The McCartney connection
Coach's grandson, son of the late Sal Aunese, making his mark on football landscape
By John Henderson
Denver Post Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 07/28/2007 11:58:37 PM MDT
Westminster - A purple LSU pennant stands next to a black-and-gold University of Colorado welcome mat, a symbolic deliverance from one school to another of two names forever linked to CU.
Walk into the house and there's no doubt where the delivery is going. A nearly life-sized gold LSU tiger greets you inside the front door. Also standing inside the front door is T.C. McCartney.
However, if you're a longtime fan of Colorado football, standing in front of you is the ghost of Sal Aunese.
The hair is shorter. The facial hair is lighter. He's taller. But the rugged frame and quiet confidence are there. McCartney, grandson of Bill McCartney, the winningest coach in Colorado history, is the spitting image of his late father, Sal Aunese, the former Colorado quarterback.
It has been nearly 18 years since Aunese died of stomach cancer early in the 1989 season. At 21, he never got a chance to throw a tight spiral to T.C., who was 5 months old when Aunese died.
In the ensuing years, T.C. McCartney grew into a starting quarterback at Boulder's Fairview High School. He will take what his grandfather calls terrific potential to Louisiana State when he walks on next month.
"I think he's going to make it," Bill McCartney said.
T.C. has seen a couple of old tapes of his dad leading the 1988 team to an 8-4 record, throwing for 1,004 yards and running for 397 using a rugged, linebacker mentality whenever he ran the option.
That foundation led to consecutive national title game appearances and the 1990 national crown. But more memorable in 1989 than the title game loss to Notre Dame was the week following Aunese's death. Colorado went to Washington for a nationally televised game. Following the heart- wrenching 45-28 victory, the Colorado team knelt on the field and made a gesture that registered from Barstow to Boston. It became the Buffaloes' rallying point for that magical season. They pointed toward the heavens. To Aunese.
Tough like Sal
Through his career at Fairview, T.C. wore Aunese's No. 8. "I definitely wanted to be tough and rugged like him," he said.
T.C. matched Aunese's toughness if not his stats.
While Aunese was a first-team all-CIF pick out of Vista High in Oceanside, Calif., Fairview had an injury-plagued 4-6 senior season in which McCartney threw for 769 yards and six touchdowns on 36.7 percent passing.
But the physical tools are there. Flat-footed, he can dunk a basketball. His peel-back block poleaxed Lakewood's best defensive lineman. He's 6-feet-3 and 210 pounds.
"T.C. is definitely a stroker, a guy who will throw the ball," said Fairview coach Tom McCartney, Bill's son and T.C.'s uncle. "I always remembered Sal as a guy who had a gift to run the ball because CU was doing some of the run game at that point. He was physical and tough. Well, I see the toughness."
The LSU connection goes back more than 20 years. Bill McCartney, then coaching Michigan's outside linebackers, coached current LSU coach Les Miles. When Bill McCartney took the Colorado job in 1982, he brought Miles, who stayed five years.
Through the years they kept in touch and in March, T.C. took an official visit to LSU the same day Bill went there to do a clinic. T.C. had taken trips to Hawaii and Michigan. But something in Louisiana clicked. I just really liked Coach Miles," T.C. said. "He was under both Bo Schembechler and my grandfather, so he knows what he's doing. He's very trustworthy."
T.C. could have received a scholarship from a smaller school but wouldn't take calls from the likes of Idaho or Division I-AA schools. Colorado showed little interest. His calling after college isn't on the field with a helmet. It's on the sideline with a whistle.
After all, he is a McCartney.
"One of the things that's important to him, if you hear some of the schools he thought about, was one, 'Do they have a chance to win a national championship?' And, two, 'Who am I being coached by and what system are they in?"' Tom McCartney said. "'I want to be a coach some day. So I want to network. I want to be with the best because I want to learn from the best."'
While NCAA rules won't allow coaches to comment on walk-ons until they enroll, Miles obviously saw a connection, too. He helped recruit Aunese to Colorado.
Kristy McCartney, T.C.'s mom and Bill's daughter, sees something deeper than the physical resemblance.
"I always thought he looks just like Sal and acts just like me," she said. "Sal had an incredible mind. He'd remember all these stats and quotes. T.C. has a mind like that."
Challenge of motherhood
Kristy's odyssey has been as big a challenge as her son ever faced on the field. At 38, she is the single mother of two, working as an office administrator at Arvada's Faith Bible Chapel school after a stint with the Campus Crusade for Christ.
It helps that she lives next door to Bill and his wife and near Tom and his family. Aunese's parents in California have remained close, but not everyone in her life has helped.
In 1994, Kristy gave birth to Derek, now a 6-foot, 170-pound eighth-grade defensive end and the son of former Colorado defensive tackle Shannon Clavelle. Kristy said Clavelle gave money to her for support while in the NFL but he has not been in contact since 2000.
Kristy said she tried to start a support program for single moms, but it didn't take off.
"Most single moms don't choose it," she said. "Some do. You just need that support. You need to have someone in your corner, someone in your life who can come to your aid because it's really difficult to do it all by yourself."
As a daughter of a public figure, Kristy McCartney has it tougher than most single moms. When T.C. was born in 1989, the heavily Christian family received scathing criticism. Some saw inconsistencies with Bill's work with Promise Keepers, a Christian-based organization formed to make men more responsible to their families.
It hit Kristy the hardest.
"I haven't gotten over it, and I'm not sure I ever will," she said. "I hope I can. But it's affected me negatively. It's hurt my self-esteem, which has hurt me as a mom. It also makes you stronger because you have to overcome things."
Her family doesn't think it has hurt her motherhood, at least not looking at the way her two boys have turned out.
"She's been great," Bill said. "She has been, in my opinion living next door, the consummate mother. We just have really admired and respected how she has participated in their lives."
Unfortunately, Aunese did not. He didn't talk to Kristy after she became pregnant until T.C.'s birth, but today she brushes it off as the immaturity of a 21-year-old. Who knows how he would have reacted if he lived?
"I think he would've done the right thing," she said. "I think he would've been a great dad. I am so far removed from that now. Just the way his family has responded, there's no doubt he would've been the same."
But could you ever picture Sal Aunese in purple? Follow LSU the next few years. You just might see it.
Staff writer John Henderson can be reached at 303-954-1299 or email@example.com.
* Looking back: To see a clip from an upcoming movie about Sal Aunese, go to www.livinlargeproductions.com