Boss' kindness kept Olympian afloat

The swimmer was awakened at 3 a.m. and told some people needed to see him downstairs. Ron Karnaugh was supposed to win a medal at the Barcelona Olympics, maybe even take the gold in the 200 individual medley, and suddenly he was being rushed into an office in the small hours of the night, the first night of the 1992 Summer Games, to find a stranger comforting his loved ones.

George Steinbrenner had his arm wrapped around Karnaugh's sister, Debbie, literally keeping her from crumbling to the floor. Debbie didn't want to do this. She didn't want to tell her brother that their father, Pete, had dropped dead of a heart attack during the opening ceremonies, right after Pete had worked his way down to the stadium rail to take one last photo of his son.

Pete's wife, Jane, had survived cancer of the larynx and was physically unable to tell her youngest of four that his best friend was gone. Debbie didn't want to give Ron the news until he was done competing days later, but one U.S. Olympic Committee elder assured her that the story would get out, that her brother needed to be told.

George Steinbrenner had just introduced himself and offered his condolences, and Debbie found it odd that the gentleman had the same name "as the guy they kept saying bad things about on TV." Steinbrenner was serving his second suspension as owner of the New York Yankees, this one for paying a two-bit gambler for damaging information about Dave Winfield, the latest ballplayer he feuded with.

Debbie didn't ask this Steinbrenner if he was that Steinbrenner, and the man was too busy coaching her, anyway. "You can do this. ... You can do this," Steinbrenner said as he held Debbie tight on their walk through the athletes' village and into a USOC office, where they waited until Ron finally appeared.

"Where's Daddy?" he asked.

"He's up in heaven now," Debbie answered.

This couldn't be. Ron had just seen his father hours earlier; he was wearing that straw hat he always wore when they went blue fishing and crabbing off a south Jersey pier.

Marching near the front of the American delegation, Ron couldn't believe he'd spotted his father and heard his voice among tens of thousands of faces and voices around them. The old man was beaming as he called Ron's name. Pete was a truck driver, a former high school swimmer out of Newark, N.J., and here was his 26-year-old boy ready to compete in the Olympics before going to med school.

Debbie had warned her father that security would eject him if he got too close to the track to take pictures. "Oh yeah?" he said, waving his hand. "Just watch me."

Ron tipped his hat to his 61-year-old father, who began to cry. Pete disappeared into the crowd, negotiated his way up the stairs and onto the stadium concourse, then collapsed and died.

First-aid workers found Pete's ticket stub and officials approached his wife and daughter before Steinbrenner and USOC executive director Harvey Schiller arrived. When Debbie told Ron what had happened, Steinbrenner wrapped the swimmer in a bear hug and said, "We're here for you. We're going to take care of you."

Ron was overcome by the moment. His father had suffered two heart attacks in recent years, but he'd been taking his medication and a cardiologist had cleared him to travel to Spain. Ron had missed making the 1988 Olympic team by a fraction of a second, and he desperately wanted his father to see him go for gold.

Pete used to return to his family's Maplewood home from a long day's work, his hands covered in truck grease, and tell Ron that he'd be better off making a living with his brain instead of his body. If Pete was most proud that his son was studying to be a doctor, he did cherish the notion that his own flesh and blood could end up on an Olympic medal stand.

As Ron was being told he'd lost his biggest fan, he was struck by the presence of the USOC executive he'd never met. Ron had grown up a fan of Thurman and Reggie, Billy and George, and here was George in the flesh, larger than life in a time of death.

The shock, the grief, the despair -- Karnaugh couldn't process it all, and Steinbrenner's role made the event all the more surreal. The sleep-deprived swimmer was so devastated, so lost in his living nightmare, he didn't hear Steinbrenner make a promise to his weeping mother that would throw a ray of light across the darkness.

Jane Karnaugh, widowed matriarch of a blue-collar family, told the suspended Yankees owner she was concerned that her son might not be able to make it through med school.

"You don't worry about a thing," Steinbrenner said. "I'm going to pay for it."

First things first. Steinbrenner knew this broken family needed a sanctuary, so he made some calls and got the Karnaughs moved into the Ambassador, the Dream Team's off-limits hotel. Chuck Daly's megastars took in Ron and did what they could to ease his pain.

Magic Johnson spent time with the swimmer's sister and mom. Larry Bird offered Ron a beer (he declined) and a free massage from his therapist (he accepted). Karl Malone, the Mailman, made a heartfelt delivery, picking up the $1,500 bill to send Pete's body back to the States.

