GREEN BAY, Wis. – He might be a Chicago Bears fan, but Austin Scheutz proudly displays a Packers foam cheesehead at least once a year.
Signed by the Big Cheese himself in fact — Packers coach Mike McCarthy — while he visited a children's hospital where the 6-year-old Scheutz was being treated for leukemia. After family and coaching, the hospital might be McCarthy's biggest passion — even if it means running into the occasional Bears fan.
"That's always an interesting conversation," joked McCarthy about interactions with fans of the Packers' bitter NFC North rival. McCarthy, of course, is dressed in green Packers sweats after an offseason team workout.
One of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL is entering his ninth year in Green Bay and it sure looks like home. McCarthy's roots in blue-collar western Pennsylvania have made him a sensible fit in the Upper Midwest, shaping everything from how he runs his team to how he spends his precious free time off the field.
McCarthy's back story is familiar now in Wisconsin. His father was a policeman and fireman. Family owned a bar near a steel mill. Worked as a highway toll collector on the graveyard shift to make money while working as a volunteer assistant at the University of Pittsburgh.
He grew up watching the Pittsburgh Steelers while they were coached by Chuck Npoll, who died last month.
"He was someone I like to emulate. I was a big fan as a kid," McCarthy said. "After getting in to the coaching profession, I really appreciated him a lot more, his approach, his style, his humility. He seemed like a very consistent, tough champion."
If that sounds like McCarthy, he would be pleased by the comparison.
The Packers have certainly been consistent under the offensive-minded McCarthy, winning a Super Bowl in 2010 behind star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The defense, on the other hand, is undergoing another tweak after an injury-filled and subpar 2013 season.
Here's where some of that blue-collar background comes in: McCarthy harps on work ethic, the "Packer Way." Not just coach speak, his no-nonsense demeanor gives words more emphasis, sounding at times as if he just came off the second shift at the mill.
"Just talking with Mike today, you sense kind of the hunger that we have, which is exciting," Rodgers said. "The locker room is a little louder than maybe it's been in the last few years, and I think that's just an influx of energy that we have."
McCarthy said a big part of growing up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Greenfield was learning a work ethic, "the importance of outworking the next guy. There's definitely a fabric of toughness."
"I think everything you do is part of who you are and where you come from, yeah," McCarthy said in a recent interview at Lambeau Field.
Less immediately evident is the influence it's had on McCarthy outside of the NFL spotlight. He's one of five siblings in an Irish Catholic family. McCarthy has five children with his wife, Jessica, a teacher.
"She married more than a husband. She took the responsibility of this job and growing up in this town," he said. "I look back on it, I put so much on her plate. ... She makes our family better each and every day."
Having grown up in a city with well-known medical facilities, including a top children's hospital, it makes sense that, McCarthy and his wife found the University of Wisconsin's American Family Children's Hospital to be a perfect fit as the cause for their family foundation.
It has raised about $1.5 million over the past five years for the UW hospital in Madison over the past five years, helping fund a neonatal intensive care unit and other improvements. Scheutz, who was diagnosed with leukemia, brought along his youth-sized cheesehead to his foundation's recent dinner that preceded an annual golf tournament.
Austin, who is now in remission, first met McCarthy last year after the boy had relapsed, his mother, Kim, said. There's now an exception to the anti-Packers rules in the Scheutz household.
"We're Bears fans, so Austin has been kind of trained — every time he sees Packers stuff he goes, 'Boo, Packers,'" she said. "But he loved Coach McCarthy."
McCarthy shrugs off the praise.
"I believe in the phrase 'It takes a village to raise a child.' When you're a pillar in your village, you have a responsibility to make sure your village is intact," said McCarthy, who played tight end at tiny Baker University in Kansas before beginning his three-decade climb up the coaching ranks.
Green Bay might be the smallest market in the NFL, but it's a hardly a village. In Wisconsin, Titletown is the capital of Packers country.
A coaching lifer, McCarthy had a stop as an assistant in 1999 with the Packers that he said helped him understand the fabric of Green Bay. Similarities to the Steelers, another marquee NFL team, were immediately evident.
He still swoons over his mother's pierogies. Right about now, he could go for one of those Pittsburgh-style sandwiches stuffed with french fries.
But only if he can get it delivered to Green Bay. He's not planning on going anywhere any time soon.
"Let's be honest — it's about winning, so that's really what it comes down to. I always felt very comfortable here. I loved the town. I like the pace of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Midwest," McCarthy said. "This is definitely my preference."
Mike and Jessica McCarthy Foundation: http://www.uwhealthkids.org/get-involved/mike-and-jessica-mccarthy-golf-tournament/36222
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