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Bucky Gleason: Hamburg hockey coach carries message of late wife

With five final words to her husband, she stayed true to her selfless spirit until drawing her last breath. John McFall is convinced his wife, Andrea, knew she was in trouble, that her organs were shutting down and the end was near, when the medical staff whisked her to the operating room.

“Tell them I love them,” she said.

McFall had been with his wife since they were in college, back when he was playing hockey at the University at Buffalo. She was his only love, a woman who showed him that happiness was measured by life’s work and not the size of a paycheck. She was the mother of his three children, his backbone, his best friend.

As she was wheeled away for emergency surgery at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, taken until they meet again, she didn’t need to clarify her last message. McFall knew “them” meant family, friends, students, parishioners and anyone else who made life better. It meant all of them.

Andrea McFall loved everyone.

Andrea McFall died Thursday night after suffering flu-like symptoms.

Her willingness to put others first, even at the end when she could have and probably should have been thinking about herself, will be her legacy. She didn’t have a selfish bone in her body. Her ability to comfort others, in times and places when it was most needed, was her greatest gift before she died Thursday night.

“What other word can I use but ‘devastating,’ ” McFall said. “She was our rock. She did everything for everyone else. She was one of the most selfless people that any of us knew. The comments that we’re receiving and the visits that we’re having now are really super comforting. They’re bringing us peace.”

McFall and their three kids, Liam, 22; Brendan, 20, and Maeve, 16, have found peace amid their sadness knowing they were beneficiaries of her guidance. Andrea was many things in life, but she was a wife and mother first. She kept the family humming and their daily lives in order, multitasking the way moms do while never losing sight of her own vocation and asking for nothing in return.

The end is never easy, but hers came so quickly and with so little warning that it’s difficult to comprehend. She had flu-like symptoms last week, which with her seemed to happen once a year, and insisted that John coach the Hamburg High varsity hockey team Wednesday in the Section VI semifinals against Kenmore West.

Skip a game because she was under the weather? To her, it was ludicrous. McFall had to be there for the kids. She would be fine. Their plans were still in place. He would coach the Bulldogs, she would bounce back, and they would drive to Binghamton to watch Brendan play for Erie Community College in the junior-college nationals.

Case closed.

“She would get mad at us for thinking of her because she was too busy thinking of us,” Brendan said hours before playing against Dakota College at Bottineau for the title. “Every night when we sat down for dinner, she wouldn’t even set a place for herself. She would sit down for a minute or two. Sometimes, I didn’t even know if she ate dinner because she was too busy feeding us.”

McFall returned home after Hamburg’s 1-0 loss and drifted off to sleep with his wife at his side. She awakened him in the middle of the night, asking him to take her to the hospital. Even then they didn’t realize the gravity of her situation, that a deadly virus had attacked her organs. She slipped into a coma after surgery.

Thursday night, less than 24 hours after the game, Andrea was pronounced dead at age 54. Saturday morning, a father and his oldest son roamed through Holy Cross Cemetery, picking Andrea’s gravesite. They were still in a fog, still speaking about Andrea in the present tense, still coming to the realization she’s gone.

“The more we talk about her, the better we feel,” Liam McFall said. “It’s therapeutic, but it’s still surreal.”

For 31 years, Andrea was a special education teacher for Lancaster Central Schools. “I put the emphasis on ‘special,’ ” McFall said. “She was a SPECIAL education teacher, not just a special-education teacher. She put the ‘special’ into special education.” Teaching was her mission since she was 10, back when she assembled the neighborhood kids in South Buffalo and stood before her “class.”

She was a quiet, unassuming wife of a hockey coach, a mother of two hockey players and an Irish dancer. She wasn’t raising performers or expectations. She asked her kids for an honest effort and demanded they listened to their instructors. She encouraged them to be good teammates. She raised them to be respectable human beings.

"Play tough, but don't play dirty," McFall said of his wife's message. "Don't be stupid. Don't embarrass yourself. Be a good person."

Players and coaches gain most of the attention, but mothers like Andrea are the pillar of youth sports. She was the primary chauffeur, the one who made sure the kids were fed and uniforms were clean, who put failure into perspective, provided comfort when it was needed and discipline, too. There was always a teaching moment.

It wasn’t what she did. It’s who she was.

That’s what made her special.

Why her? Why now? It's anybody's guess. Maybe the hockey gods needed an angel.

Anyone familiar with the McFall clan knew their commitment to children and making the world a better place. John McFall was blessed with a coaching gene passed down from his father. John McFall Sr. is a youth hockey godfather, a man who coached thousands of kids who passed through his clinics in Western New York.

Andrea didn’t get bogged down with results of games. She refused to participate in the drama with other parents. She had one eye on the game and the other on papers she corrected during the action. In her own way, on her own terms, she conducted a clinic on how to be a hockey mom.

“I’m coming to terms with it, but it just feels right, like she belongs in heaven,” Brendan said. “She didn’t belong on this earth. There’s too much bad stuff going on on this earth, and she was trying to make it better single-handedly. She couldn’t fix the whole world by herself, but she could try to make her family perfect. That was her mission. I really think she’s looking down on us.”

Andrea must have been looking down on her son Sunday. McFall scored 1:49 into the game and tied the contest, 4-4, with another goal in the second period before ECC fell, 7-4.

It was no surprise John and Andrea fell in love, no surprise Andrea encouraged John to leave a successful career in business to follow his passion for teaching and children. They were married with one child and another on the way when he earned his master’s degree in education from Canisius College.

John McFall teaches fourth grade at Charlotte Avenue Elementary in Hamburg, which allowed him to combine kids and hockey. If you ever watched him interact with wide-eyed children who don’t know icing from an icicle, you can see that’s his gift. These days, he’s not coaching varsity. He’s coaching life.

For the past few days, he and their children have taken turns laughing and crying. Liam woke up to his father sobbing Saturday in an area of their home in which McFall didn’t think his kids could hear him. There will be more tears in the days, months and years ahead.

McFall traveled to Binghamton on Sunday, just as he and Andrea had planned, to watch Brendan play in the national finals. He postponed the wake until Monday with funeral services set for Tuesday. Andrea would have insisted. Skip an important game because she died? To her, that would have been ludicrous.

Her family and friends, Andrea’s Army, rented a 40-seat bus that wasn’t large enough for the 50-plus people who wanted to make the trip. McFall wanted everyone to know her final words – tell them I love them – before she was carried away to heaven. If she only knew how much they loved her.

“She didn’t seek to be consoled but to console others,” McFall said. “That’s how she lived her life. I’m living by that right now. It’s tough, but I know how many other people loved her just as much. I need to console them. She would be shedding her tears like I am, but she would push them aside to console others.”


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