It wasn't just another bus ride on May 24.
This one for the Mt. Hebron boys lacrosse team was the ultimate ride: to Stevenson University to play Linganore in the 3A/2A state championship game for the first time in a decade.
And there in the middle of it, seemingly lost among the group of intense young faces donning eye black, was a stoic, silver-haired man sitting near the front of the bus.
Mickey McCarthy, quiet and fierce, was prepping for the same battle his players were about to face in the biggest moment of their career.
"He definitely put a face on for us," said Vikings goalie Casey DuBois. "He looked like the same Mickey McCarthy he always is."
But for McCarthy, the 17-mile journey alongside his son, Mike, Mt. Hebron's head coach, and many of players he coached previously on the JV team, was one he simply wouldn't miss no matter the circumstances of his now upside-down world.
"He was pretty quiet. I think he was putting things in perspective," Mike recalled. "I think he was just taking it all in, like this is a pretty fun life and fun to be a part of."
"For me to be able to ride on that bus and pull into Stevenson..." said Mickey, unable to finish the thought.
"Sometimes they don't let you schedule your opponent"
Just eight days earlier, Mickey McCarthy, 67, was having pains in his side while on the sidelines of the Mt. Hebron lacrosse team's playoff victory against Marriotts Ridge.
"I thought I had pulled an oblique playing golf the day before," Mickey McCarthy said.
Still, to be safe, his doctor recommended he come in the next day to be checked out. The diagnosis wasn't good after a CT scan. The doctor told him to go to a hospital immediately. He needed an appendectomy.
He went to St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore on May 17 for the procedure, and Mickey McCarthy recalls that the surgery didn't go as planned.
"When they went in, it wasn't a simple appendix," he recalls. "It had ruptured. There was a tumor that was in there and it had burst. Whatever was in it caused a peritonitis."
[The Mayo Clinic defines peritonitis as an inflammation of the peritoneum, which lines the inner abdominal wall, "usually due to a bacterial or fungal infection."]
"[The doctor] had to go in there and get it all out," Mickey said. "But they saw that it might be some form of cancer. The appendix had collapsed on it."
Mike McCarthy remembers getting a phone call that day from his dad, who told him he was getting the appendectomy around 5 or 6 p.m.
"It was supposed to be an hour surgery and he'd be home that night and everything would be fine," he recalls. "I asked if I should go to the hospital. My stepmom [Lisa McCarthy] told me to go home. My wife was due any day [to have a baby]. But I waited at my parents' house for a while. I felt like something was wrong."
Mickey, who everyone describes as the ultimate optimist, said that while he was dealing with "a lot of fear; a lot of anxiety," of the unknown, he had his mind on getting out that night.
"I said to the doctor when I went in Tuesday, 'You think I can get out of here tomorrow? I've got a game at River Hill Wednesday night.'"
Mickey's doctors knew something more ominous was going on. He would be in the hospital until May 21, and on May 25, the day after the bus ride to the state championship game, the official diagnosis from the pathology report was revealed.
He was told he has cancer, and it's in Stage 3.
"He's the ultimate optimist; I'm kind of the opposite somewhat," Mike said. "I go to him for his optimism, when I think things are terrible and this and this, and he puts a spin on it to make it seem like everything is fine. He told me he feels good and we'll get a second opinion, this is what it is and we'll go through this chemo and beat it.
"I said sometimes they don't let you schedule your opponent, but he basically said this is the next person we have to play. We'll attack this just like we do another game, and we'll figure it out."
"We just got the wind knocked out of our sails."
Mickey has been a staple in the Mt. Hebron community since moving to Ellicott City in 1978. Others have described him as a leader in the community, someone you could easily approach and always want to be around, but he describes himself as a coach through and through.
"Coaching is the best part of my day," Mickey says.
He grew up in Baltimore County and played soccer at the University of Maryland and according to old men's soccer media guides, he scored seven goals and registered an assist in 1970 as the team's center forward. In a 6-3 win against George Washington that year, he scored four goals.
