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Grieving Family Finds Joy — And Healing — In Soccer12:30
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Mack Brady (Courtesy Christian Brady)
Mack Brady (Courtesy Christian Brady)

"I mean, if you have Mack in goal, like, you gotta work hard still," Quinn Murphy says. "But you can trust him that — he’s yelling at you to get in the right position, and making sure your team doesn’t give up easy goals."

Murphy, a thirteen-year-old soccer player, knows the value of a good goal-keeper. So did Vladimir Nabokov. He once wrote: "The goal-keeper is the lone eagle, the last defender. Less the keeper of a goal than the keeper of our dreams."

Nabokov didn’t have Mack Brady in mind. Not literally at least. He was dead long before Mack was born. But hold what Mr. Nabokov said in mind anyway, okay? Humor me.

Anyway, according to Mack’s mother, Elizabeth Brady, the love of soccer came early to her son.

'I Will Stay'

"He has an older sister, Izzy, who is about six years older than he is," Elizabeth says. "And we were actually taking Izzy to a soccer summer camp, but he was too young. And when we got there, Izzy decided, 'I’m not sure this is for me.' And he was standing there in the midst of the soccer camp, and I think he was probably 2, and he was, like, 'I will stay. I will stay! I'll go in her place!' This is something he loved. And he would be in the backyard with his soccer ball, and he always had his ball with him. So we just went with his energy."

Mack and Elizabeth Brady. (Courtesy Christian Brady)
Mack and Elizabeth Brady. (Courtesy Christian Brady)

Mack’s energy sometimes complicated things for his family…such as when everybody was expected at a wedding that conflicted with the schedule of the State College Celtics…the youth soccer team in Pennsylvania for which Mack, then seven, was playing.

"Suddenly you’re, like, 'Is soccer taking over our lives?" asks Elizabeth. "Shouldn’t he be at the family wedding? And yet he was so sincere about needing to be in Pittsburgh with his team. I wrestled with this for a couple of weeks, and Mack would come up to me and say, 'So have you made a decision yet? I need to be with my team.' We said, 'Okay. You go.' And he car-pooled with one of the other family teams. And we were at the wedding, and then we were at the reception, getting text after text, play-by-play of what was happening. And Mack just emerged that day, just came into his own, I think. And we’ve often mused on the fact that we weren’t there. But we honored him."

"And, of course, thanks to contemporary technology, you were sort of there because your phone kept pinging," I joke.

"Absolutely. We were the annoying relatives at the reception with our phones under the table," Elizabeth says.

The Last Line Of Defense

Mack didn’t just love soccer. Unlike almost every other small child crazy about that game, Mack fell in love with goaltending. His dad, Christian Brady, a former water polo goalie, was pleased.

"He tried it out one day, and I tried my best and failed many times to be a quiet parent on the sidelines. But at home we would work a little bit on angles and mindset," Christian says. "I would talk with him, you know, five or six years old, 'Only worry about the balls in front of you. Don’t worry about the balls behind you,' and so forth. And for whatever reason, he liked being responsible for the defense of his goal. He liked being back there for his teammates. I once taught him to tell your players where the ball is. Tell them to cover the weak side. And the next thing I know, in the game you hear, 'Weak! Weak! Weak!'"

Mack Brady (M) poses with his Celtics teammates (Courtest Christian Brady)
Mack Brady (M) poses with his Celtics teammates (Courtest Christian Brady)

Because Christian Brady is a professor and former dean at Penn State University…and because his job has acquainted him with the men’s soccer coach there and lots of the players, Christian and Mack went to lots of Penn State soccer games together. There, Mack studied goal-keeping at the college level.

"It always amazed me, actually, how…the very next game he would play, I would see something that one of our Penn State keepers had done, that Mack was now incorporating in his own play," Christian says. "Which is remarkable because, half the time, I’d be watching the game intently, and he’d be talking with his buddies or doing something else. But he was clearly paying attention at some point."

According to one of Mack’s teammates, John Cobes, "clutch" didn’t begin to describe Mack’s play. Cobes says Mack could be funny, even goofy, but "every time you needed a save, it just didn’t get past him."

Mack’s plan was to play one day at Penn State. Excellence there would put him on the U.S. National Team’s radar, and he hoped he’d also gain the attention of his favorite pro team, Real Madrid. Childhood is for dreaming.

Striking A Match

In the aftermath of Christmas, 2012, it all seemed possible for an eight-year-old goal-keeper.

And then, after a day of sledding and playing in the snow, Mack started to run a fever. Neither of his parents thought it was serious. One of Mack’s pals had some flu symptoms and recovered overnight. But Elizabeth and Christian called the doctor, just to be safe:

"So they said just call back in the morning if he still has a fever" Christian says. "So, 7:30 — 8:00 in the morning, on New Year’s Eve morning, I called them and they said, 'Okay, bring him in at 4:30 this afternoon.' So then I took him into the doctor’s, and in hindsight I realized that the first physician there, he clearly realized something more was wrong. And, um, Bill, I’ll do my best on the details here.

