Jack McGrath, who has had to work extraordinarily hard for his ordinary high school football career at Kapaun Mount Carmel, had a surprise for his father last week before the Crusaders played Salina Central in a Class 5A quarterfinal playoff game.
Tom McGrath, 49, was going into the hospital the day of the game for double bypass surgery. He had felt some discomfort in his arms and thought it best to be cautious despite, he said, never having issues with blood pressure or cholesterol.
The mix of excitement and apprehension in the McGrath household was palpable and Jack wanted to do something to make his father less anxious. What he came up with was perfect.
“Last Thursday night, the day before my surgery, we had all of our kids back home including two from college,” said Tom McGrath, who is recovering from surgery at home. “We did some praying and a lot of crying and right before we went to bed Jack told me he had a surprise. He went upstairs to his room and came back down to where I was.”
And something was different.
Jack was wearing a different Kapaun Mount Carmel football jersey, one with the number 11 on the front and back. It was the number Tom wore at Kapaun, where he was the starting quarterback in 1983 for a Crusaders team that went 9-3 and lost to Pittsburg in the 5A championship game.
Jack previously wore No. 3, but had no problem convincing a sophomore who had No. 11 to change. And he’ll be No. 11 Friday night when Kapaun meets Salina South in a 5A semifinal game at Cessna Stadium.
“I get really choked up just talking about it,” Tom McGrath said. “For him to do that … it’s pretty special.”
Jack McGrath said he would not be playing football if it weren’t for his father’s influence.
“I started playing in the fifth grade and I would always play catch with my dad in the backyard,” Jack said. “He inspired me to keep working.”
Jack McGrath had to work. He wasn’t as gifted as some other players, which is why he spent last season, his junior season, playing for Kapaun’s junior varsity team.
Juniors on a JV team is a rarity.
“We had guys a little more physical, bigger and faster than Jack,” Kapaun coach Dan Adelhardt said. “He’s a kid who had to bide his time and he sure has done that.”
Finally getting an opportunity as a senior, Jack McGrath has caught 28 passes this season for 398 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s been a weapon and credits his extra time in the JV program, where he got to play and develop a chemistry with quarterback Brock Monty, the Crusaders’ sophomore quarterback.
“It was tough because as a junior you’re kind of expected to be on the varsity,” Jack said. “But there were players ahead of me. And it allowed me to develop a connection with Brock that’s really helped us a lot.”
Adelhardt said it’s rare to find a high school kid willing to put in the kind of work and time required without a more-instant gratification. No player had to wait longer for his reward than McGrath.
“He’s an awesome kid, just outstanding,” Adelhardt said. “He’s one of those kids that came into the program as a freshman and I just kept hoping he would stick it out so that eventually we would find him a place to play. He’s just been off the charts with his attitude. He has a little sister who helps us with film and is a team manager. It’s been great.”
McGrath, 6-feet-1 and 185 pounds, is a step slow for a receiver. But Adelhardt uses him in a variety of ways, not the least of which is as a blocker. McGrath likes hearing how valuable he is as a blocker and often lines up as a tight end for that purpose.
“He’s not afraid to mix things up in there,” Adelhardt said. “He’s not going to out-run you, but Jack has really good hands.”
It was difficult, of course, for McGrath to play in last week’s game as his father recovered from surgery.
“It crossed my mind not to play in that game against Salina Central,” he said. “But me and my dad talked about it the Tuesday night before the game. I told him how I was feeling and he told me the only thing he was looking forward to was me playing on Friday night. It was something he could think about that was going to happen after the surgery.”
Tom McGrath said he started to doze after Kapaun fell behind 21-7, but was awake in time to hear how the Crusaders came back and won on the road. Jack had one catch for eight yards.
“There was a pretty emotional phone call with Jack after that game,” Tom said.
He won’t be at Friday’s game, either. His doctor has advised Tom to be careful about getting out in cold weather. He plans to watch an Internet broadcast provided by Kapaun and listen on his radio.
Tom will especially pulling for his kid, of course. Jack might still be No. 3 in the program, but he’s No. 11 in Tom’s repaired heart.