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Tug McGraw: Ya Gotta Believe!

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Tug McGraw: Ya Gotta Believe!

Last year a team of wounded military veterans reached the South Pole after four weeks of challenges that included temperatures as low as minus 45, winds of 50 mph and shifting ice shelves. At the end of the journey they posed with their sleds, which were emblazoned with baseball star Tug McGraw's catchphrase, "Ya gotta believe!"

Tug McGraw Foundation CEO Jennifer Brusstar teared up when the photo came through on her cellphone. Ten years after McGraw’s death, he was still making a difference in the world.

"I'm really proud of his legacy," Brusstar said. "He was a good man, but I don’t think even he knew his capabilities."

McGraw was 59 when he died of brain cancer on Jan. 5, 2004. His baseball legacy is well-known: The southpaw relief pitcher was a two-time All-Star and won two World Series rings. He began inspiring teammates with "Ya gotta believe" as a player on the New York Mets during their 1973 National League championship season. In 1974 he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, and he was still repeating the slogan in the clubhouse when the team made it to the Big Show in 1980.

During Game 6, McGraw struck out Kansas City Royal Willie Wilson for the final out of the Series. The photo of McGraw leaping in the air, his arms raised in victory, is as iconic in Philadelphia as the "Rocky" statue.

McGraw also was known for his larger-than-life personality. A screwball pitcher, he wasn’t ashamed to say he could be a screwball in life, too. He was quick with a quip –– once asked whether he preferred playing on grass or AstroTurf, he said, "I don’t know. I never smoked any AstroTurf" –– and generous with his time. He autographed balls, replied to fan mail and generally seemed to relish life. As New York Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner noted in a 2004 appreciation piece, every kid who grew up around Philadelphia loved McGraw. "How could you not? Mike Schmidt hit home runs. Steve Carlton struck people out. Pete Rose smacked singles. Tug McGraw smiled all the time."

The Tug McGraw Foundation represents a side of McGraw not many people knew about — the side that appeared at countless charity events, often dragging best pal and teammate Larry "L.C" Christenson with him, and the side that wanted to be remembered for more than strikeouts and nights out.

"Tug felt tied to the community," Christenson said. "He loved being out and being friendly with people."

McGraw co-founded the foundation in 2003 with Brusstar, his friend and caretaker in his final days. Its initial mission was to provide support and resources to people with brain tumors and their families. The foundation expanded its mission in 2009 to include post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, with a focus on veterans. It’s a move McGraw, a former Marine who did a USO tour in 1969, would have approved, Brusstar said.

"It was a natural move, knowing we could further help people from our platform," she said.

Headquartered on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, the foundation has raised money for medical research, hosted a retreat for traumatized women veterans and started the fStop Warrior Project, a photography program that helps wounded veterans recover through creative expression. The foundation partnered with the neurodiagnostics company CereScan to create the Invisible Brain Injury Project, which studies and treats traumatic brain injuries. It funds a six-week internship program as part of the Collegiate Athlete Pre-Medical Experience Program at Duke University, which supports female athletes interested in medical careers.

"I often wonder what he would think about what he left behind," Brusstar said. "I like to think he’d think it was a job well done."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."