This was one of those beautiful fall Boston days that my dad always loved. The leaves were starting to turn, the air was getting brisk, school was back in session and the Boston College football season was ready to commence.
But nothing my family could say or do on this particular day was going to brighten my father’s spirits. He had been battling cancer for almost five years now and recent blood tests had indicated that the cancer was active again and spreading. I think he began to realize, for the first time, that no matter how hard he tried, that no matter what the world’s best doctors could do, that through all the chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries, he was going to lose his battle with this terrible disease.
Then, the mailman arrived.
It was a get well card. It read, “Whatever warms your spirit and lightens your heart…that’s what I’m wishing for you…Whatever helps you to paint your dreams and preserve your most beautiful memories…that’s what I’m wishing for you…Whatever gives you peace within yourself and confidence with others…Whatever cheers you, challenges you, and touches you most deeply…whatever you’re wishing for with all of your heart…that’s what I’ll always be wishing for you.”
And when my dad opened the card, he saw the signatures of the entire 1992 Boston College football team. Glenn Foley. Pete Mitchell. Tom Nalen. Mike Mamula. Pete Kendall. Those were some of the bigger names.
Along with all of those signatures was a handwritten note: “Walter, our prayers are with you…Tom Coughlin.”
My dad smiled and his eyes began to fill up with tears.
He loved Boston College. It was his alma mater. And he loved the Eagles football team, having been a season-ticket holder for many, many years. He even took memorable trips to Memphis and Dallas to see them play in the Liberty and Cotton Bowls during the Doug Flutie years.
As my father read the card again, perusing it with wonder, my mom said, “You must feel like a little kid.” And he replied, “I do.”
A few months later – Jan. 5, 1993 – my dad passed away. He was only 55.
It’s the little things in life that should be cherished the most and watching Tom Coughlin’s press conference yesterday as he resigned after 12 seasons as the head coach of the New York Football Giants, I thought about my dad and that amazing get well card.
My dad enjoyed a 30-year career as a high school and college math teacher, and the card was an idea from one of his closest friends, who knew that one of my dad’s former students worked in the Boston College weight room.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are going to Chestnut Hill on fall Saturdays for BC football games with my dad and his brother, my Uncle Jimmy, who taught at Boston Latin after graduating from BC. After the games, my brothers and I would play tackle football on the turf field at Alumni Stadium.
Coughlin’s short time at Boston College was remarkable. He was Doug Flutie’s quarterback coach from 1981-83. As the Eagles head coach from 1991-93, he turned the program around with his disciplinary approach and oversaw a tremendous and much-needed expansion of Alumni field.
During this time one of Coughlin’s players, Jay McGillis, died from leukemia. A few years later Coughlin started the Jay Fund, which has provided financial support for children and families battling cancer. According to Wikipedia, the fund has raised millions of dollars.
The Jay Fund, or Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, is an everlasting achievement. Coughlin was always at his best fighting for the underdogs and it’s no coincidence he engineered three of the biggest upsets in football history.
There was Boston College’s thrilling 41-39 win over No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend on David Gordon’s last second field goal. There was the Jacksonville Jaguars win over top-seeded Denver in the 1997 AFC playoffs. And, of course, there was the Giants Super Bowl victory over the undefeated New England Patriots.
I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Tom Coughlin had stayed at Boston College. Would the Eagles have become national championship contenders? It’s not such a far-fetched assumption.
Tom Coughlin has always held a special place in my heart. I never met him but if I did I’d give him a warm embrace. Not for all of those memorable victories with Boston College, Jacksonville and the New York Football Giants, but for lifting my dad’s spirits when death was knocking on the front door.
That’s something you never forget.