Mike McCarthy's a steel man at heart

PITTSBURGH -- The boy got a Jack Lambert jersey for Christmas. He was 17 when his father loaded up the family, all seven of them, and headed down the hill, along the Monongahela River, to the lights of the city to see the premiere of a Pittsburgh Steelers movie.

He grew up in a neighborhood of winding hills and practical homes where people never leave, never think of it, because it's home. His mother and father were born here, in a blue-collar neighborhood called Greenfield, and that's where they've stayed for nearly seven decades. His Sundays were all about ritual: church, chores and a mass scramble to finish everything by 1 o'clock because that's when the Steelers played.

His loyalty was undying. Everywhere he went, he told stories about how tough the people were in Pittsburgh. When he became a football coach, he fired up his teams this way, with tales from this city. It made them want to destroy their opponents. Made them feel like they could do anything.

In a week, Pittsburgh's native son will be on all of their television screens. Mike McCarthy will run onto the field with his Green Bay Packers, his first appearance in a Super Bowl. And for 60 minutes, McCarthy will plot, improvise and strategize and do everything he can to beat his hometown Steelers.

The men who shaped him

How does it feel to be Mike McCarthy? To be days away from the game he's dreamed about his whole life? To be playing that game against the franchise that made him love football? McCarthy is a football coach, so he'll give you a stock answer about the excitement of being here and his focus on the task at hand.

Perhaps the deeper answers lie here, in Pittsburgh, where two men shaped the first part of Mike McCarthy's life. Joe McCarthy doesn't really want to talk, but he'll budge, eventually, after a couple of phone calls. He is a quiet man who, much like his son, prefers to be left alone to do his work. He was a cop, a firefighter and a bar owner in his younger days, anything to provide for his family. He has lived with his wife, Ellen, in the same house on Greenfield Avenue for 41 years.

If you want to know why Mike McCarthy pulled overnighters back in his days as an NFL assistant in Kansas City, why he offered to work for free in his first coaching job, the answers are found with Joe. He's a no-nonsense Irish Catholic man who taught his five kids to be independent. To make their own way.

Joe flipped houses to supplement the family income, and Ellen was a secretary and worked restaurant jobs. Spare time -- what was left of it -- was spent watching their kids play sports.

"Greenfield was a unique place," Mike McCarthy said. "Pittsburgh was really thriving at that time with the steel industry. There were just kids everywhere. That's really my constant memory of Pittsburgh. Everybody was involved with sports; the professional teams were doing so well.

"It was just a tight-knit community, and you never really left Greenfield very much. It was a big deal to jump on a bus and go to downtown Pittsburgh to see a matinee on Saturday. You never really left Greenfield because you had everything there."

From the tops of the hills, McCarthy could see the Pittsburgh skyline. His dad's bar was down the hill, in an area locals call "The Run." Men from J&L Steel Works would fill Joe McCarthy's bar on weekends, and his kids would clean the place on Sundays after church.

Just about everybody in the neighborhood knows the McCarthys. "Solid family," rolls off the tongues of most residents who are asked to describe them. "Quiet," usually follows that.

"Mike was a pretty happy kid," said JoAnne Klimovich Harrop, a features writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review who went to grade school with McCarthy. "He was always smiling a lot. I think that comes from his family."

It is clear they are proud of each of their children. Joe points out that his oldest, Colleen, is a schoolteacher. Seventeen family members made the trip to Chicago to watch the Packers beat the Bears and seal their first Super Bowl trip since 1998.

Since then, it's been a blur of phone calls, adrenaline rushes and mixed allegiances. Joe has a picture on his table. It's of his family at Super Bowl XL in Detroit. They're clutching a Terrible Towel, cheering on the Steelers, who beat Seattle that night.

But now, the Packers come first, the Steelers second. On their door is a scarf that says "Go Pack Go."

"[Sunday], it was all happiness and fun for everyone," Joe said. "And it's still, I think … I'm not totally aware of it. I know they're going to the Super Bowl. My wife and all my children are going to the Super Bowl, and it's an exciting time for our family. Everyone is proud of Mike. We're very proud of him."

But back to Mike McCarthy's other boyhood influence. It's a man he saw on the TV every Sunday. A man named Chuck Noll. There are some who say their coaching styles are similar, right down to their sideline demeanors. Noll, who guided the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships, doesn't get talked about much anymore. Maybe it's because he wasn't animated or demonstrative and didn't put himself out there in the public.

McCarthy, 47, is the same way. He is calm on the sideline, almost expressionless. He rarely gets too high or too low, and he preaches to his players to be steady. He saw Noll do that, too.

"What I always remember about Coach Noll is that he was never the one doing the commercials," McCarthy said. "He wasn't in the limelight. He was clearly about winning championships. I think I have a very similar personality. In today's NFL, a lot more media and more attention are given to everything, but I'd rather stick to the coaching aspect.

"I definitely looked up to him. He was the model. That was the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he represented to everybody the way you're supposed to do it."

The early years

Jim Gregg has been coaching at St. Rosalia School for more than four decades, and he can recite jersey numbers from the 1970s. He's coached kids who have had kids who played for him and moved on. He wears a whistle around his neck almost all of the time. The rope is green and gold. It has the Green Bay Packers' logo on it.

Gregg was a prison deputy warden, but retired when bone cancer wiped out his hip and forced him to walk with a cane. He never had kids. The boys at St. Rosalia are his kids. And because of Mike McCarthy, Jim Gregg will wear Packers gear on Feb. 6 and root against his beloved Steelers.

