For the love of the Bonnies, friendship and my father

For the past three months, every St. Bonaventure win -- including Sunday's Atlantic 10 championship -- feels like a little message in a bottle from some other dimension. Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

ANYTIME YOU SEE three missed calls and three voicemails in 45 minutes from Mom, something's wrong.

"Give me a call whenever you get this. Thank you."

Another red flag: She skipped saying, "Please."

My dad had gone in that Tuesday afternoon in 2019 for an MRI to get answers about a lingering shoulder injury suffered while working on his childhood home where he and my mom were starting their retirement. Dad had fallen from a ladder months prior, yet he had continued to install trim, flooring and wood-plank ceilings. These were the first steps of a restful and content future after a lifetime of work. My mom, a veteran nurse, suspected a torn rotator cuff -- thus the MRI.

My day had been full of meetings, and my phone had been in silent mode. I called her back.

"Hey, how's Dad's shoulder?"

"His shoulder is OK. There is something else I have to tell you."

THE MEN'S NCAA tournament started Thursday, and my alma mater, St. Bonaventure, will make its eighth appearance in the program's 101-year history on Saturday. The Atlantic 10 champs have the potential to be this year's tournament darling: the smallest school in the field, the poised underdogs with the task of dethroning the perennial powers. For me, not only has the team's dominance been a welcome distraction following a long, heartbreaking year, but its blue-collar ways remind me of my dad.

Leo Thomas McCartney was raised 60 miles south of St. Bonaventure in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, a town known for its powder metal and lumber industry. He grew up playing baseball, but he had a passion for hunting and fishing. He and my mom, Laura, met in high school but didn't hit it off until their senior banquet. She was drawn to his kind heart and infectious laugh. They married in 1974. Dad was a competitive silhouette shooter. Despite being a two-time state champion, he never talked about it or had any trophies on display collecting dust.

In 1980, I entered the picture, along with my twin sister, Rena. We caused a lot of stress and debt, because we were born two months premature. We became the sole reason Dad spent 35 years working at a powder metal plant as a maintenance mechanic. He could build and fix anything -- a true problem solver. He worked 10-plus-hour-days in filthy, tense conditions as temperatures sometimes reached 100 degrees. One of his co-worker buddies said Dad used to joke, "Whose life are we saving to continue doing this job?" Dad split his head open too many times to count; another time he nearly lost his eye when a machine he was working on kicked, throwing him to the ground. He never called out sick. He lived with a simple purpose: provide a better life for his family.

He and my mom scraped and saved enough for Rena and me to go to college. To graduate as a Bonnie, I needed to complete a capstone project. Dad convinced us at an early age that we could do anything, so I decided to make a documentary film in Vietnam. I didn't know how I'd pay for that, but my dad had an idea: Sell your idea to my bosses. Maybe they can help.

I think it says more about him than me that they somehow figured out how they could pay for my remaining expenses. The production process and the success of the documentary opened many doors and garnered praise and awards, including me being named St. Bonaventure's Woman of Promise in 2003. That kind of recognition always made my dad glow with pride, as if every honor I received also belonged to him. Of course, they kind of all did.

That Tuesday phone call with my mom dropped me onto the edge of my bed. Mom explained that about a week after we had all been together at Christmas, Dad started forgetting to turn off lights and shut doors. In the following days, he couldn't tie his shoes. And the ultimate sign he needed help was when they were heading to the lumberyard. Dad started driving his truck and forgot to shut the driver-side door. Because he already had an MRI scheduled for his shoulder, his doctor requested to scan his head, too.

"They found three tumors in Dad's brain. An ambulance is on its way to transport us to Pittsburgh."

Three days later, doctors confirmed our worst fears: the most aggressive form of brain cancer -- glioblastoma. No cure. Few treatment options. Inoperable tumors. Oh, and this, from every doctor who visited us that day: "It's going to be a long, hard road."

As the last neurosurgeon quietly pulled the door shut behind him, Dad turned to us with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. "Well, at least it's me and none of you."

IT'S A STRANGE thing to try to figure out how to use time when there's so little of it left. When you're already months past your expected death date, and the drugs are at war -- but losing -- against tumors, and your body is fighting through horrific side effects, what do you do? My dad wanted to go to St. Bonaventure.

"I need to get a new suit," he told my mom.

Last March, I invited my parents to be my guests at St. Bonaventure University's Mary A. Hamilton Woman of Promise Ceremony. I was asked back to deliver the keynote address for the award I won 17 years ago.

"I need to look my best."

Before Dad got sick, his daily attire consisted of worn, light-washed jeans and a white T-shirt or, in colder months, a plaid flannel. He found joy in simple things like fishing with Mom, hanging out with his buddies at deer camp, teaching his granddaughters how to drive the pontoon boat and bait their own hooks. It's how he was supposed to be spending his retirement, not off to a mall because his clothes didn't fit. The steroids that were keeping his tumors from swelling were making him swell. He didn't recognize himself. That wasn't going to stop him from sitting in the audience, though, listening to his daughter, looking his best.

That's one thing about my dad; he was present. He gave us the gift of time -- a tangible expression of his love. It wasn't until I became a parent that I fully appreciated the power of this gift. His presence showed me that I was valued. He believed in me.