"Within about 45 minutes, he said, 'You really need to take Mack to the ER. ... So they bring him into the ER. You know, they didn’t really know what was going on. They were trying to do blood work and so forth, and after a few hours they said, 'There’s just not much that we can do here. We need to Life Flight him to a hospital.' So they bundled him up on the stretcher, and the helicopter crew came and got him. And we prayed with him, and we stood outside and watched the helicopter take off. I took a video, because I knew he’d want to see the helicopter he’d been in…"

Mack never would see the video. He died in the helicopter as his parents were driving from State College to Hershey.

"When he wasn’t in the intensive care unit, I had a hunch that things weren’t good," Christian says. "And the chaplain came and met us, and took us down to the quiet room. And I told Elizabeth, I said, 'He’s gone.' And she said, 'How do you know?' And I’m trained as Episcopal priest and ordained, and I said, 'They don’t bring the chaplain to the quiet room when things are going well.'"

Sepsis had shut down Mack’s organs so quickly that even the doctors who saw him in State College had no chance to save him. Christian remembered later that one doctor had told him that it could be like somebody striking a match in a dry forest.

Once she’d absorbed the initial shock, Elizabeth Brady began thinking about Mack’s 15-year-old sister, who’d stayed home while her parents had made the drive to Hershey.

"I said to the chaplain, 'What do I do? Do I call Izzy? Or...what do I do?'" Elizabeth says. "And she said, 'No. Go to her.' So we went to her friend’s house and banged on the doors. Everyone was sleeping. And finally her friend's father came down and answered the door, and we said, 'I’m sorry to wake you, but we just need to get Izzy.' So we were able to rouse her and bring her down and tell her in person. And I think about that because, later, she remembered that. That was important to her, you know."

Mack's Legacy

With Izzy, Christian and Elizabeth mourned Mack’s death. Then, almost without a pause, they celebrated his life. They were determined to help Mack’s teammates deal with the loss of their pal…their goal-keeper. Penn State coach Bob Warming remembers hearing Christian’s concerns about the kids.

"A lot of them, obviously, were very sad and shocked in some ways," Warming says. "And some of them thought they didn’t know if they wanted to play soccer again, just because they associated soccer with Mack."

"I would much rather be standing on the sidelines bundled up in a sweatshirt watching Mack, you know. But, that wasn’t our choice."

Elizabeth Brady

Christian Brady’s concern led to the creation of an annual clinic for Mack’s teammates and other soccer players in the community. Members of the Penn State varsity and a couple of players who’d graduated – one of whom was playing professional soccer – staged a day to celebrate Mack and his love for the game.

Mack and Christian Brady. (Courtesy Christian Brady)
Mack and Christian Brady. (Courtesy Christian Brady)

"Well, the very first clinic was only, gosh, not even two weeks after Mack died," Elizabeth says. "And I think, initially, there’s such an energy to be there. And there was some comfort in coming together and seeing the boys out there playing. And, of course, Mack should have been there. I mean, it’s so poignant all the time. But I think that’s kind of the flip side, and always the 'both/and,' is that, being isolated from that or stepping away from something that Mack loved, I don’t think that would have been healthy for anyone. And so I think by emerging and, kind of, embracing and stepping back into the energy of it all was healing. Certainly for us — but, I think, healing for everybody."

The Brady family established a fund to benefit the recruiting and training of future goal-keepers at Penn State. And the Penn State team decided that one game each year should be designated "The Mack Brady Game." As it happens, Penn State has never lost the Mack Brady Game…and from time to time, that game has featured an inexplicable moment…at least according to Christian Brady:

"Year before last, I’m pretty sure it was Indiana that we played. We were about 14 minutes in. And of course, it was a horrible call, a penalty kick — because it was against my team," Christian explains. "We thought, 'This is not a good start.' Matt Bersano was in the goal for us. And, they get on the line, player comes up to the spot, Matt dives to the left, gets his left hand on the ball, blocks it. And they win 1-0 by the end of the game. I think that was the final score. And Coach Warming ... he turned around after that penalty stop and hugged me so tight I lost all breath. And he said, 'Mack, that’s all Mack.' That’s a — that’s a pretty good feeling, isn’t it?"

Thanks to the love and determination of Mack’s parents, and of the various people, young and old, whom he touched during his short life, all sorts of grand and surprising things have come about in the wake of that life.

And Elizabeth Brady has found in these positive developments and more a capacity for serenity:

"I would much rather be standing on the sidelines bundled up in a sweatshirt watching Mack, you know," Elizabeth says. "But, that wasn’t our choice… so… Mack’s legacy, in a sense, with his friends and everything, is one of energy and pride and excitement — instead of our grief. As it should be."

Elizabeth Brady doesn’t deny the grief. "We will always be the parents of two children," she tells me. She’s not someone who feels one can "get over" the death of a child. "You learn to carry it," she says. And in creating ways to sustain the enthusiasm they treasured in their son, and to celebrate their love for him to the benefit of many others, she and her family have carried it, and they’ve done so much more.

This segment aired on June 24, 2017.

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