"I'm so proud to be associated with him," Gregg said. "He's just a good person. He's left the community, but he still remembers where he came from. He's been very generous."

St. Rosalia, which is located, of course, on Greenfield Avenue, resembles a time capsule sealed off in 1973. There is green tile on the walls and a whiff of old books in the air. Children file out of school in uniforms, obediently and in order, just like their parents did.

McCarthy's high school, Bishop Boyle, shuttered in 1987. So this is the coach's one true remaining alma mater in Pittsburgh. He comes back occasionally and can be seen at church with his parents. When the Packers made him their head coach in 2006, he didn't forget St. Rosalia. He had an annual donation to the school drafted into his contract, with an agreement that the Packers would match his pledge.

The gift has helped the school, which has seen enrollment numbers plummet from 600 students during McCarthy's days to 175, stay afloat. For Dara Pegher, it's helped her family. Pegher graduated from St. Rosalia and says the coach's donation made her daughter's tuition bill more affordable. That's what most of McCarthy's gift went to, helping parents send their kids to the school he loves.

On Monday, Pegher, the parent-teachers guild president, stood in the entrance of St. Rosalia, near a picture of McCarthy. She was approached by a priest who joked and asked what color she'd be wearing to mass on Sunday: green or black?

Green, Pegher said.

"You know what? When that game started," Pegher said, "I had tears in my eyes. Because he has worked so hard. And what he's done for this school is a gift unlike any other gift.

"Prayers were answered."

He worked where?

He will be asked about it at least 10 times in the next week or so, during the media blitz leading up to the Super Bowl, and McCarthy will no doubt roll his eyes. He wonders why reporters are so fixated on the fact that he worked at a tollbooth many years ago. Didn't everybody, at some point, have a job like that when they were young?

Well, not exactly. McCarthy didn't just take tickets and toll money at the Allegheny Valley exit on the Pennsylvania turnpike in 1989. He did it in the dead of night, while his twentysomething buddies were drinking and being twentysomethings, while Pittsburgh slept.

At times, before the sun rose over the Alleghenies, there were long moments of dark silence. But McCarthy, a former tight end at Baker University in Kansas, didn't loaf in the roughly 6-by-6 brick booth. He scoured through the playbook of Paul Hackett, his new boss at a new job at the University of Pittsburgh. Then he packed up and left for his daytime gig.

Even then, people knew McCarthy was going places. Quietly, and quickly, he became Hackett's right-hand man. He shared an office with a young man named Chris Petersen in 1992. Petersen, who's now at Boise State, walked into the office the first day and, like most coaches, immediately wanted to figure out what McCarthy was all about. So he asked him.

"I'm going to the NFL," McCarthy told him. "That's going to be my thing."

It made Petersen chuckle a little.

"He and I were kind of the flunkies there," Petersen said. "We were just lucky to be here. He had that look in his eye, and that's what he was going to be. He was so determined and so focused. He was so diligent about learning."

He was so passionate about being a Pittsburgher. He'd talk to Petersen about the culture of the city, the restaurants, the people, and, of course, the football.

There were so many people on those staffs at Pitt who were destined to make it big, guys such as Jon Gruden, Marvin Lewis and Sal Sunseri. McCarthy slipped through as one of the least visible. But the players knew all about him.

One time in practice, he wanted to teach the receivers the proper way to block. So he grabbed a helmet and a pad and took them on, because that was the best way to teach it. He showed up one day violently ill, dripping with sweat. But McCarthy still got all the playbooks handed out, former Pitt quarterback Alex Van Pelt says, because that's what he was supposed to do.

"He was always grinding to make sure he had the best possible answers for everybody to get the job done," Van Pelt said. "I think that reflects a lot back to the roots of his upbringing in Pittsburgh.

"It's the mentality of the area. Even when you're down, you're not out. You play through it. And that's kind of what Pittsburgh as a city has done in the last 20 years. They re-established themselves, they worked through the hard times with the steel mills and really came out on the other side. That's just the mentality of the people."

The team they love, the man they know

Finding Joe McCarthy's old bar at night requires GPS and keen focus. It is located in lower Greenfield, down a row of similar-looking houses. The current owners put up a sign, which helps some. The place is called Chasers in the Run now, but it's not all that different from the old days.

There's a pool table, just like the one Joe's kids used to want to play on when they worked on Sundays. There are Steelers posters on the walls. Downstairs, the ceiling is made of tin. One of the bar's current owners, Robert "Murph" McKeown, heard once that the place used to be a speakeasy in the 1920s. It opens at 8 a.m., like it has for years, and the lunchtime crowd of steelworkers has been replaced by doctors and college students.

But at night, the neighbors and regulars return. A guy named Bob, who's sipping from a pint of beer, has saddled up to this bar for years. Of course he remembers little Mike McCarthy. Somehow, even then, Bob knew that the kid wasn't cut out to be a bartender. Oh, he was organized. He did everything in this bar: poured drinks, cleared tables, swept the floors, cleaned the toilets.

And on Feb. 6, he'll be on the TVs here, and the patrons will awkwardly cheer for two things. The team they love and the man they know.

"Mike's the greatest kid in the world," Bob said. "Put it this way -- if the Steelers weren't in the Super Bowl, I'd want him to win. He deserves it."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.