July 9, 2012

Moosbrugger, St. Thomas Win One for Dad

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Pete Moosbrugger and St. Thomas won its third national championship in 2012, but with the passing of his father early in the season, this one meant more to the Tommies' head coach. "If you watch the Fox Sports tape of the game, you can see him look to the sky and present it to his Dad before he hands it off to the guys," said assistant coach Rob Horn. "Right there, you know what it meant for him."
© Cecil Copeland/Athletic Image

Pete Moosbrugger quietly pulled up a chair next to the bed his father lay in and gathered his thoughts before saying the things a son rarely finds the right occasion to express to his dad.

Moosbrugger looked at his father, who was in a cancer research facility in Jacksonville, Fla., after having radical surgery. Struck with a rare cancer -- there are only 100 cases in the country every year -- that manifests in the nasal cavity, John Moosbrugger was recovering from surgery. The procedure was less debilitating than the usual remedy, which consists of removing both eyes and a part of the brain, but there were complications.

There was bleeding on the brain, and John Moosbrugger was fading.

Pete, who was adopted by the Moosbruggers as a child, left his post as the head coach of the St. Thomas (Minn.) men's lacrosse team in February when he received the word from his mother of his father's condition. It meant missing one of the Tommies' games, but life has its priorities.

But what do you say to the person who has been the anchor of your entire life? How do you properly convey your admiration?

Growing up in Chicago, Pete was always in awe of how his father could put everyone at ease. When some of his friends were distraught as their parents went through divorces, they could always come to the Moosbrugger household for a break from reality and bask in John's non-judging kindness.

And there was the way he handled discipline. Somehow John found a way to get his point across without raising a hand or voice.

"I don't know how he did it -- and still to this day I want to figure it out -- but he never yelled at me," Moosbrugger said. "He would just look at you. You'd never want to have him give you that look of disappointment. It would eat at me alive when he did that. He didn't have to punish me, because I was punishing myself. All he had to do was show disappointment, and for me and my sister both, we got our act together."

There was also lacrosse. Despite never seeing the sport until his son became head coach at St. Thomas, John was the Tommies' biggest fan. He also was the largest financial backer of the program in the early years before St. Thomas became an MCLA Division II dynasty. John always gave an encouraging word to the players and coaching staff regardless of the final score.

How does a son get all of that across sitting in an antiseptic hospital room with time running out?

Pete steadied his emotions as best he could as he prepared to say goodbye to his father.

"I had a very intimate conversation and thanked him for what he provided me in life, and how I was very appreciative of him adopting me and making me the man I am today," said Moosbrugger, fighting off emotions. "And I just hope he knows how much I love him. That was the last conversation I had with him, and I'm glad I did that. I went home, and two weeks later he passed away. I had said everything to him that I needed to say and didn't have any regrets."

* * *

John Moosbrugger was supposed to be on three sideline in Greenville, S.C., when St. Thomas won its third title in four years May 19.

Having moved to South Carolina several years earlier, this was to be the year that John finally saw a championship game after following them from afar for previous MCLA championships held in Denver. When the troubles came, he even altered one of his post-surgery treatments -- something called proton therapy -- to clear his schedule for the MCLA tournament.

But as the St. Thomas players ran around the field, throwing their helmets emblazoned with a silver sticker outlining the initials "J.M." after the Tommies beat Grand Valley State by a goal, Pete Moosbrugger had to make do without dad.

His mother, Mary, and maternal grandmother, Charlotte, made the trip, and they provided solace, but he was supposed to be here.

Like his father giving his son's friends solace during hard times, Pete tries to show that he is not only coaching a lacrosse team, but also caring for his extended brood.

"[Pete's] biggest strength is exactly what you might see from a coach with several small children at home: he's compassionate," St. Thomas assistant coach Rob Horn said. "It's something that you see in everyday interaction with his team, as well as the way he discusses the school and the program."

"Yeah, I want to win national championships, but I want our guys to take lessons away from this thing," Moosbrugger said. "That's why I bring my daughters to practice and the players see me hugging and kissing them. There is more to being a man than yelling and screaming and being tough, and I hope they all walk away understanding how important family is."