He graduated with a master's degree in physical education and taught and coached middle school lacrosse for seven years in Baltimore County before leaving the profession 37 years ago to sell business insurance.
Despite leaving the teaching profession, Mickey continued to coach. He had stints as the girls head basketball coach at Woodlawn and Milford Mill High School, and later coached at Mt. Hebron alongside current Howard coach Scott Robinson from 1999 to 2003.
They first met in 1991 when Robinson became the boys basketball coach for the Vikings. He says Mickey was coaching travel teams at the time, and would call him to talk about potential players that would go to Mt. Hebron.
"Mickey is a tireless worker. Gosh, did he work hard," Robinson said. "He provided detailed scouting reports for each game, like a binder. When I say a binder, I mean a binder. He did a lot of scouting. We had very successful teams. We made the regional finals twice and won the county championship in 2002.
"Mickey, he sees the positives in everyone. He's a glass half-full kind of guy, no matter what the obstacle."
He has been coaching lacrosse, however, in some form or fashion for the past 41 years. Mike, 38, said his dad was always his coach growing up.
"He coached every sport I played: baseball, lacrosse, basketball. I think when you're young you take it for granted," he said. "I remember it was just we got home from school, got into whatever car and went to whatever practice or game or tournament. Whatever we were doing it was routine. You take it for granted that he's working and he's doing all this still."
Mike and his siblings – Melissa, 31, Joanna, 30, and Chad, 27 – all played sports at Mt. Hebron. Mike played in three state championship games on the lacrosse team, which Mickey remembers well because "they lost all three years during his sophomore, junior and senior year."
Melissa played girls lacrosse at the school and had better success, playing in four state championship games and losing just one game total in the four years. Aside from the years Mickey spent watching Melissa play lacrosse for the University of North Carolina, he was always around to be a parent and to coach. Mike says that when all of his siblings had graduated college, he was anxious to get Mickey to join the lacrosse coaching staff.
"I wanted him to be able to spend time with them and travel to their games, but as soon as they were done, I couldn't wait fast enough for him to come back and coach for me because I knew the kids would get the best care and attention and focus to detail and get better and become better people by playing for him," Mike said.
"That's definitely an inherited trait; to work with kids and teach them and coach them. We just see so many things the same way, and I either inherited that or learned it from him over the past 20-some years."
Mickey became a JV assistant coach alongside Mike Tittsworth three years ago. Mike McCarthy describes him as extremely intense on the sidelines, but it's really his dedication to the job that sets him apart from most coaches.
"He's ultimately committed to the kids and the community. My step-mom gets very — not annoyed, but lacrosse season is coming. He works full-time, but it completely consumes him," he said. "I don't know how many JV assistants are up at like 4 in the morning watching like Queen Anne's film that he went to scout at Bel Air on like March 11 where it was like 38 degrees outside. He's crazy."
Simon Perna, who played attack for the JV team his freshman year in 2015, calls Mickey one of the best coaches he's ever had.
But a moment that Perna remembers most was off the lacrosse field. Perna broke his arm during a game against Marriotts Ridge, and he says Mickey and Tittsworth went to the hospital to look for him, but were unable to find him.
"[Mickey] ended up coming to my house after going to Play It Again Sports [a local sporting goods store] to find me an extra large glove to fit over the cast they had just put on my arm," Perna said.
Dave Herlihy, whose son Danny was a freshman on the JV team this spring, marvels at how Mickey goes above and beyond. He says he was surprised to learn that Mickey, at the end of each season, writes each player a handwritten letter detailing everything from their strengths and weaknesses on the field to what he enjoyed most about having that player on the team.
"The letter he wrote my son — it was not typed; it was in his own crummy handwriting — it was phenomenal. It had so much emotion, so much thought, so much caring and compassion. You can just tell the guy gives a you-know-what," Herlihy said.
