By Michael Silver | Published Aug. 12, 2015
The phone call came in on a Friday, a day on which men in Mike McCarthy's position -- getting ready to coach a championship game, with one victory standing between him and a spot on football's grandest stage -- typically tune out the noise, be it a legion of talking heads forecasting defeat or a ubiquitous smartphone ringtone.
McCarthy took this call, though, because it was from his only brother, who'd been contemplating a cross-country trip to watch the Green Bay Packers battle the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC championship two days later.
"Don't worry about the tickets," Mike, the Packers' coach since 2006, had assured Joe McCarthy, a Pittsburgh-area lawyer. "I've got you covered there."
Replied Joe: "I can't get a flight. I mean, there's nothing ..." Then, jokingly, he asked, "Hey, if I can get to Green Bay, can you get me a seat on the team plane?"
Mike laughed. "You know what, Joe? Don't sweat it. Just get ready for the Super Bowl. 'Cause we're going -- and you're going."
And then, swiftly and shockingly, it all went terribly wrong.
Losing a conference title game, especially in a fashion as cruel and unusual as the Packers experienced on that surreal Sunday at CenturyLink Field last January, is a gut-wrenching event. This is particularly true for the person charged with plotting the preparation and making the bulk of the strategic decisions on game day. And Green Bay's 28-22 overtime defeat to the Seahawks -- after one of the most inglorious collapses in NFL history -- left McCarthy, 51, in a state of stunned bewilderment.
One of the few things that momentarily cheered him up in the immediate aftermath was a brief, heartfelt message from his brother. "First guy to text me after the game," Mike recalled last month. "That's the kind of guy he is. Nothing about the game, just, 'Can't wait to see you, can't wait to hear what the kids have to say to you, [they're gonna] tackle you when you get home ...' All about life and family; didn't even mention the game."
Yet if there was value in distancing himself from the torment of watching the Packers, who'd dominated the game's first 56 minutes, blow a 12-point lead in the final four minutes of regulation, McCarthy didn't embrace it. Instead, he opened his laptop and cued up the game film on the team's subdued flight back to Green Bay that Sunday night, then spent the next two days conducting emotional exit interviews with each player on the roster.
By Wednesday morning, McCarthy was drained and exhausted. As he sat in his Lambeau Field office with Packers director of public relations Jason Wahlers, preparing for a season-ending press conference scheduled to begin less than an hour later, he took another phone call -- this time from his father, Joseph Sr., who delivered jolting and tragic news: Joe McCarthy, a married father of three, had gone to the gym, collapsed and died at age 47.
Suddenly, losing a football game was a tangential sorrow for a grief-stricken big brother and his large, close-knit family. Needless to say, the press conference was postponed.
"It was just surreal, overwhelming, crushing ..." Mike McCarthy said. "No signs -- nothing -- and you just can't believe you're in that moment. I didn't handle it very well."
More than six months later, as he prepares to begin his 10th season as the coach of a team many have cast as a Super Bowl 50 favorite, McCarthy still remembers the helpless agony he felt during his drive home from Lambeau on that horrible Wednesday morning -- and still gets choked up when discussing his brother. (The coach's wife, Jessica, began to cry when the subject was broached during a recent phone interview, saying, "It's still really hard for us to talk about it.")
Change has been a constant theme since McCarthy yanked off his headset in Seattle last January: Shortly after delivering an emotional eulogy at Joe's funeral in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania -- a suburb of Pittsburgh, where he and his four siblings were raised -- McCarthy put aside his personal pain and contemplated a dramatic move that he felt could invigorate his team, even though it would force him to give up something he loved.
And when, on Feb. 12, McCarthy announced he would no longer call the Packers' offensive plays, it made a significant statement to those who know him best.
"It says that he cares about the team more than he cares about his ego or the perception of what this change is," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL's reigning Most Valuable Player. "It says a lot about him. He's not a big rah-rah guy; he's not out in the media trying to get a ton of attention. He just cares about winning. And that's how we do things in Green Bay."