Cougfan at 15: God Bless Woody McHale. Again.

THERE'S A COZY basement bar and grill in New York City's West Village named after former FDNY Fire Marshal Woody McHale. He was the irrepressible leader of East Harlem's Engine Company 53/Ladder Company 43 – a unit that suffered devastating losses when the World Trade Center towers came down on September 11, 2001.

As part of the national healing process, many of the football bowl games that season had members of the New York fire and police departments serve as honorary captains. Woody McHale was picked to represent the FDNY for Washington State in the 2001 Sun Bowl against Purdue.

He spent several days with the team before the game, sharing his experiences of grit, determination and perseverance.

Eleventh in a series of feature stories (15 for 15) CF.C is running in the days surrounding its 15th anniversary on August 15.

But that was just a part of the tale. Once the whistle blew and the ball was the in air, the TV cameras couldn't get enough of him on the WSU sideline. He was a human adrenalin pump for the Cougars that day in El Paso -- especially the defense. After every big play or stop, he was slapping guys on the back, high-fiving and shouting words of encouragement.

He was impossible to miss. At 6-2 and 240 pounds, he looked like he could step onto the field and knock heads with the best of them. In addition, he was clad in his dress uniform and hat -- and motoring around the sideline like someone who grew up rooting for the Cougs.

So taken was at the time, that a late addition was placed on its Sun Bowl story list: a column headlined God Bless Woody McHale

"Fast forward 12 years and to our plan to write 15 feature stories commemorating's 15th anniversary, and the idea of catching up with Woody McHale was one of the first ideas we struck upon," says CF.C co-founder John Witter. "He was that memorable."

At the time of the Sun Bowl, little more than three months had passed since 9/11. The pain was still heavy. Twenty-one firefighters from McHale's unit died when the towers fell.


Yet there he was, on New Year's Eve, practically willing his adopted new team to victory. The Cougars won, 33-27, and McHale's role still elicits smiles from those who were there.

"It felt like having that presence on our sideline during the game gave us a boost," remembers Collin Henderson, a starting receiver on what would be the first of three consecutive 10-win teams for WSU. "Hearing that message, we had to give our max effort because these guys were hauling up stairs as a building was falling to try and save lives."

Kyle Stiffarm was a walk-on for the Cougars who primarily played special teams for that 2001 squad. So consumed with the daily chores that consume a season -- class, practice, film study -- that the 9/11 attacks didn't fully resonate with him until he met McHale. His pre-game speech with a few fellow members of the FDNY energized everyone.

"It was a surreal moment," Stiffarm recalls. "I don't know if it really sank in until it was right before the game. That morning those guys gave us a heartfelt speech. You thought to yourself, 'Wow,' that was a really significant moment."

McHale spent the week leading up to the game with players and coaches, shuttling back and forth from practices on the bus.

Friends described McHale as "larger-than-life," and they had a good point.

"He was buff," said Henderson. "He must have worked out every day. If I was on the 12th story of a burning building, I would have wanted him to come up and save me."

The genuine enthusiasm McHale exhibited that week was borne from his love of football. He played for and eventually coached the FDNY Bravest, a team comprised of firefighters who hail from around the city. He had a wife, Hope, and twin sons, Matthew and Ryan.


The operative word in that last sentence is had.

You see, CF.C just missed its chance to talk with Woody about his Sun Bowl experience with the Cougars.

This past Christmas Eve -- nearly 11 years to the day since he was cheering on the Cougs -- he suffered a heart attack while driving home in his Chevy Silverado. He crashed into a tree just a block from his home in Queens. By the time paramedics rushed him to North Shore University Hospital, it was too late.

Woody McHale was dead at 50.

In June, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano honored McHale's family at the 144th Medal Day ceremony in Manhattan, an event reserved for firefighters who distinguish themselves as the toughest of the tough.

"McHale is a hero," Henderson said. "What those guys do is more important than any of what us guys do -- especially as a student-athlete. What a neat experience for us, especially as a young kid being in college, to hear that message. It obviously worked for us. We got the win."

Not lost on Henderson was how McHale's message stressed the importance of serving each other, a principle he lived by.

"The least we could do is go out and play our hardest," said Henderson of the win against Purdue.

The least can do is give a final salute to a guy who was a Cougar for just a week and wound up leaving an impression that still resonates more than a decade later. We said it in 2001 and we'll say it today: God Bless Woody McHale.

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