"He's just a really classy guy. You just got the sense this guy would walk through walls if you ever asked him to.
When we found out he had cancer, it felt like we just got the wind knocked out of our sails."
"We did it for coach McCarthy"
Mickey admits the hardest thing about the eight days between his surgery and diagnosis was the unknown and being away from the lacrosse team.
"Not knowing what was going on was the worst thing," Mike said. "If you know, you can start to process or grieve or deal with what is in front of you. Not knowing what you're dealing with, for him it was hard to deal with."
Mike told his assistant coaches the night of his dad's surgery that he was in the hospital and Mickey would most likely miss the River Hill game. The news spread to the team.
"We knew he wasn't going to be able to be there for the game. He had been so supportive, especially of me, throughout the whole season," DuBois said. "He means a lot to me. He used to come up to me in the locker room of big games and give me a pep talk and stuff. I knew how much the team meant to him, so I sent him a text and basically said we all wish you could be here with us."
"The kids, they're not good at expressing themselves, but they come around," Mickey said. "They're used to a little short text or something, not putting something together that had a thought or two. But Casey sent me a really incredible text before the River Hill game that you might think was out of his character. He really said something that said a lot about him."
DuBois also recalls a speech from Tittsworth on the bus before the game.
"It was about coach McCarthy and his journey, and that got everyone completely fired up before the game," DuBois said. "That was a huge boost."
The Vikings played their best game of the year in a 6-0 shutout win over the Hawks that night. Mike said after the game it was the best defensive performance perhaps in program history. DuBois, who saved all seven of the shots he faced that night at River Hill, said afterwards, "We did it for coach McCarthy."
Mickey knew what was ahead. The team would be playing in the state semifinal game against Hereford on May 20, but his doctor wouldn't let him go. He did, however, put together a video for the players to let them know, "I'm on the radar somewhere.
"I told them that they got it, and at the end I turned around and showed my hospital wear with my butt hanging out," Mickey said. "They need to be loose going into this thing."
DuBois remembers his parents sending him the video on the bus ride to Annapolis High School for the state semifinal game. He sent it to the rest of the team with the note, "This one's for coach McCarthy."
Mt. Hebron was in a tight battle throughout, and Mickey was getting minute-to-minute updates about the game via text. The Vikings fought off a late rally from the Bulls to win, 7-6, to advance to the state championship game for the first time since 2006, when Mike was an assistant coach and his brother Chad played on the team.
"I thought River Hill might have scored one goal. A shutout; that was incredible," Mickey said. "Hereford, I knew that was going to be a tough one. I wasn't shocked that we won. I was just thrilled because of how much Mike invests in these kids. Lacrosse is great; it doesn't define who they are as young men, but when they get a chance to play at that level and are successful, they see the puzzle come together."
Mickey was released from the hospital May 21, the day after the Hereford game. He said no matter what, he wasn't going to miss the state championship game.
"I knew I was going on the bus to Stevenson. You're not keeping me off that bus; there's no way," he said. "So my wife is thinking, 'If something happens to you on that bus...' I said, 'No, this is what I'm doing.'
"So I got a chance to do that with the three years of kids that I saw grow up, and all the kids and the seniors and families we have gotten close with. To be part of the Hebron team and community, it's pretty satisfying."
Mt. Hebron ultimately lost the state championship game to Linganore, 9-7, to end the season, and Mickey was told of the cancer diagnosis the following day.
"It was a miracle"
Mickey's official diagnosis on May 25 was mucinous adenocarcinoma of the appendix, a rare but high-grade cancerous tumor that commonly invades soft tissues and organs, according to a 2010 study published in the World Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology.
He would need major surgery on July 15, where doctors would remove 40 percent of his colon to prevent the potential of the cancer spreading, scrape the peritoneum — the inner wall that covers the organs in your abdomen — and blast the area with chemotherapy.
He would be in the hospital for three weeks, and recovery would take up to three months.
