Love Like Mountains

Love Like Mountains

Fall 2013_Spreads (dragged) 3A reporter asks Derek McCartney if he has anything else to say.

He pauses, and thinks.

“I guess I just have one request,” he says.

“Yeah,” says the reporter.

“In the past, when people have done articles on my family, they have described me and T.C. as ‘half-brothers.’”

“Okay,” the reporter acknowledges.

“I just ask that you wouldn’t do that,” he says. “I don’t want people to look at us as half-brothers. We grew up together. We love each other. Just like any real brothers would.”

Derek McCartney pauses.

“We’re real brothers.”

T.C. McCartney

It was a Saturday evening in 1988, and University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney was relaxing on his living room sofa with his wife, Lyndi.

Bill was unwinding. It had been a big day. His Buffaloes had won at home that afternoon; and after finishing 1-10 four seasons before, he had finally built Colorado into a program that was nationally ranked. Now Bill sat on the sofa with his wife and watched the scores from the day come across his television screen.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Lyndi felt a hand on her shoulder, too. They turned around. It was their daughter, Kristy. It looked like she’d seen a corpse.

“Mom, dad,” she hesitated. “I’m pregnant.”

Bill and Lyndi stood up immediately. They did not scold her. They did not bombard her with questions. They did not judge her. They hugged her.

They held her.

“We told her that we love her unconditionally,” Bill, 73, says slowly, reflecting his age. “Whatever she was going through, we would go through it with her. And that’s always been the way it’s been (with our family).”

Nine months later, Timothy Chase McCartney was born. They called him T.C.

As for T.C.’s father, it happened to be Bill’s starting quarterback.

Sal Aunese.

Hectic Offseason

Bill wanted Sal to marry Kristy, to join the family, to do things the right way.

“The difficulty was that my daughter was more or less on her own,” Bill says weakly, as if the mere thought of those years takes it out of him. “Sal got her pregnant, but he didn’t love her. She really loved him.”

The McCartneys protected Kristy and Sal from the media, and the knowledge of her pregnancy stayed within the two families. But things worsened.

During the 1988 Freedom Bowl, halfway into Kristy’s pregnancy, coaches and teammates noticed Sal didn’t seem like himself. The coming months consisted of Sal puking up blood, coughing incessantly and him being unable to participate in team workouts. He was soon diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer and was told he only had six months to live.

Sal’s illness immediately attracted a hurricane of media attention that offseason; T.C. was born in April; and in August, a weekly Denver newspaper, Westword, broke a story that T.C. was the son of Sal and Kristy.

Sal died in September.

“As it relates to Kristy, my daughter, she came through that damaged,” Bill continues slowly. “It was a national story. When your daughter is the focus of attention in something like that—it was very difficult for her. My heart still hurts for her and having to go through that.”

Before Sal passed, Bill visited him in the hospital. Bill, who founded Promise Keepers, one of the largest men’s ministries in the country, says he talked to Sal about God and led him in the “Sinner’s Prayer” before he died.

Bill cared for Sal, even if he didn’t marry his daughter.

Sal was 21 years old when he died.

T.C. was five months old.

Derek McCartney

Bill says football compromised time he could have spent with his daughter.

“You know, football is intoxicating,” Bill says. “When you are coaching, it’s compelling. When you get up in the morning, Rome is burning and you want to go get the workload done.”

Four years after T.C.’s birth, Kristy became pregnant again by another one of Bill’s players, defensive end Shannon Clavelle. Bill took it to heart.

“I look back on that and in my heart I know that if I had ‘dated’ my daughter, if I had taken her more places and spent more time with her, she wouldn’t have given herself away outside of marriage,” Bill continues. “Isaiah 38:19, I think it is, says, ‘The father to the children shall make known the truth.’ In other words, Almighty God holds a man accountable for the spiritual temperature of his household. I dropped the ball…She needed her daddy to spend more time with her. Now, my (three) sons—they were in the locker room with me (playing football). I probably did a better job as a father to my sons than a father to my daughter.”

