Tug still making difference, 10 years after death

FILE PHOTO Iconic photo of Tug McGraw after winning 1980 World Series.
FILE PHOTO Iconic photo of Tug McGraw after winning 1980 World Series. (after winning 1980 World Series.)
Posted: February 12, 2014

IN PHILLY, we think we know Tug McGraw. The Tugger helped bring home the Phillies' first World Series championship in 1980, and that image of him jumping skyward from the mound, arms raised victoriously, is iconic here. He charmed fans on and off the field, boasting that he was a screwball pitcher who could be pretty screwy in real life, too.

He spent his first nine seasons with the Amazin' Mets before he was traded to the Phillies after the 1974 season, and spent his last 10 seasons with them. He worked for the Phils as a spring-training instructor and in 2003 he was on the mound again at Veterans Stadium, recreating his legendary leap as the Phillies said goodbye to their historic but imperfect ballpark.

A few months later - on Jan. 5, 2004 - he was gone, dead from brain cancer at age 59.

Ten years on, we know McGraw's impact on Philadelphia sports and its fans. Less known is the impact he has had on the lives of others through the Tug McGraw Foundation, the nonprofit he helped start.

"I often wonder what he would think about what he left behind," said Jennifer Brusstar, the foundation's CEO and one of McGraw's caretakers in his final days. (Her husband Warren was a Phillies teammate.) "I like to think he'd think it was a job well done."

Originally created to provide resources to brain-cancer patients and their families, the California-based foundation expanded its mission in 2009 to include post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, with a focus on military personnel. Recently, a team of wounded veterans funded by the foundation reached the South Pole after a treacherous, 4-week journey. They sent Brusstar a photo of themselves at the summit. Their sleds were emblazoned with Tug's well-known slogan, "Ya gotta believe!"

Cari Velardo, McGraw's only daughter, said her father urged her and her two brothers to live those words. Her half-brother, of course, is country star Tim McGraw.

"He taught us that you have to follow your heart," she said. "A lot of time, people do what they think they have to do. Dad told us to do what we love and good things would come from that."

Velardo remembers that her father would always be last out of the tunnel after a game, spending as much time as possible signing autographs and talking to fans. One of her first jobs was sorting his fan mail: figuring out who wanted an autograph, where McGraw was needed for an appearance, which letters deserved extra attention.

McGraw's best pal and teammate, Larry "LC" Christenson, said McGraw appeared at countless charity events, often bringing him along. Unlike some modern athletes, he never charged for autographs, never griped about the crowds waiting for him.

"Tug was loved everywhere," Christenson said. "He loved being out and being friendly with people."

The idea of helping others after he was gone came to McGraw as his life waned. Constantly being told what he should eat or do, he began to wonder about quality of life over quantity, Velardo said. The foundation came together as a way "to help people going through what we were going through," Brusstar said, although "Tug really wanted to help everybody."

The foundation's expansion into traumatic brain injury research and working with veterans came naturally. Such research can provide insight into tumors, and McGraw was proud of his own military service.

"When he was in the Marines, he was a potato cook, but he always really supported the military," Velardo recalled with a laugh. "If he met a Marine, he'd click his heels and rattle off his number. He was really proud."

A decade after McGraw's death, the foundation that bears his name is helping veterans like Philadelphia native Pam Kelly.

Kelly, 49, was a U.S. Army sergeant preparing for her first overseas deployment in 2002 when she was severely injured in a training accident. Her traumatic brain injury and severe spinal-cord damage left her an "incomplete quad," she said; she only has the use of her left arm.

Last year, Kelly attended a No Barriers Women's Retreat for veterans, a joint program of the Tug McGraw Foundation and the nonprofit Soldiers to Summits.

"A friend thought it would be good for me to get out and stop being isolated," said Kelly, who now lives in Florida.

The program pushed Kelly's life into a new direction. Since then, she has become a certified scuba diver, rappelled down San Diego's tallest building and tried tandem sky-diving. She is preparing for the 2014 National Veterans Wheelchair Games, to be held here in August. One of her sports? Archery. She uses her left arm and teeth to control the bow and arrow.

The retreat and all that's come since "has made me realize that I still have a chance to live my dreams, that I can still do things," Kelly said. "They've brightened up my world."

Stories like Kelly's thrill Velardo.

"I don't think Dad ever dreamed it would go this far," she said. "There's just no end to it."

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