The night before the Woman of Promise Ceremony, life as we knew it was over. It was March 11 -- the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. After a day of driving from Connecticut to my parents' house, I stretched out on the couch as President Donald Trump addressed the nation. Shortly after, we learned an NBA player tested positive for the mysterious virus, and minutes later, the NBA suspended its season.

We immediately wondered whether the award ceremony would be canceled. I feared for my parents' safety but was selfishly hoping it was still on, because I knew it would likely be our last formal outing together. I kept checking my phone. Dad sensed my concern and put an end to any future discussion.

"There's no way I'm going to miss it," he said.

Fortunately, the event continued as scheduled. Returning to my old stomping grounds became a reunion. My former softball coach, Mike Threehouse, greeted us at our car when we arrived. I was surprised to see him, because he was supposed to be on a bus heading south to a tournament. That's when he broke the news -- all winter and spring sports were canceled. The men's basketball team was supposed to be tipping off in the second round of the A-10 tournament. We were recording it to watch later that night.

As the reality of the pandemic was sinking in, we headed into the auditorium, and I watched Dad grab my mom's arm to help him balance. His physical capabilities were failing, and no rest would ease his constant fatigue. Dad didn't smile much these days, but he filled this afternoon with them. I concluded my speech with final advice, circling back to an opening anecdote: "Always invest in a go-to dress and comfortable shoes, so you'll be ready for any occasion," I caught him nodding, beaming in approval.

We were together, living in the moment, in a place that felt like home.

In the coming months, as our country was in lockdown, I came to treasure that day even more. My relationship with my alma mater now felt deeper. I left an impression on a communications school and people still involved with the university, who had given me opportunities and support. On the same campus where my dad had cheered for me on the softball field and listened to my endless updates on the basketball team, he sat proud and dying in the audience as I spoke on a podium as a grown woman who'd made good on the dreams fueled by his belief and sacrifice. He'd lived long enough to see his little girl become everything he knew I could be.

BY FALL, DAD'S cancer infiltrated other parts of his brain. After his oncologist broke the news and urged him to begin hospice care, Dad broke down: "But I'm not ready to die."

For Halloween, we took the party to him. He carried on one of my daughters' favorite traditions, painting their faces -- this time transforming his canvases into a bat and raccoon. The next day we toasted to family during an early Thanksgiving dinner. Two weeks later, my sister and I celebrated our 40th birthday a week early. We even gave him Christmas presents -- a few at a time over several weeks -- including a new scope he had been wanting for hunting season.

In his last days, I slept on the couch next to his hospital bed in the home addition Mom and Dad had finished right before he got sick, a glorified sunroom full of windows and high ceilings that opened into the living room. Dad slept around the clock. Every two hours, Mom gave him his cocktail of comfort meds, and we washed him and changed his position -- anything to keep him comfortable. As his breathing grew labored and his temperature rose to 103, we knew his time with us was slipping away.

In the evening of Nov. 24, I rested my cold hand on Dad's warm chest as it rapidly moved up and down. The other hand was finalizing his tribute video on my phone, so he could listen and watch a highlight reel of his life. Dad once commented that he wished a dead person could see all that love while he was alive, so I was trying to honor that. Then, without warning, his breathing slowed. He exhaled like he had just crossed the finish line of a marathon. I yelled for my mom and sister. At 5:35 p.m., he took his final two breaths.

The doctors gave him 9 to 12 months. Dad made it 22. He was 67 years old.

FOR THE PAST three months, every St. Bonaventure win has felt like a little message in a bottle from some other dimension. Sports are funny that way, and as the Bonnies are having a historic season, it feels a little like my dad is looking out for me. He wants them to win, because he wants me to be happy.

The Bonnies were off to a 5-1 start when I decided to make a donation to keep our annual attendance streak alive. I purchased a cardboard cutout of our Bernese mountain dog to sit in the stands of the Reilly Center.

But the surprise was on me. That night, while scrolling through Facebook, I stumbled upon a wide photo of the "crowd." I zoomed in to see whether I could recognize anyone.

Along the baseline, in Section H, Row 9, Seats 18-21, there I sat with my husband and girls. I laughed. I yelled for the girls. I texted my husband at work. I called my mom and sister.

After a couple of Facebook posts about my discovery, the mystery was solved, courtesy of my former roommate, Emily.

It's unfortunate that tough times seem to be what brings good friends back together ... but it's also proof that we do not need to be physically close or talk frequently to know that the friendship is still strong. While it may have been more appropriate to make a donation to your dad's foundation, we had a different idea ... what better way to bring some joy to you and your family's face than to see your faces on TV every time there is a home Bonnies basketball game!

The 12 friends who donated the money for the cardboard cutouts had, two decades before, watched my dad carry TVs and totes up flights of stairs on moving day. They posed with the pumpkin he masterfully carved for us that had the Bonnies' mascot on it. They drank beer with him in our front yard before graduation.

Dad loved that I found a second home at St. Bonaventure. Though he wasn't a huge sports fan, he embraced the Bonnies because he knew how much the team meant to me. And he found comfort in knowing I had a close-knit group of friends who always had my back.

The thought, the donations, the gift of time. Twelve friends scattered across the country, banded together in memory of my dad. My hands covered my face as 22 months of stored-up tears poured down my cheeks. He hadn't been forgotten, and as long as his name was spoken, by my friends or by his daughter in a story like this one, then some part of him remained young and healthy and alive.

Rayna Banks is senior manager for features in ESPN's Investigative Unit.