Mike McCarthy has a favorite route he takes to work. It’s an out-of-the-way route, but he likes the scenery.
After he stops for coffee, McCarthy proceeds through downtown Green Bay, across the river and down a “road of 15 bars,” as he called it.
Then comes the feature attraction of his trip.
“I drive past the paper mill. It reminds me of Pittsburgh,” McCarthy said.
It reminds McCarthy of home, which is what Green Bay has become. This is his town. He loves it and he extols its virtues every chance he gets.
“This is it,” McCarthy said.
Wadda ya like about it, coach?
“The people; real people, blue-collar football people,” he said.
Do you ever see yourself leaving here?
“I hope I don’t have to,” he said.
It’s the perfect fit. The son of a policeman/firefighter/tavern owner from a town that’s long been the king of grit, living and working now in a smaller version of the place where McCarthy grew up loving sports and wanting to make it his life. He had to fight to get his start, but when the wheels started turning, his career began to move quickly.
Well, Thursday night, less than five-and-a-half years since he was named head coach of the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy will welcome his players back to Lambeau Field, then watch them share in the joy of proudly pushing onto their ring fingers the very symbol of the pinnacle of their chosen profession. Thursday night, 22 years after he got his first big break in the business, when he was allowed to become a volunteer assistant at Pitt, it’ll all finally “hit” McCarthy, as he’s fond of saying.
Go ahead, coach, let it out. Reflect on that year you worked in that toll booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, wondering if you’d ever make it. The ring you’re going to push onto your finger is confirmation that you very definitely did make it. This is the top. Take a look around.
“I’m looking forward to sharing it with my wife and the team,” he said. “I’m anxious to see the reaction of the players when they see the ring. I know the design that went into making this a special ring, and it is. We definitely hit the target of making this ring symbolic of the championship of Super Bowl XLV.”
The last time McCarthy saw or spoke to any of his players was in early March at the Lombardi Excellence Dinner. The lockout followed immediately.
“The joy is sharing the memory with the people you went through it with,” he said.
That’s been the problem for the Packers this spring because the lockout has robbed them of sharing their memories with each other. If there’s a positive to that, it’s that it might make Thursday night’s ceremony more special, almost certainly will make it more special than it otherwise would be. This one is likely to expose some emotion.
“Every team has a chance to cut a path to the Super Bowl. When we broke training camp, we knew we had a good team. Our path was a little more challenging than you’d like,” McCarthy said, referring to the Packers’ crush of losses to injury.
The crazy thing is that the more they got hurt, the stronger they got. What was that all about?
It’s about maturity. It’s about a team growing up. It’s about a young head coach having taken that final step up the ladder.
So, one more time, let’s take one more look back.
“There were two games I felt we underachieved and felt a little sorry for ourselves, Miami here and Detroit up there. I never felt like we were playing bad. We played good football all year. We said to the players, trust the film, trust the process,” McCarthy said, looking back on 2010.
“People said, ‘You got hot against the Giants.’ That’s not the film I saw. I never felt like we were a sixth seed.”
They were a sixth seed, but they never played like it. Let’s put it this way: They were a sixth seed that was the favorite in the Super Bowl against a second seed. What’s that tell you?
Thursday night, in a private ceremony at the Lambeau Field Atrium, the boys’ll be back for a league-allowed get-together. They’ll all yuk it up and wax nostalgic about the greatest ride of their lives, and then the clock will strike midnight, again, so to speak.
“Then I’ll be ready to move on. I want to get on to the next season. I’d like to think this will pull it all together and then we can turn the page,” McCarthy said. “It’s all about the chase. It’s the next challenge.”
Thursday night, it’s about the ring.