Brother's memory guiding Mike McCarthy on emotional return home

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy can guide a tour of his old Pittsburgh neighborhood without ever leaving his chair at Lambeau Field. He starts downtown at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Wood Street, where the Port Authority of Allegheny County bus route 61C begins.

The first stop is just off Greenfield Avenue on Alcorn Street, where the family business -- Joe McCarthy’s Bar and Grill -- once stood in a part of town known as Lower Greenfield.

Back along Greenfield Avenue, there’s McCarthy’s primary school, St. Rosalia. A few blocks down on the left is Magee Field, where, as kids, Mike and his younger brother, Joe, played just about every sport.

Finally, on the last block of Greenfield Avenue sits the modest home of McCarthy's parents, dad Joe and mom Ellen McCarthy, where they raised Mike, the younger Joe and their three daughters, Colleen, Ellen and Kellie.

Three years ago, this would have been the last stop.

Now, the journey must continue.

To the end of the block.

Past a handful of small brick homes.

To the entrance of Calvary Catholic Cemetery, where his brother, Joe, rests.

Joseph F. McCarthy III died of a heart attack while playing racquetball on Jan. 21, 2015. He was 47.

“It’s hard going back there, to be honest with you,” Mike McCarthy said during an interview last week. “The cemetery is literally a few houses away from my parents’ house. The basketball court where we used to hang out as kids was right there. It’s been torn down now, but just to walk over there and go to the mausoleum to see Joe, it’s right there.”

Back in Pittsburgh for "Sunday Night Football," when he will coach the Green Bay Packers against the Steelers at Heinz Field, it’s a business trip for McCarthy. But with extra time because it’s a night game, McCarthy can go back to his Greenfield neighborhood, where he can retrace the happy steps of his youth -- and the painful ones of adulthood.

‘Everybody loved Joe'

Last year, Sports Illustrated profiled McCarthy, and when the subject of his brother came up, he was unable to talk about it and said, “I can’t get past it. I’m sorry.”

With the trip to Pittsburgh looming, McCarthy decided, “I want to honor my brother. ... I just miss him.”

In the small room adjacent to the Lambeau Field media auditorium, the emotions come out when McCarthy, 54, speaks about his younger brother, but he also beams with pride when he talks about Joe’s family. His nephews -- Matthew, who is at the University of Arkansas, and Michael, who is at the University of Kentucky -- were regular travel partners with their dad to Packers games. Mike called Joe’s wife, Karen, a “strong, great mother” and smiled widely when he mentioned Joe’s only daughter, Victoria.

“Joe was the father that coached all the kids,” Mike McCarthy said. “He was so involved in their lives, their everyday lives. Joe was a such a great people person. Everybody loved Joe. It’s hard for all three of [Joe’s kids,] obviously, but you always worry about Victoria, the youngest, because I know the father-daughter relationship they had.”

McCarthy has three daughters of his own: Alex, from his first marriage, an aspiring actress who lives in Los Angeles; and 9-year-old Gabrielle and 6-year-old Isabella with his wife, Jessica. He and Jessica also have two high school-aged sons, Jack and George, from Jessica’s first marriage.

In many ways, McCarthy tries to emulate his younger brother. Although the demands of an NFL head coach’s schedule can be restrictive, living in the league’s smallest city helps McCarthy make it to as many events as possible.

“I’m so blessed, and Jessica just does such an incredible job of making everything work, because this is such a selfish profession with the time commitment,” McCarthy said. “But being in this town is extremely beneficial. The boys are in high school right up the road, the girls are right in De Pere. They have tennis today at 3:30, so I’m going to get to see them play tennis on a Friday. I don’t know if you get to do that in any other city in the NFL.”

Said Jessica: “Right away, when Mike and I met, that was one of our topics of conversation; I knew family was as important to him as it is to me. And that’s a trait you’d want in a person, or that I’d want in a person. He’s always made it a point -- whether it’s spending time with his daughter even though she lived in another state, he wouldn’t let a few weeks go by without seeing her. So it was really important to him all along.”

Jessica met McCarthy’s family early in their relationship. Joe immediately clicked with Jack and George.

“Joey was a positive energy for Mike, and they were so close growing up,” Jessica said. “He was always the little brother tagging along. He did it in the later years, too. Joey would come to Green Bay for Mike’s games, but he would go to all of our boys’ games, too, when he was here.

“George has a shrine to Joey in his room to this day. There’s quotes from Joey and a basketball T-shirt from Magee Field that Joey must’ve worn when he was young that he gave George. He was really inspirational for my boys, as well.”

‘The last time I talked to him’

Joe and a friend had planned to fly to Seattle for the Packers-Seahawks NFC Championship Game on Jan. 18, 2015, but he called Mike a few days before the game and said he wouldn’t be able to make it.

No worries, McCarthy told him.

“I talked to him the Thursday before we went out there,” McCarthy recalled. “I told him, ‘Joe, we’re going to win this game. Trust me. I’ll see you in Phoenix [for the Super Bowl].’

“That was the last time I talked to him.”

Three days after the Packers’ overtime loss to the Seahawks, when McCarthy might have needed his brother’s support the most, he received word of Joe’s death.

“Joey was the nicest, sweetest person -- always positive,” Jessica said. “I think that was always good for Mike.”

Family reunion

With the Packers in Pittsburgh for Sunday night’s game, almost all of the McCarthy family will be together again.

All three sisters plus McCarthy’s parents and most of brother Joe’s family will be around.

The three sisters still live in or around the Greenfield neighborhood. Colleen, the oldest sister, lives nearby and teaches in the Pittsburgh school district. Kellie, the youngest, moved back shortly after Joe’s death. She works at Carnegie Mellon University and lives across the street from Ellen, the middle sister, who also is a teacher. On that same street, Mike and Jessica are having a house built for Mike’s parents. The new house should be ready by Christmas.

“It will be like a triangle,” Jessica said. “Kellie lives on one corner, and then Joe and Ellen’s house will be on the other, and then across from them will be his other sister Ellen.”

McCarthy is now the out-of-towner.

“I went away to college, and when I came back and was coaching at Pitt, if they would’ve offered me a 25-year contract to be the assistant coach, I would’ve taken it so fast,” McCarthy said. “It was ideal. I was coaching one neighborhood over from where I grew up.”

For one weekend, McCarthy, surrounded by family, will be home again.

“I might even jump on the 61C bus and take it over to the neighborhood just because I can,” McCarthy said.