Most football fans know New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin, the winner of two Super Bowl games against the New England Patriots of Bill Belichick, as an intense, no-nonsense guy who brooks no dissent from his autocratic, perfectionist ways of running his team. He’s the man who is known for fining his players when they arrive for a 9 a.m. meeting at 9 a.m. To him, 9 a.m. meetings apparently begin no later than 8:50 a.m.
Coughlin has used his intensity to fashion a very productive record as an NFL coach: After leaving Boston College in 1983 after three years at the Heights as receivers coach during the Doug Flutie era, he became an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers before joining the New York Giants where he was a colleague of Belichick’s under Bill Parcells when the team won the Super Bowl in 1990; as an effective head coach at Boston College for three season (1991-1993) where, in short order, he transformed a bedraggled outfit into a winning machine; as the first head coach of the Jaguars of Jacksonville, where he made a start-up team a winner right out of the gate: and now with the Giants, the reigning NFL champions, as the head coach. You could look it up.
But away from the sidelines and the clubhouse and the glare of cameras, the hard-nosed “Iron General,” as some staffers have been known to call him, carries a torch for one of his BC boys from the ’90s, a scrapper from Brockton, home of the real “Rocky” of boxing, named Jay McGillis, whose untimely death from a fast-track leukemia left all who knew and loved him bereft and questioning.
Last weekend, as the McGillis family waited on the 20th anniversary of Jay’s passing, the Daily News of New York published a 3,000-word, four-page account of the continuing Coughlin-McGillis relationship. Written by Daily News sportswriter Kevin Armstrong, himself a BC graduate, it is a story about football, constancy, loyalty, life and death – and about Tom Coughlin’s commitment to the memory of an athlete whose very being seemingly touched the inner heart of this austere, demanding man.
Herewith a few excerpts from Armstrong’s article:
“The sun shone brightly on the morning of July 7, 1992, as mourners emerged from cars outside Our Lady of Lourdes Church, a red brick, one-story building with a pitched roof 20 miles south of Boston. It was a Tuesday following a tortuous holiday weekend. Family and friends, dressed in dark suits and black dresses, negotiated their way into narrow wooden pews. They genuflected and folded hands in prayer as Boston College safety Jay McGillis’s funeral Mass commenced.
“McGillis, diagnosed with leukemia the previous November, had died four days earlier. In seven months, he had lost 75 pounds, his red hair and, finally, his life. Resigned to death after his body rejected a bone marrow transplant from his oldest brother Michael, Jay McGillis returned home for his final 48 hours, lying in bed, not speaking or communicating.
Kathy, his oldest sister, sat to the left of his bed on the second floor of the family’s two-story house, holding his hand as he inhaled, then let out his last breath. Fireworks went off outside. She ran down the hall, opened her calendar book and penned an entry: ‘I will never let him leave my heart. Please stay with me forever Jay — I need you.’
“Supporters, including his coach, Tom Coughlin, then 45 and fresh off his first season at BC, a 4-7 campaign, had offered around-the-clock support. Now more than 3,000 gathered to remember the 21-year-old McGillis. From the 15th row, to the right of the altar, Fran Foley, BC’s director of operations, looked at Coughlin, a rigid, red-faced disciplinarian whose staff referred to him as “The Iron General.”
When the mahogany casket was rolled down the center aisle, Foley’s eyes met Coughlin’s. ‘It was the first time I realized Tom was human,’ Foley says.
“Twenty years on, McGillis’s memory remains intertwined in countless lives, most notably Tom Coughlin’s. Kathy keeps the worn, sweat-stained baseball hat her brother donned during chemotherapy, replete with the red hair he lost to the treatment. The No. 31 he wore at BC is quietly retired, worn only on senior day, and his wooden stall is still preserved in the locker room. In his name, Coughlin has established The Jay Fund. It has allotted $3.5 million in grants to families suffering through cancer’s financial costs. ‘I pray to Saint Jay because I believe he’s a saint, Coughlin says.’
“Following the funeral, Coughlin joined the procession to Calvary Cemetery. Once the casket was lowered into the grave, he returned to the family’s home on Harwich Street in Brockton, a leafy dead end. Pat McGillis, who is also known as Sis, received Coughlin warmly. He asked to see her son’s deathbed. ‘Tom, it’s nothing special up there, just a modest house,’ she said. She took his hand, walked up 12 carpeted steps and turned left. Together they stood rooted in the doorway. The walls were stripped of picture frames and sanitized with liquid disinfectant. There was a twin bed in the middle, a golden crucifix affixed to a wall. ‘It was just something I wanted to do,’ says Coughlin, his eyes reddening with tears behind rimless glasses. I just wanted to see where he grew up, where he slept.’ ”
“Jay McGillis lost strength as he underwent aggressive chemo. … Support pulsed during visiting hours. Most mornings, Kathy McGillis, who left her pre-law school internship at Skadden, Arps in Washington, slept in her brother’s room and awoke to the phone ringing. Jay looked at her. It was Coughlin…. He exhorted McGillis to the end, lifting weights with the team for charity and raising awareness. The last phone call was from McGillis. He was going home to die. ‘Don’t give up,’ Coughlin told him. ‘I won’t, coach,’ McGillis said.”
“[The number] 31 is a thread that binds them all. Coughlin was born on August 31. When David McGillis entered the Masschusetts Firefighting Academy, he was assigned No. 31. Butch’s locker at the golf club is No. 31. Michael’s daughter, Emma, had “J31” tattooed into the back of her neck. [Serrano, who dated McGillis until he died and has since married, grabs No. 31 uniforms for each of her four children in youth leagues. His varsity jacket hangs in a basement closet. “I think about him every day,” she says.
“Nine a.m. on May 29, the Tuesday after Memorial Day, and Sis McGillis, dressed in white from cardigan to dress shoes, wipes the pollen off the black granite headstone that marks her son’s grave. It lies beneath a maple tree in the cemetery’s south end. “It’s tough to keep clean this time of year,” she says.
“Friends and family find different ways to honor Jay McGillis in his final resting place. His brother David left a Bull’s Eye putter the year that Jay died, and it still rests against the headstone. There are typically 31 cents — one quarter, one nickel and a penny — sitting in a row next to an American flag. His parents do not know who leaves the exact change. …
“Coughlin once sent flowers to the grave in order to commemorate his first big win at BC. It was on Oct. 17, 1992, the day McGillis would have turned 22. It was also the second anniversary of the day Coughlin’s father, Lou, died. Coughlin remembered both men as he walked out of Happy Valley with a 35-32 win over No. 9 Penn State.
“The parents stand together, their images reflected in granite. Pat reads the epitaph: ‘The quality of a man’s life is measured by how deeply he has touched the lives of others.’ ”