausing, his voice lowing to just above the whir of equipment in the room.

“I mean … your … your children – you never want to see anything wrong with your children.”

It’s a glimpse into more private moments during his visit American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, where there is a tremor, a pitch in his bass. There’s a brume around the eyes; a request for a moment of solitude. There is the need to put himself back together after visiting every room over all five floors.

McCarthy is a husband, son and a father. To know such warmth exists shouldn’t be surprising.

Yet on the sidelines of Lambeau Field, in front of cameras and microphones, he seems devoid of emotional pliability.

He has presence – to command a pack of alpha dogs on the field the way he must, that word is definition enough. He fills any space, from the cozy green room inside Lambeau Field, to the 250 square feet in a hospital room, to a convention center. His voice, that bass tinted with Pittsburgh English, could stop anyone cold.

His countenance belies that warmth, and something else.

It’s the understanding, the instant kinship with the parents and siblings of children being treated at American Family that does it. Superficially, there is a picture posed for, or an autograph given. It runs so much deeper than that, though.

“No one hurts more than the parents, particularly the mother, when things happen with your kids,” he said in a sit-down with “To go down there and feel that you can maybe put a smile on the family and the child’s face for a short period of time.”

There are discussions about travel, engineering and, of course, football. Sometimes they talk about players, or the Super Bowl, and the kids are engaged. Sometimes the child in the room is battling hard, and a coach from the Green Bay Packers doesn’t mean anything more than a few degrees of heat in the room.

McCarthy knows this can be true. That’s where, to those who witness it, he shines.

“It reminds you that you’re not alone, that there are people outside that are thinking about you and your challenges every day,” said Jim Gilmore.

Gilmore is the father of a son who is a childhood cancer survivor, which led to his role as an American Family Hospital development program manager. He has accompanied McCarthy on his visits and helps manage the Mike and Jessica McCarthy Golf Invitational.

“You get into this little micro world, where it’s you and your family and your sick little boy and your sick little girl and you’re just trying to find a way to get to that next sunrise,” he said. “Every day, especially because these kids are so sick, every day is important, to get through that day so there might be another and a step closer to a cure or healing.”

The Event

The children cared for at the hospital, those who come from across not only all of Wisconsin but 48 other states, too, are why he and his wife host the Mike and Jessica McCarthy Golf Invitational, an event celebrating its fourth year this weekend. It begins with a dinner and auction at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison on Sunday and then golf at The Legend at Bergamont in nearby Oregon on Monday.

The event has grown from $50,000 raised in 2009 to a goal of over $300,000 this year alone. The first three years has brought in over a half million dollars for the hospital, helping it in its campaign to add two floors to the building, which includes the construction of neonatal and pediatric/universal intensive care space.

“That’s going to be a great day to walk in there and see that, to know you’re a part of making a great place better,” McCarthy said. “That’s exciting stuff.”

The success so far is a direct testament to the McCarthys, who are more than just the name on a banner. Mike pounds the pavement and works the phones for donations, and has – unsurprisingly – created an organizational chart for the event that pulls together personnel from the hospital and the Packers. Jessica is just involved on the ground level, and on the plane ride home the two begin calculating how to make the next event even better.

“There is very little that happens that doesn’t run by Mike and Jessica,” said David Thomason, a friend of the McCarthys who coordinated their first visit to the hospital in 2009. “Put it his way – we don’t sit down and brief him on what he’s getting ready to go into. He already knows. And what we’re getting ready to get into is what he has planned.”

Following a mini-camp workout on a rainy afternoon in Green Bay this week, McCarthy opened up about a place and the people that have captured the heart of him and his wife.

“The kids, they’re there for a reason,” he said. “It’s a desire, and a need to give back. It’s just the way I was raised. My parents (Joe and Ellen) are still today very active in our neighborhood and community back in Pittsburgh; always have been. It’s just something that’s part of my upbringing.”

The Start

The genesis of the McCarthy Foundation and the annual golf invitational was what could be considered happenstance, but it is what those at the hospital deem “divine intervention.”

Thomason, part owner the Sun Prairie-based memorabilia website Fan 4 Ever, met McCarthy through Brett Favre, and when the coach started looking for a way to make a lasting, charitable imprint on the community he turned to Thomason for help.

The American Family Children’s Hospital has always been important to Thomason, who splits his time between Madison and Arizona, put the McCarthys on a plane to the state capital. Since the hospital had no prior connection to the Packers, he felt it was an opportunity to form a relationship.

So, he and the McCarthys spent the day with Gilmore, first playing golf and then touring the hospital. It was an experience that not only affected the McCarthys, but shed a new light on his personality – especially when it came to the visits.

That light struck Thomason immediately – only he wondered if McCarthy was bothered by the families wishing to take up some of his time, rather than focusing all his attention to the child. It was a question that brought out the side of McCarthy most feel they know.

“He almost chewed me out,” Thomason remembered with a chuckle. “He said everybody in that room is special. That’s what I learned from Mike. It wasn’t just going in and posing for a picture or giving an autograph to the kid or chatting with him a little bit.”

Perhaps being able to mix his own feelings as a parent and the experience visiting a Pittsburgh children’s hospital for a grade school friend who eventually passed away due to a heart condition, McCarthy had an innate understanding that he wasn’t just there for the child. The brother or sister, and mom and dad, were fighting just as hard, their lives forever altered.

Gilmore, whose 12-year-old son James was a one time resident of the American Family Children’s Hospital, was blown away by McCarthy’s innate ability to understand, and to connect.

“He understands the battle, and suiting up for battle, and that’s what these families do every day,” said Gilmore, remembering the months he spent bedside with his son. “Believe me, it’s a transformational experience. Literally, every day, your job becomes focusing in your child and putting him on that healing path. So coach – from the time he stepped in that first room – he got it. It’s uncanny. He finds a way to connect with every family. In 30 seconds. How he does that, I don’t know. But he does. It’s a gift. It really is a gift.”

The Driving Force

Perhaps that ability comes from Jessica, an often unseen force behind the man.

“You can see what a loving soul she is,” Gilmore said. “When I think of Jessica, I think of the words kind and gentle. She is just a kindred soul and she complements coach so well. His persona on the sideline is this gruff football coach, all business, but I tell you what, when Jessica walks in the room his whole persona changes.”

In previous discussions about the golf outing, McCarthy always said it was important for him to start such an endeavor with his wife – and it’s the reason her name shares the spotlight with his. He could’ve easily lent his name and status and just shown up, but the pair are hands-on, devoting precious time together to others.

“She’s extremely active in the children’s school and all the things that go on with the extra activities and obviously the demands of my job, so our time together as a family is short,” he said. “But, this is something we feel very important about. It’s really driven by our desire to help children.”

The corners of his mouth lifted.

“Jessica is an amazing woman,” he said. “She doesn’t crave the limelight, or being up front. It’s not natural for me either – it’s something you have to learn to do, learn to deal with. She’s so phenomenal around the kids. That’s a natural for her. She’s very loving and a phenomenal mother. It’s neat to go through it together because she has such a great peace and brightness to her personality.”

One of the primary reasons behind the couple’s dedication to the hospital and golf outing are their children and step-children, ranging in age from two to 21. The McCarthys have begun introducing them to the outing and the hospital the last two years because it’s not just another cause.

“I’m trying to establish a foundation that will carry over to my children,” he said. “I want them to understand and be educated on the importance of giving back when you’re blessed the way we are as a family.”

The outing, the McCarthy Family Foundation, is a legacy, one McCarthy hopes lasts long past his tenure as Packers coach. It’s one started four years ago, with some serendipity, and has developed into something much greater.

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