Ron declined the USOC's offer of a withdrawal, insisting that his father would have wanted him to race. He felt good in the prelims, plowing his 6-foot-5 frame through the water, channeling his anger into speed. But by the time the 200 IM final arrived, six days after Pete's death, the emotional toll proved too great.

Ron slipped at the start, felt flat the instant he hit the water, and started thinking about his father. The former Cal-Berkeley star favored to win silver placed sixth while Steinbrenner cheered from the stands.

Karnaugh didn't see Steinbrenner after the race, and flew home uncertain if he'd have any long-term contact with The Boss. Steinbrenner had long made it clear he had no use for second place, never mind sixth. After the U.S. won a lousy half dozen medals at the '88 Winter Games in Calgary, The Boss roared that things would change, that he would find new ways to turn the red, white and blue into an Olympic powerhouse as sure as he was born on the Fourth of July.

The following year, the Steinbrenner Commission report decreed that the USOC needed to make winning its sole mission statement, and that American athletes needed better funding and facilities to make that winning a reality.

So how would this man with this vision treat Karnaugh after the Summer Games ended and the tears dried? "Like a father would," Ron would say.

Steinbrenner phoned Karnaugh in the fall and invited him to dinner. He sent checks totaling $50,000 over four years to the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey so Karnaugh could leave med school debt-free. Once Steinbrenner's suspension ended, he put Karnaugh on his VIP guest list at Yankee Stadium; the young doctor's name was wedged between Billy Crystal's and Henry Kissinger's.

Every March, Steinbrenner sent a certified letter to Karnaugh's home inviting him to Opening Day. Every July, Karnaugh sent Steinbrenner his favorite chocolates for his birthday. The Boss preferred to call the doctor "Ronnie." The doctor preferred to call The Boss "Mr. Steinbrenner."

When Steinbrenner introduced Karnaugh to the likes of Don Larsen, Yogi Berra, and Paul O'Neill, he always presented him as an Olympian. Ron's failure to win a medal? "You tried your best, and it wasn't a level playing field," Steinbrenner told him. "You have so many other things to look forward to -- a wife, kids, being a doctor. And always be proud that you were a United States Olympian."

Of course, The Boss could be stern, too, just like Ron's father. Pete Karnaugh approved of the way Steinbrenner ran his team, and believed The Boss was right for firing those who didn't produce.

"Keep your nose in the books," The Boss ordered Ron, and he sounded so much like Pete did.

They looked a bit alike, too, Pete and The Boss -- big, barrel-chested men with graying, slick-backed hair. Ron saw enough of his old man in Steinbrenner to keep gravitating toward him, to keep visiting him in his Stadium box.

Ron was there one day when The Boss was ranting about Jorge Posada's disappointing play so loudly that Ron's pregnant wife was hesitant to leave her seat to go to the bathroom. Ron was there another day when The Boss was ranting about Posada's backup, John Flaherty, before calling down to the clubhouse and asking why the starting catcher wasn't in the game (Posada magically appeared as a pinch-hitter the next inning).

Ron last saw Steinbrenner at the Yankees' home opener in April. It wasn't easy watching The Boss decline over the years, but even in his wheelchair at the end, Steinbrenner maintained his commanding presence in a room.

"You need to come to some more games," he ordered Ron.

The doctor sent Steinbrenner chocolates and cookies for his 80th birthday, and nine days later a colleague approached Karnaugh with the grim bulletin: The Yankees' owner had suffered a massive heart attack. Soon the text messages came in confirming Steinbrenner's death, and Ron found himself a place to cry.

"I was almost reliving the loss of my father all over again," he would say.

In September, during the Stadium ceremony to dedicate the Steinbrenner monument, The Boss' daughter, Jennifer, told Karnaugh that her father had addressed a letter to him the night before he died, the last letter he'd ever signed. Jennifer sent it to Ron, a white card with the Yankees emblem containing a simple expression of thanks for the birthday gift. It was signed "Best regards, George M. Steinbrenner III," in the blue Sharpie that The Boss always used.

Steinbrenner died in the same year the American team won its record 37 Winter Games medals in Vancouver, in large part due to his influence, and yet he left a bigger impression on an Olympian who finished sixth.

"I really think Mr. Steinbrenner saved my career as a physician," said Karnaugh, who specializes in pain management and sports medicine at the New Jersey Neuroscience Institute in Edison.

"He turned the darkest moment of my life into a positive experience. Without his kindness and emotional support, it would've been so easy for me to fail and fall through the cracks because of the tragedy at the Olympics.

"So my relationship with Mr. Steinbrenner was more invaluable to me than a gold medal in Barcelona would've been. I miss him dearly."

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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