"His response to me was that he had a game plan," Robinson said. "When he initially told me, he told me the original diagnosis and he would need very, very aggressive chemotherapy, and he would need to get part of his colon removed, I'm thinking, 'Oh boy.'
"I thought it was a pretty daunting task. Knowing Mickey, he's very, very active and very positive, and the fact that I knew he was going to be laid out for three months and what he described to be very ill during the next few months, that was very difficult to hear."
As Mickey described it, "I can only watch so many Hudl films," which is essentially game film on each player, " but I can do it if I have to."
On May 30, Mickey decided to go to Johns Hopkins to schedule the upcoming surgery with one of the hospital's top oncologists. He would also get a second opinion.
"He looked at the St. Agnes pathology report; they did another CT scan, some blood tests, I had another colonoscopy. If I was going to have this surgery, I was going to have this surgeon do it. We felt much more comfortable," Mickey said.
Mickey went to Johns Hopkins for his pre-operation physical on June 28. He brought Lisa, Chad and Joanna with him so they could learn more about what the surgery would entail.
It would turn out to be one of the best days of his life.
"We're in this tiny little treatment room and the surgeon comes in with three or four other people and she says, 'I've got some really great news for you. I just got our Hopkins pathology report and the cancer you have is not the mucinous adenocarcinoma; you have something a little less invasive, and you're not going to need the surgery.'"
As it turns out, Johns Hopkins gave Mickey a different diagnosis: Goblet Cell Carcinoid, which is "a unique and distinctive tumor type that occurs almost exclusively in the appendix with rare cases encountered outside this location," according to the study in the World Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology. The study also notes the five-year overall survival is 76 percent.
In other words, while the prognosis is still cancer, it is much more manageable, less invasive and, in Mickey's case, requires no immediate surgery.
"The Hopkins pathologist really drilled down to the cellular level and said it wasn't what [St. Agnes Hospital] said it is," Mickey said. "They said, 'We can deal with this.' We were stunned.
"I just knew that God has answered our prayers. He's got some more work for me to do. Chad and Joanna they were there, they were tearful but full of relief. This is a blessing I'm grateful to have."
Mike notes the doctors said the new cancer diagnosis is much less aggressive and grows much slower. The survival rate is much higher. Mike said they haven't been told what stage the cancer may be in because they have not done any surgery, though.
"I think there was a sense of, what? We were kind of in disbelief. Once you figure out it was misdiagnosed, you were skeptical somewhat. You're obviously happy, but I think we were all on our heels like, now what? Where do we stand now?" Mike said. "But this is where we are now and I think it drives home a little bit that maybe the positive vibes from the community and parents and kids, maybe helped, maybe didn't. I don't know.
"With so many negative things in our world today, it makes you think there is some good. Through whatever means people find to make things happen or work their way through things, it makes you realize there are some good things that happen to us still."
Robinson recalls receiving a phone call from Mickey in early July, which Robinson says he immediately started to assume the worst.
"He said, 'Scott, I was given a miracle today. It's contained to the appendix area.' I asked if he still needed chemo and he said no and that he wouldn't need the surgery," said Robinson. "To me, it was a miracle."
For Mickey, the weeks following his original diagnosis were difficult. He was simply waiting for the upcoming surgery. He canceled his two-week vacation in August to Myrtle Beach, which Mike says made him "furious." He continued to get numerous well wishes from the community as word of his diagnosis spread.
"The support was great; the kids were awesome. Looking back, they wanted to win for him, they wanted to win for me. They knew what was going on and the stress and everything we've been through," Mike said. "They handled it well and there were a lot of kind words."
Scott Buswell met Mickey playing tennis at the North St. John's Tennis Club a year and a half ago, and his son Mason played on the Mt. Hebron JV lacrosse team in the spring. He and Herlihy wanted to do something special after hearing about Mickey's issues after the appendectomy.
Their idea was a helmet sticker, which all the lacrosse players could wear during the summer league.
