GREEN BAY – His name was Tim Kelley, and you can rest assured that he’ll cross Mike McCarthy’s mind on Sunday. He has for the past couple of years around this time, because he’s one of the many reasons the Green Bay Packers coach and his wife Jessica have made what they see as a lifelong philanthropic commitment to the American Family Children’s Hospital at the University of Wisconsin.
“I was in sixth grade. Tim was actually the scorekeeper for our basketball team,” McCarthy recalled, leaning back in an oversized leather chair and letting out an oversized sigh. “We won the diocese championship that year.”
Now, you have to understand two things about the Greenfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where McCarthy grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One: Everybody knew everybody in the tight-knit, blue-collar community.
“He lived two doors up from my Aunt Pat,” McCarthy said. “His brother Kevin was two years older than me.”
And two: If you were a boy growing up in Greenfield, toughness was encoded in your DNA. And that attitude sticks with you for the rest of your life, which might be why the no-drama coach wanted to have this conversation in the privacy of a Lambeau Field back room instead of addressing it at the media auditorium lectern before a thicket of television cameras.
“Back there, back then, you’re not supposed to cry,” McCarthy said. “You’re not allowed to cry.”
But Mike McCarthy did cry. He cried when he went to visit Tim at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh – “It was really the first time I was ever in a hospital,” he said – and he cried when he and his basketball teammates served as pallbearers at Tim’s funeral a short time later, after Tim died of a heart ailment that open-heart surgery couldn’t fix.
Mike Newell cried, too. He cried then, and he cried again on Friday afternoon in the middle of Station 12 in the heart of Greenfield, when the veteran Pittsburgh firefighter – and the kid McCarthy says was the St. Rosalia’s sixth-grade basketball team’s “tough guy” – talked about Tim.
“Your innocence is kind of taken away by having a close friend of yours …” Newell said before choking up and having to gather himself, “… a close friend taken from you.
“It was just hard, as kids. We were boys. We were all growing, getting stronger, and Tim wasn’t. It just didn’t seem fair.”
Then Newell, who still mows the lawns of both of Tim’s sisters and remains close to the Kelley family, chuckled.
“You can see how much of tough guy I am,” he said. “I’m getting old now. I’m more emotional.”
And so is that other tough guy from Greenfield – McCarthy.
Three years ago, he and Jessica started looking for a charitable endeavor they could call their own. McCarthy was already involved in a variety of charities – from several in his Greenfield neighborhood and St. Rosalia’s, to his college alma mater Baker University and the Boys & Girls Club of Green Bay, to the Autism Society of Northeast Wisconsin and the Green Bay-based Seven Loaves project, which builds bakeries in Rwanda – as well as the various charitable commitments that come with being the Packers’ head coach. He and Jessica also started the McCarthy Family Foundation in the last year.
But they wanted what McCarthy called a “family legacy charity event,” and a friend suggested UW Health’s American Family Children’s Hospital.
The idea made sense on paper. As parents, they hadn’t faced in their blended family – daughter Alex, sons Jack and George and daughters Gabrielle and Isabella – the health challenges that Tim Kelley’s mom and dad did, but they wanted their work to involve children, be vital to the state of Wisconsin, and have far-reaching connections.
The hospital, which originally opened in 1920 and moved to its state-of-the-art facility in 2007, is a 62-bed medical and surgical center which annually admits 2,600 inpatients and handles 107,000 outpatient visits from children around the state and across the country. UW pediatricians are nationally and internationally known for their clinical research, specifically in the areas of childhood cancer, pulmonology, juvenile diabetes, genetics, transplantation and asthma.
“So we went down there, spent the day,” McCarthy said. “We walked in, saw the facility, and I was kind of taken aback. The whole layout – just how practical and functional it was – you just say, ‘Boy, they got this right.’
“Then we met with some of the patients and their families. And I think you know me well enough now – I couldn’t even talk. It was, ‘Sign us up. What can we do?’ That’s really how it started.”
Over the past two years, the Mike and Jessica McCarthy Golf Tournament – which this year consists of a cocktail hour, dinner and auction at Monona Terrace on Sunday night and golf at Nakoma Country Club on Monday – has raised more than $210,000 for the hospital. McCarthy’s ambitious goal for this year’s event is $250,000, and he wants it to raise $500,000 annually when it gets “big-time,” as he puts it.
“God willing, I’ll continue to have success here (with the Packers) and we can really make an impact,” said the 48-year-old McCarthy, who is also part of the hospital’s “Sick Kids Can’t Wait” campaign, joining UW coaches and supermodel Cindy Crawford, among others. “Hopefully our children will take it over some day.”
Dr. Ellen Wald, who chairs UW’s Department of Pediatrics, isn’t the type to be impressed by football coaches, even ones who tour the hospital with the Vince Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl XLV, like McCarthy did last year. She spent 27 years at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh before coming to Madison, so she not only gets the Steel City’s ethos, she’s also a Steelers fan.
“I met him at the event last year,” Wald said Friday afternoon. “When he’s visited, he’s visited with every single child. It’s not a perfunctory visit or two. He’s exceptionally committed to what’s going on.
“It’s tremendous. I feel like we’re incredibly fortunate because, you know Wisconsinites and their teams, they’re very rabid. Having the Green Bay Packers head coach is just extraordinary. It gets folks excited. Even those of us who are resistant to this type of larger-than-life celebrity, we can’t help but be swept up in it. It has a big, big impact.
“The kids all know. Having someone like him involved, caring about them, it means a lot to them. It’s extremely meaningful. Not to mention, there’s a great hospital in Milwaukee (Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin), and he chose us. That means a lot.”
And so, on Sunday morning, the McCarthys will travel to Madison. They’ll go straight to the hospital, spend the day there, then host the event that evening at Monona Terrace. Then McCarthy and about two dozen of his players will hit the links on Monday. He admits his golf game isn’t very good, but that’s not why he’ll be there.
He’ll be there for those kids at the hospital, who need those big donors to write big checks. For Alex and Jack and George and Gabrielle and Isabella, who are all healthy and happy. For his niece Grace, whose Histiocytosis is in remission.
And, for Tim Kelley.
“I have no connections to Madison. I just thought, ‘Central part of the state, it’ll touch the whole state.’ It sounded good, it sounded practical,” McCarthy said. “But as soon as we walked in there, it just kind of, we’re supposed to be there. It just knocks you over. And I said, ‘We’re here for a reason.’ And I believe that.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.