Joe may have been the self-proclaimed “supervisor” of the McCarthy clan in Greenfield, Pa., but Ellen didn’t play around either. Mrs. McCarthy chuckled this week as she remembered raising five kids in the south Pittsburgh suburb. The quintet stayed out of serious trouble and each child graduated college.
The one named Michael, as Ellen still calls him, will coach the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl in seven days. But Ellen remembers the day he cried after a trip to the doctor.
“I can remember a baseball game he was to pitch in a tournament or something and he got the sniffles real bad – sinus type of thing,” Ellen said. “The doctor told me you’ve got to keep him away from ballfields, dust, all this stuff. I said OK.
“He said put cold compresses on him and gave me saline to put up his nose and stuff.”
Mike McCarthy, 47, as the world knows him, was in tears and asked his mother if he had to miss the ballgame. Ellen struck a deal.
An hour of sleep.
Use the vaporizer and the variety of other prescribed medicines.
Then he could play.
“He just lit up like a light bulb, he was fine,” Ellen said. “We did what we had to do.
“I wasn’t going to let him not play, that’s part of life — growing up.”
“Do what we have to do” could be the McCarthy family slogan.
Now, Mike is taking a team to play for the NFL championship with 15 players on injured reserve. A team that needed two consecutive wins to qualify for the playoffs and won three straight road games to reach the Super Bowl. They did what they had to do.
Joe worked in the police department, fire department and even owned his own bar while raising a family. He and Ellen would head in different directions when the kids had separate sporting events on the same night. They did what they had to do.
When Mike was young in the coaching business and basically broke, he worked the late shift in a Pennsylvania tollbooth. He did what he had to do.
There were plenty of jobs in the Pittsburgh area “if you were interested in working,” as Joe McCarthy put it.
There were steel mills along the Monongahela River with coke (a fuel derived from coal) plants, pipe companies and the American Bridge Company in the area. Specialty shops lined the Allegheny River.
“Everybody worked hard, that’s the way it was,” Ellen said with a sweet, matter-of-fact laugh. “To survive and provide, you had to work for it. Nobody was going to hand it to us. That’s the way it was.
“Sometimes you have to be a little strict in the beginning when you’re rearing them. But they caught onto it. I could take them anywhere. They were well behaved. I didn’t have to worry because they just knew. You didn’t have to bang ‘em up or anything, you just gave them the look and they knew.”
Athletics was a third parent in the household. All five McCarthy children were heavily involved in sports. Even Ellen played basketball in her youth.
Joe would take them to all kinds of sporting events and they even saw Tony Dorsett play at Pitt.
“Don’t give ‘em too much breathing room,” Joe said in a graveled tone. “Keeps them busy. Keeps them occupied.”
Obviously, the sports world stuck with Mike a little deeper than the others. He took a graduate assistant job at Fort Hays State (Kansas) in 1987 after earning his master’s at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan.
Two years later he cold-called Mike Gottfried at the University of Pittsburgh to inquire about a graduate assistant job.
This was while he infamously worked nights in a tollbooth on the Pennsylvania turnpike.
Gottfried, who also hired Ravens coach John Harbaugh as a graduate assistant, said he could see something special in McCarthy.
“He was willing to sacrifice,” Gottfried said.
Gottfried currently resides in Mobile, Ala. and works with Team Focus – an organization that provides a role model for young men without father figures. He has been using McCarthy as an example a lot lately.
“It’s a great story,” Gottfried said. “Anything’s possible if you want to work and you want to learn, you can make it.
“It’s one of the best stories to tell because … the Super Bowl is big. When you tell young boys 10-18, hey, this is a story of a guy that sacrificed. He had a vision and went after it. He paid the price. … He wanted an opportunity and sometimes you miss your opportunity. He didn’t miss it. He got it.”
Joe and Ellen would never discourage any of their children from chasing their dream even though most of the young adults Mike’s age never left the area.
Joe and Ellen have lived seven decades in the Pittsburgh suburb and have no plans of leaving.
But to aspire to coach in the NFL just out of Baker University was a monumental decision.
“When he first came home with a master's degree and was shopping around … I said you’ve got a master's degree and you’re going to work for free?” Joe said. “But I understood he had to do that to get his foot in the door. That’s what he did, which was fine with us.”
“I knew it would be hard because he wasn’t able to play in the NFL, we weren’t connected in that,” Ellen said. “He said this is what I want to do.”
Joe and Ellen received a little taste of Mike’s everyday life this week. They’ve done several interviews while preparing to go to Dallas with more than 20 family members.
“I’m just pleased my parents are handling it very well,” McCarthy said. “They’re a little overworked. I got a kick out of my father. ‘Why do I have to answer the same damn questions over and over?’
“I said trust me, I know exactly how you feel. But they’re enjoying it.”
They’ve enjoyed the entire journey.
And Ellen couldn’t have picked a better destination for her son than Green Bay. She called the people thoughtful and respectful and compared the atmosphere to Pittsburgh.
“The way the clouds were and everything, the first time we drove up there, I said to my husband, I feel like I’m driving into heaven,” Ellen said. “It was so beautiful. I never forgot that.”