"I think Dave's words were, 'The kids would run through a wall for Mickey.' So it was something to kind of give back and say we're thinking about you," Buswell said.
Mike mentioned to Scott that they call Mickey the "silver fox," so the plan was set in motion.
It's a sticker in Mt. Hebron-gold, which features a silver fox and the words 'SILVER STRONG' typed out.
"Some of the kids wore it on their helmets and some of the parents put it on the back of their cars," Mickey said. "It kind of took my breath when I saw that."
Buswell said it was the least he could do, considering how much Mickey means to the community and the kind of friend he is to him and coach he is to his son.
"I would describe him — the word that comes to mind is charismatic. He is just one of those guys who is always positive and you kind of always want to be around," he said. "Mickey is probably one of the premier coaches you would want your kid to play for. He's an old school guy — hard-nosed, expects you to do everything that you've been taught and coached to do — but at the same time he's very caring. He wants you to succeed. It's not just a game; he wants you to grow as a person. Every player, he writes a letter to them at the end of the season. That's unheard of these days."
"He doesn't criticize the weaker players or prop up the better players. Everybody is equal; everybody is one team," Herlihy said. "He really does a nice job of coaching, but it goes more than that."
At the Howard County lacrosse coaches meeting where the all-county teams are voted on, Mickey was picked "Man of the Year," which is awarded to someone who provides strong morals, character and a love for the game while teaching future generations the right way to play the game, according to Mike.
Mickey didn't know about it until the end-of-the-year banquet when Mike announced it to the players, coaches and parents.
"Mike started to talk about being named coach of the year for Howard County, and he was talking about why he got into coaching. He said his dad," Mickey said through tears. "And I was sitting on the side and Mike Tittsworth had made a presentation about him and I working together and our impact together, so I certainly didn't expect anything like that. I wasn't quite sure what it meant exactly. But it made me feel really appreciated."
"'When I run, I feel God's pleasure'"
Since receiving his new cancer diagnosis, Mickey has been able to do just about anything he wants. He is currently enjoying his two-week vacation in Myrtle Beach, and he won't be undergoing chemotherapy or surgery to remove part of his colon.
He will, however, be undergoing more tests so the doctors can "keep an eye on everything," Mickey said.
"The Hebron community and others have been so supportive, praying and thinking positive. [When the doctor told me of the new diagnosis, the doctor said,] 'I'm surprised you're not more excited, kicking down chairs,' and I said, 'I knew I was going to be healed, I just didn't know it was going to be today,'" Mickey said.
"From now, I'm able to continue my workouts, getting my legs stronger and play some tennis. I'm not at Wimbledon, although next year I could be. We just feel like we were given a miracle. It was obviously very scary for a while. I think it was hardest on my wife and these guys [Mt. Hebron lacrosse players], just not knowing what's going on and why this is happening."
As for what's next for Mickey? He hopes to remain well enough to continue coaching the JV lacrosse program for as long as he can. He continues to go to Grace Community Church in Fulton every Sunday, where he has been heavily involved for years. And he will continue to find the positives in life, no matter the circumstances.
"I like to think that I'm a person that the cup is overflowing full. I'm looking at this is who you are, not who you aren't. You're a rock star. Looking at the positives in other people," he said. "In terms of lifestyle and diet, maybe watching it a little bit and staying relatively fit. My wife and I have been going to church for a long time, so we're there every Sunday and we're involved with a lot of families at school. We invest in them at whatever level we can. When you're investing in other people you always get a return for that.
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"It's intrinsic; you never expect anything other than knowing this is good. You know the Eric Liddell quote [from the book 'Chariots of Fire,'] 'When I run, I feel God's pleasure.' Having the opportunity to do what I love to do in this community gives me energy. That's my passion: to help these kids and serve our community. As long as I still got a pretty good shot and I'm healthy and have the energy level, I will always do that. I'd like to be able to this for as long as I possibly can because this is where I get tremendous amount of reward and satisfaction."