When the one-goal win was in the books, Moosbrugger was alone, but took the time to regroup. "The cameras were on the team as they were running out, so I had to step back and let the emotions run out." he said. "I had to go back on the bench against the wall and hide for a little bit."

© Cecil Copeland/Athletic Image

That's not to say Pete is completely like his father, although John was never a coach.

"I would call him passionate," said Jesse Amar, an All-American close defenseman for the Tommies. "He does a lot of yelling, but it's all for a purpose. He's not just a guy who goes out there and screams because we screw up a drill or something like that. He has a purpose for why he is yelling. He may not come across as the nicest guy all the time, but, really, you don't want that in a coach."

Moosbrugger talks of his quest to turn the Tommies into family. He felt like his team attained that goal when he was back in South Carolina for his father's funeral while they traveled to Utah for a rigorous road swing against Northern Colorado, Westminster and Concordia -- all ranked teams.

"I think in Utah is where the boys really came together," said Horn, who led the team to a 3-0 mark that weekend. "It's when the players realized how much this man has given to this program and school, and we owed it to him to give him everything we had. We came out and did our job for him. We give out game balls, and the last one we gave was for Coach, and it was a bit emotional for all of us. I will never forget that scene as 42 guys huddled around an iPhone on speaker to talk to him after the game."

"He was in the back of our minds as far as motivion goes," Amar said. "Going to Utah, that was our goal: We wanted to compete efficiently for him."

Just hours after his father's funeral, Moosbrugger watched the top-five showdown with Westminster online that weekend. He was lifted by his team's performance, even if he felt the need to send along a note or two.

"These are 45 of my sons, and they mean as much to me as my own family," Moosbrugger said. "To watch them win was nice, even though there was a while there when I didn't think we would win. I was texting the assistant coaches during the game. I could not help but coach. It was a very positive thing on a very difficult day."

St. Thomas has had its ups and downs. Last year's loss to Davenport in the MCLA final -- a game the Tommies controlled for three quarters -- still stings. But that loss was the catalyst for this year's team that established the program as the best in the young history of the MCLA's Division II ranks.

"Quite frankly, it starts with the accountability factor and goes from there," Horn said. "When you are a child, you're held accountable to your parents and your family. We take great pride as a program in holding each other accountable. You might think that doesn't sound like family atmosphere as much as discipline, but it is. You can't be afraid to know that your teammates will hold you accountable for your decisions, whether we like them or not. We won't dislike you, or get upset. You're a part of our family. We want you to be the best you can be."

"We talk about doing the right thing and that we're a family," Moosbrugger said. "These guys truly proved it. These guys saw the test and passed it. That's what I felt was pretty cool."

* * *

Moosbrugger's wife was pregnant with their third daughter and unable to fly to Greenville with his two daughters. His mother and grandmother were not able to make it out of the stands in time, and the players and were throwing their equipment in the air and embracing each other.

Just after the most meaningful championship of his career, Moosbrugger was alone.

His thoughts drifted to the times his father would drive him to football and hockey practice in Chicago, the tennis matches that Pete could never win, the congratulatory phone calls after the previous two championships, the times grandpa would spend playing with his daughters.

"It was a flood of emotions," Moosbrugger said. "The cameras were on the team as they were running out, so I had to step back and let the emotions run out. I had to go back on the bench against the wall and hide for a little bit."

"I know he was glad to erase the memory of 2011 in Denver, but I think he was much happier to win that one in his dad's backyard," Horn said. "If you watch the Fox Sports tape of the game, when he is handed the trophy from Tony [Scazzero, MCLA president], you can see him look to the sky and present it to his dad before he hands it off to the guys. Right there, you know what it meant for him."

As with most coaches, Moosbrugger deflected praise for this season to the players. That they were able to constantly keep up his spirits during the last months of his father's life with phone calls and emails and still managed to roll through arguably the deepest field in MCLA history filled the coach with immense pride.

And he hopes that Dad felt the same way.

"I was pretty emotional realizing that we had accomplished something so great in a very difficult year, and knowing that if he could have been there, he would have," Moosbrugger said. "In spirit, he was. I'm hoping that if there is an afterlife that he was looking down and was proud."

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