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Fate or coincidence? McCarthy faces his hometown team

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Michael Hunt
January 31, 2011
— While Art Rooney’s grandson was attending Bishop Boyle High School in the late ’70s, the kid had to run an errand and asked a classmate to join him.

When the two arrived at the appointed place, the grand patriarch of the Pittsburgh Steelers himself just happened to be there.


The mother of the boy who tagged along on that afternoon three decades ago remembers her son’s reaction as if it were yesterday.


“Mom! Mom!” she recalled him yelling as he ran through the front door of the family’s home in the Greenfield section of southeast Pittsburgh. “You won’t believe who I met today!”


Ellen McCarthy said her child, whom she still calls Michael, behaved as any teenager might after a chance meeting with the most famous man in his little world that spanned the short distance from his house to that hallowed patch of ground where the Steelers played at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers.


“He was in awe,” she said.


No matter whether you believe in coincidence or if things happen for a reason, it’s interesting to know that the generations-deep McCarthy family of Pittsburgh, as unconditionally loyal to a professional football team as anyone in this ever-true black-and-gold city could be, now have a Green Bay helmet as the centerpiece of their living room coffee table.


A little more than five years ago it was given to the McCarthys by Dan Rooney, the son of the grand patriarch of the Pittsburgh Steelers, on the occasion of their son being hired as the head coach of the Packers.


And on Sunday in Arlington, Texas, Ellen and Joe’s oldest son will coach the Packers in Super Bowl XLV against the team that they brought him up to adore.


“I can’t believe it,” Ellen said. “We’re down to the last game. As soon as we beat the Steelers …..”


“And it’s going to happen,” Joe said.


“Yes, sir. You heard it here first.”


Inside the McCarthys’ two-story brick home in a blue-collar neighborhood that could be Bay View if not for steep hills that surround it, there are Packers banners, Packers nutcrackers, Packers pictures, Packers cheeseheads, Packers everything. On this snowy afternoon, Ellen and Joe were dressed in Packers regalia.


And right in the heart of city that supports its football team like no other outside the place where Mike works, a “Go, Pack, Go” sign proudly, if not defiantly, hangs on the front door. This open rebellion has spread exactly one house down, where the neighbors have draped a Packers flag on the porch railing against the prevailing decorations that adorn the neighborhood.


“They are very happy for us,” Ellen said. “Michael won. It’s going to be great. I’m very proud of him.”


But the McCarthys raised five children, all of whom have grown up to be successful and productive citizens. It’s just that Mike happens to be the most famous. And like a good mother who ran a tight household with zero-tolerance rules, she doesn’t play favorites.


As Joe got up to answer one of three phones constantly ringing, Ellen said, “When you have five kids, you keep them busy playing sports. There was discipline. There were boundaries. They knew their boundaries.


“Michael was always a pleasant and happy child. When you talked, he listened. He was good. But I’ve been blessed. All my children were good.”


A ‘Pittsburgh macho’

Upon his hiring in 2006, McCarthy was characterized as “Pittsburgh macho” by Packers general manager Ted Thompson. There is a certain strut that comes with being from a corner of Pennsylvania that has produced so much remarkable athletic talent. Dan Marino, for example, grew up not far from McCarthy in the Oakland neighborhood, where Forbes Field once stood.


You saw that strut around Wisconsin from Barry Alvarez and George Karl, Pittsburghers both. McCarthy is filled with it to the point that about half of his staff is either from Pittsburgh or played for the Steelers. But what exactly is Pittsburgh macho?


“I don’t know how to answer that question,” McCarthy said. “I’m proud of my hometown. The Steelers are my second-favorite team. I grew up the right way.”


By living the example, Joe McCarthy made sure his son knew the value of hard work. He was a policeman, then a fireman, and later supplemented the family’s income by buying a dump truck and renovating neighborhood homes, including the one in which Mike was raised.


“He worked with me,” Joe said. “I was always out hustling for a living.”


But Joe’s most notable moonlighting gig—the one that has given his son genuine Wisconsin credibility—was the neighborhood bar he owned when Mike was in high school.


Joe McCarthy’s Bar and Grill—now called Chasers In The Run—is just down the hill, near the now-shuttered steel factory it once served. By its house-like appearance and the way it blends into the neighborhood, it could be any corner tap on the south side of Milwaukee.


After Sunday Mass, Joe, Mike and another son would clean the joint. Mike stocked beer and did a little bartending when he came home from college on summer break, at least when he wasn’t monopolizing the pool table.


With your shot and a beer at Chasers, you even get a special dispensation for Packers talk during the week leading to the Super Bowl. The same is true around the corner at St. Rosalia, where Mike went to elementary school.


School supports Mike

In the school windows are signs supporting the Steelers and the Packers.


“We are supposed to be neutral,” said St. Rosalia principal Sarah Tonski, “but go, Pack.”


There are pictures of


McCarthy in the school hallway and in the main office. He donates about $100,000 each year to the neighborhood, and a lot of it goes to St. Rosalia.


“We are very grateful,” Tonski said.


Not far from the school is Magee Park, a multiuse recreational facility with green walls that proclaim Greenfield to be “a fine residential community.” It was there that McCarthy learned to play his first sporting love, baseball, and became just good enough at football to be a tight end at a small Kansas college.


His parents had no thought that McCarthy wanted to coach until he came home one summer from Baker University. As he watched his sister play a basketball game at Bishop Boyle, Ellen said she noticed her son yelling at the coach to try to get the team to play harder.


Joe saw it again at Soldier Field, where McCarthy threw a whole lot of body English into his emotional plea to get Sam Shields to go down in the closing moments of the NFC Championship Game against the Chicag Bears.


“He was sure worked up when they threw that interception,” Joe said. “That guy (Shields) is a rookie, right? He looked like he was trying to run it back. The veterans were telling him go get down. Mike was running up the sideline trying to get him to do the same.”


As they do for most home games, the McCarthys drove from Pittsburgh to Chicago for the conference title game. And wouldn’t you know it, somebody sideswiped their car in a parking deck without leaving a note. But the sensation they had after Shields got the message was worth considerably more than the trip to the neighborhood body shop.


When the game was over, security came to their seats and escorted them outside the Packers locker room. But there was one problem with getting to see their son right away.


“He was busy getting the Halas Trophy from Terry Bradshaw,” Ellen said.


Somewhere in Hollywood, a scriptwriter is being rejected on that treatment.


“I thought it was awesome to have Terry Bradshaw present the Halas Trophy in the locker room,” McCarthy would later say. “Personally, I got a charge out of that. Terry was obviously the quarterback in my youth during the ‘70s when they won the four Super Bowls.


“But trust me, I’m a Green Bay Packer and it’s important for us to bring the Lombardi Trophy back home.”


Pittsburgh still home for McCarthy’s parents

Home for the parents, though, is still Pittsburgh. When they returned Monday, all manner of people were knocking at the door with the Packers sign. The reaction to the local guy coaching against the Steelers in the Super Bowl was so overwhelming that they turned off the lights, went upstairs and didn’t answer the phones for a couple of days.


But now they’re packing for Dallas, along with their 14 grandkids and the rest of the McCarthy clan.


And that Pittsburgh macho thing? It’s probably just another way of getting to the top after scrubbing the bathrooms at Joe McCarthy’s Bar and Grill.


“It shows that hard work always pays off,” Ellen McCarthy said. “I am so happy that Michael is getting to live his dream.”



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