A Tougher Test Came Off Field

Football coaches are often very big on prayer in the locker room before a big game. An Orange Bowl is worth praying for. So is a national championship. But cynics say you don't always find them on their knees the day after the game. They put God on hold until they need him again.

Which makes the experiences of Bill McCartney, coach of Colorado's highly ranked 1989 team, all the more remarkable--so much so that my friend, David Diles, has written a remarkable book on the stunning events that dogged the coach off the field as a kind of antiphonal counterpoint to the successes on it.

"From Ashes to Glory" is more than a football book, it's a journal of faith. Job's was never more severely tested than Coach McCartney's.

It all began with the devastating news that his 19-year-old daughter was pregnant. Out of wedlock. The father was the team's star quarterback, Sal Aunese, a gifted athlete whom McCartney had personally recruited out of Oceanside.

"You're not going to be happy with me," Kristy McCartney told Aunese when she broke the news to him. She was right. Aunese was so unthrilled, he refused to have anything to do with her. His friends closed around, recommending Kristy have an abortion and not tell her parents. Kristy, heartbroken, told her parents.

Kristy's mother, Lyndi, sat down and penned this letter to Aunese:

"Hi Sal,

"I wanted to talk to you in person so I could give you a big hug. . . . I know you're hurting, too, and I know it's very scary and difficult to face. I want you to have confidence that the decisions you'll be making . . . will be totally acceptable no matter what they are--with two exceptions. No quitting school and no quitting the team. These are vital to your future and personal well-being.

"Kristy is so deeply concerned for your future and doesn't want to hamper your success in any way. We feel the same and I hope this letter will convey warm feelings and no judgments.

"Coach Mac and I think you are a terrific person, and it is not our desire to pressure you or punish you in any way. What you and Kristy are experiencing is life. Perhaps it's not what either of you planned, but a moment of passion has created a miracle within Kristy, and I know that within Kristy's heart that moment was filled with love. . . .

"I really need to express my feelings as Kristy's mom. She is my treasure, my beautiful little girl, her Dad and I love her with every fiber of our being. We have prayed for a loving Christian mate for our children.

"It's important that the mate she chooses has a lifelong, loving commitment, that she is his treasure and he is hers, that they live a life that gives love and warmth and joy, that they be connected in soul, heart and purpose. . . .

"I don't see two people getting married if the love isn't there, just because they created a baby.

"If you and Kristy don't love each other, don't get married. We don't need an unhappy life for either of you. . . . If you or Kristy want our help, we'll be there for you both. . . .

"Sal, if there's anything I'd ask of you, as Kristy's mom, it would be just to be her friend. You don't have to marry her. You don't have to love her. You don't have to date her. You don't have to be responsible for her or the baby. You and your friends are her closest friends, share this precious secret. Kristy needs you, just to be kind, caring friends. Remember you are loved."

In a P.S., she added: "I have to say I'm deeply disappointed that you and (your friends) have advised Kristy to kill a defenseless baby. Thank God your parents did not do that to you for the world would be a sadder place without the four of you in it."

St. Paul probably couldn't have said it any better.

The McCartneys held strong moral positions. Anti-abortion was one of them. They rejected out of hand that option.

Coach McCartney's turn to show his beliefs came when he called his star quarterback into his office. "I want you to know that you don't need to accept any responsibility for Kristy and the baby if you don't want to. . . . There is no animosity, only forgiveness in our hearts. . . . If you're not in love with Kristy, you shouldn't marry her."

Wrote the coach: "I waited for a response. There was none. I went on. 'Kristy has told me that she loves you--but that isn't any reason to marry her. Not unless you love her. But I want you to know your position on this football team is not threatened.' "

The story then took a macabre turn: the following spring, Aunese's illness was diagnosed as terminal cancer. His position on the football team was threatened by a higher coach. He would barely last the summer.

The McCartneys' Gethsemane was hardly ending. Sports Illustrated came out with a stern story documenting the scrapes with the law the championship football players were having. And barely was that off the newsstands when a Rocky Mountain tabloid came out with a lurid, leering story, "That Sinning Season. CU Coach Bill McCartney Keeps the Faith--and Gets a Grandson Fathered by His Star Quarterback." It added: "CU Football Players Score! But Coach McCartney Is the Loser!"

It went on, in the best tradition of gutter gossip journalism to paint the story in scarlet letters. "The cruelest blow imaginable," wrote Bill McCartney. "(The writer) heaped scorn and condemnation on our precious daughter, plainly suggesting she was a whore, a tramp, a slut. She was easy, he wrote, available for the pleasures of football players. This malevolence made trash of what two young people thought was love."

It's a truly extraordinary story, not the type of football story Hollywood would make a Toby Wing-Richard Arlen musical out of. It is the story of the unshakable faith of one Christian family which had taken a stand on their principles at a time when there were strong reasons to abandon those principles in favor of expediency. To play for a tie, as it were.

McCartney's Colorado team meets Tennessee in the inaugural Disneyland Pigskin game at Anaheim Stadium on Aug. 26. It's billed as a possible prelude to a national championship.

I would agree with David Diles: Coach McCartney has already won a national championship. He faced down a foe a lot tougher than Notre Dame--hypocrisy, vengefulness and three or four other deadly sins. He's the No. 1 coach some place. His game plan was made in heaven.

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