Five years after T.C., her second son was born. His name was Derek.

Derek’s father, Shannon Clavelle, went off to the NFL.

And he never came back.

Single Mother of Two

What would it be like to be Kristy McCartney? Few have bothered to ask the question. The media has painted her as a rebel of sorts, someone who acted outside of the will of her father and the Father Bill preached about at Promise Keepers conventions, having two children out of wedlock with two of Bill’s football players.

But the reality is that raising two children under the oppressing scrutiny is a difficult thing, especially with the absence of her children’s fathers. Sal died. Shannon left. She didn’t have to enter parenthood; but she did. She was an adult. She could have gotten an abortion. She could have put them up for adoption.

As a young girl in her 20’s, Kristy had become something she never imagined, a mother of two, and single.

“She had faithfulness, despite her personal pain,” continues Bill, who says he has prayed for Kristy every single day of her life. “Her faithfulness in raising those two boys, both of them giving their hearts to the Lord…Both of those guys, under their mom’s leadership have a genuine heart for God.”

When Sal died, Kristy still wanted T.C. to know his father’s side of the family. At least once a year, sometimes twice, she would fly him out to California to spend time with the family of the father he never knew.

T.C. says she never missed his games in high school. She would wait in the parking lot to pick him up as his coach routinely let the players out late for practice, even after she worked a full day, sometimes at Crisis Pregnancy Center where she helped others deal with pressure and judgment from society just like she did.

Whenever T.C. played quarterback for LSU from 2007-2011 under Les Miles, who also, strangely, recruited his father to play at the University of Colorado, Kristy would fly out to Louisiana whenever she could.

She raised Derek the same way, never missing a game and working full time to support her family but always there as a dependable mother.

“Especially getting older and understanding the situation and all the different options she had,” T.C. says. “She chose to raise us despite all kinds of media scrutiny that not a lot of other people have ever had to face. I know it still hurts and affects her. It’s painful…I’ve said it before, but she’s definitely my hero, just seeing all the stuff she had to go through.”

The McCartneys

Kristy, however, also had help. That’s the way it is with her family. It’s always been about the McCartneys, plural.

Not one of them. All of them.

“You couldn’t tell my story, Derek’s story, my mom’s story, my grandpa’s story, or anybody’s story in my family without talking about my grandma,” T.C. says. “She was kind of the glue that held my family together. Being a coach’s wife is not easy. Four kids. And going through all kinds of difficult situations with my mom and everything. My grandma is the one who held it all together.”

Kristy and her children moved next door to her parents when Derek was in fifth grade and T.C. was in high school.

“I got to see Grandpa a lot,” Derek says of his childhood. “Not having my dad around and everything, he kind of acted as a dad for me…Every time I left his house, he would always say, ‘Seek the Lord.’ He made sure God was always on my mind and the focus of my life. He has always been pushing me to honor God in everything I do.”

Reunion

The 2013 University of Colorado football season will be kind of a surreal one for the McCartney family.

Derek, who was a two-sport athlete at Faith Christian High School, signed with the Buffaloes before his senior season in 2011. He green-shirted last year (meaning he gave up a semester of his senior year to enroll in college early) and will take the field this season as a defensive end, just like his father.

T.C., after four seasons at LSU (2007-10) as a quarterback—also like his father—and one year as an LSU graduate assistant, decided to join Colorado’s coaching staff in May of 2012.

With five years between them, Derek and T.C. will share the football field for the first time in their lives…at an institution where their grandfather is the winningest coach…both of their fathers attended…and their lives ultimately began.

“Growing up, we lived in the same house and everything,” Derek laughs. “But we’ve never been on the same team for anything before.”

Derek signed with the Buffaloes because it was his only scholarship offer, a clear sign, he felt, that it was where God wanted him to be.

T.C. returned to Colorado for a different reason.

