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Former TCU great determined to defy medical odds again

He may just be the best all-around athlete in TCU history.

That's not hyperbole, and neither is the claim that Mickey McCarty has been a medical miracle for 24 years.

"I've had two lives, if you want to break it down that way," McCarty said from his League City home, just south of Houston. "An athletic life and a medically experimental life."

McCarty, now 63, is trying to beat the odds again.

Stage IV pancreatic cancer is the latest diagnosis since it was first detected nine months ago.

"This thing," said McCarty, "really blindsided me."

It takes a lot to blindside someone who has lived since Christmas Day 1986 with two hearts inside his chest. McCarty underwent what was considered, at the time, to be experimental "piggyback" heart transplant surgery, then underwent another one 11 years later.

The 6-foot-7, 240-pound former TCU basketball and baseball star of the late '60s has lost most of his appetite but none of his wit.

He jokes that when he gets well, he's going to run for mayor of "MD Anderson City," referring to the sprawling medical complex in Houston where he has spent more hours than he wishes to count.

When it was said how unfair this cancer diagnosis seems in light of his double heart-transplant history, McCarty replied with a slight Texas drawl, "People say it's not fair for this to happen to me, but why not me?"

Who else could better handle it?

Probably no one.

Medical history

Let me provide a snapshot of Robert Mickey McCarty:

Great athlete, 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, drafted out of TCU by four professional sports leagues -- NBA, ABA, MLB and NFL -- and signed by the Kansas City Chiefs to play a sport he hadn't played since high school.

At 35, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side, so he taught himself to be right-handed.

Five years later on Christmas Day '86, he underwent the first of two "piggyback" (native heart-to-donor heart) procedures, and was told that he had "five-to-seven years" to live.

In '97, he required a second heart transplant. This time the native heart was removed and a second donor heart was connected to the first donor heart.

He knows the history.

The first donor heart came from a 186-pound Nebraska man who died in a car crash. The second donor heart came from a 244-pound man who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Houston.

He frequently asks the nurses: "Anybody beat my record yet?" They always smile and shake their heads.

"No one else has two donor hearts in their chest," said McCarty. "At least not that anyone knows."

No quit, no grudges

Frank Windegger, former TCU athletic director and baseball coach, has known McCarty since he was an All-Southwest Conference pitcher on Windegger's '67 and '68 teams.

"If Mickey's not the best athlete in TCU history, he's darned sure one of 'em," Windegger said. "He was 6-foot-7 and as agile as someone 5-foot-3. I remember he was playing basketball one day, then reported to baseball the next day and pitched a complete game, without even having a practice."

He beat Sam Houston State with a three-hitter. A day earlier, he helped lead the Horned Frogs to the SWC basketball title.

McCarty never stopped being an athlete, just as he never has quit on his doctors.

After 14 rounds of chemotherapy, he's now taking what has been described as "a break" to get his body stronger for more chemo.

Meanwhile, Windegger has issued a solemn plea on McCarty's behalf for financial help with growing medical expenses.

"Time is critical, so let's show one of TCU's greatest just how great TCU can be," said Windegger, who has set up an account at Meridian Bank Texas in Fort Worth to accept donations.

Hospice has been called to McCarty's senior-living apartment, which he shares with longtime girlfriend Paula. They've been together for more than 20 years.

"I don't hold any grudges," Mickey said of his ongoing health issues. "Although when the stroke affected my left side, that made me kind of angry."

Playing tough

Living in Corpus Christi at the time, McCarty suddenly dropped to the kitchen floor around noon on Feb. 8, 1981.

"I really thought," recalled McCarty, "it was maybe a passing thing."

It wasn't.

He was one of the toughest athletes ever to come out of the Southwest Conference and later starred on a USA Slowpitch softball team that played before crowds of 15,000-20,000 across the country.

Funny story on how he "chose" pro football over basketball (NBA Bulls and ABA Dallas Chaparrals) or even a Double A assignment with the Cleveland Indians.

"My plan was to sign with the Chiefs [$20,000 bonus], take a couple of beatings, then get cut and go play baseball," said McCarty, who was a fourth-round draft pick despite not having played football at TCU.

Future Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson approached him on the way to the training table, and asked young McCarty, "Do you want to make the football team?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Do you want to run back kickoffs?"

"Uh, no."

"Well, you're gonna have to run back kickoffs if you want to play," Dawson informed him.

Sure enough, next preseason game, McCarty was back on kickoffs alongside former University of Houston star Warren McVea.

"A 6-7 white guy and a 5-6 black guy...which one do you think they kicked the ball to?" McCarty laughed. "I think they kicked to me seven times.

"First one, I ended up with a broken nose. Second one, somebody grabbed my facemask. I thought I broke my neck. I just didn't have any experience back there."

A lesson for Cody

McCarty's only child, Cody, coaches football and baseball in the Mansfield Independent School District. He's a former TCU tight end (2000-04).

"Poor ol' Cody," Mickey recalled. "For years after my stroke, he'd come over and have to tie my shoes. Finally one day, I asked him, 'Look at me. See anything different?' Cody didn't notice anything, so I told him to look again."

With that, Mickey reached down and proudly retied his shoes.

Cody, whose parents divorced in the '80s, saw in his father that day a perseverance that makes him a survivor, not a quitter.

"Dad took the attitude, 'I'm going to beat this' -- and he did," Cody recalled. "At 35, he was teaching himself how to walk and talk...even learn to write right-handed."

Father-son remain close.

"Dad has his good and bad days," said Cody. "Some days, I'll call and he sounds like he did 15 years ago."

But the prognosis isn't good. It seldom is for pancreatic cancer.

This disease generally begins with sharp abdominal pains. Mickey thought it was his gall bladder flaring up.

More times than not, it's too advanced by the time it's detected. Pancreatic cancer has claimed the lives of Michael Landon, Patrick Swayze and Gene Upshaw, just to name a few.

Keeping the faith

McCarty's spiritual life has changed "to some degree, not to a large degree," he said. "I believe the Good Lord can handle anything...I ask that the doctor's hand is guided the right way."

Dr. O.H. "Bud" Frazier, a noted cardiologist and transplant expert at Houston's St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, has McCarty's confidence.

"Unbelievable surgeon, amazing dry sense of humor," McCarty said. "I was lucky and fortunate to have him all these years."

Those who saw McCarty play can remember a 6-foot-7 gale force running the court for coach Johnny Swaim's Horned Frogs and averaging a career double-double.

"In life, you're not guaranteed anything," McCarty said. "It's one thing I've learned along this journey...you never know."

Some things are too obvious to even verbalize, but I said it anyway.

You're not a quitter, are you?

McCarty swallowed, then politely replied, "No, sir."

That should tell where he is...and who he is.

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