Last Days

Right from the start, perhaps T.C. understood the frailty of life, when his father died before he was even half a year old. Now his father lives in his mind through pictures and stories and visits to California, but not in flesh and blood, not memories, not throwing a football in the yard, or wrestling in the living room. T.C. was never able to love him. He never knew him. He only loves what he knows of him.

Time can be a real fickle thing, deceivingly limitless, the hands of a clock seemingly clicking into eternity, second after second, around and around, breathing with each continuous tick; but also easily halted, its hands freezing in place for no reason at all, just because.

T.C. knew his grandmother Lyndi’s life was winding down. She had battled emphysema for 10 years, and the disease continued to eat at her like the cancer in his father’s stomach.

Coaching at a storied program like LSU may have been better for his career than taking a job with a struggling Colorado squad, which has struggled for the last decade; but if there’s one thing T.C. learned growing up with the McCartney last name, it was this: faith first, then family, then football.

T.C. wanted to move back to Colorado. He wanted to spend time with his grandmother before she passed. After five years in the Deep South, he wanted to be with his family. With his mother. With his brother. With his grandparents. With the McCartneys.

Lyndi McCartney died a year after his return to Colorado, in March of 2013. She and Bill were married for 50 years.

“Coach Miles tried to get me to stay,” T.C. says.

T.C.’s voice is different. It’s shaky. It’s lower. He sniffs.

“But I explained to him the situation, and he agreed it was best for me to go home so I could spend the last two months of her life with her.

“It was a lot of fun, but it was hard, too, because she was so sick. When you can’t breathe, it’s hard on you. But she was always,” he pauses. “She was always,” he pauses again. “Always upbeat, even though she was so sick. It was just really important that I was around her for those last couple months to be with her. She wanted all of us around, even though she didn’t feel well.”

If you call Bill McCartney’s house today, you will still hear Lyndi’s voice on his answering machine. He hasn’t changed it. “You’ve reached the McCartneys,” she says.

The McCartneys.

Stronghold

Ten days after his wife’s funeral, Bill remembers waking up at 1 a.m. to use the bathroom. His bed was empty. And for the first time in 50 years, his bed would stay empty.

“When I got back to bed, the Enemy came after me with deep sadness,” Bill says. “I was overwhelmed with sorrow. But I knew what to do. In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus said, ‘When you pray, pray like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ Psalm 22:3 says, ‘He resides in the praises of His people.’ So when you hallow his name, when you proclaim His name, you invoke His presence.

“It’s going on half a year that she’s been gone. Since that time, many times, the Enemy has come after me, but I know what to do,” he says, speaking quicker than he has the entire interview. “Jesus said, ‘When you pray, pray like this.’ And it’s the Lord’s prayer. And when you really pray that prayer, it’s a powerful prayer, because thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven…In other words, He’s in total control.”

Bill remembers Lyndi’s funeral. He was sitting in the front row. He didn’t know how it would all unravel. It was a long day. He was in a daze.

His son, Mike, stood up during the funeral and talked for 10 minutes about his mother—eloquently, portraying exactly who she was. Mike sat down. Then Tom stood up, his other son. He had no notes, but he went on for 10 minutes, too, flawlessly, telling story after story. Tom sat down. Then Marc stood up, his youngest son. He did the same thing. “He just landed it,” Bill says of Marc.

Then Kristy stood up. She tried to speak, but the words got caught in her throat. Twenty seconds into her speech, she lost composure and broke down.

Her three brothers gathered around her. They grabbed her. They embraced her. They held her, just as Bill and Lyndi had 26 years before.

Love Like Mountains

A reporter asks Bill McCartney if he has anything else to say.

Bill pauses.

“I do have one request,” he says softly.

“Yeah, absolutely,” the reporter says.

Bill pauses again, as if what he is about to say must be lifted out of his heart with a crane. He speaks even softer.

“I just ask for your prayers.”

This story was published in the Vol. 27, No. 4 issues of Sports Spectrum. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.