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Gorman: NFLers are raising awareness for Down syndrome

| Saturday, June 25, 2011

Through his fascination with football, Chris McGough has learned to love the limelight. Just not enough to prefer star quarterbacks Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger or Matt Cassel to a self-described journeyman who has briefly been their backup.

"Tyler Palko is my favorite in the NFL," McGough says of the former West Allegheny and Pitt star now with the Kansas City Chiefs, "because he's my friend."

Their friendship runs so deep that Palko teamed with the McGough family to form TC House, a nonprofit organization designed to build a group home in Imperial for adults like Chris with Down syndrome. Its annual golf outing has raised $200,000 in seven years, as well as awareness for the chromosomal condition and its impact on the lives of family and friends.

For as much as his friendship with an NFL player gives McGough a sense of stardom, the reciprocal effect is reversed: McGough has shown Palko how to gain better perspective by never placing him on a pedestal.

"He's helped me way more than I've helped him," Palko said Friday morning at Quicksilver Golf Course in Midway. "I remember a game where I threw an interception to end the game and came off the field all hot and bothered and (ticked) off. My parents stayed away, but Chris came up and hugged me and said, 'Tyler, you threw it to the wrong guy.'

"It comforts me to know that there are people in the world like Chris that are put here on earth for a purpose, to not have someone look at you like, 'Can you sign this?' Or, 'Can I have free tickets?' He just wants to come up and give you a hug. He doesn't care if you win or lose. He just wants you as a friend."

After spending the past eight years as the ball boy and manager for the West Allegheny and Duquesne football teams, McGough, 22, wants nothing more than to play the game that he loves so much.

That's where another NFL connection comes in.

San Francisco 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, a West Homestead native, hosted his second Football Camp for the Stars for males with Down syndrome at Thomas Jefferson High School. McGough is one of 35 campers who went through drills Thursday and scrimmaged yesterday.

"I coach football for the 49ers, so it ends up being the NFL, the three-letter deal — and I get all that. But being able to see the camp in California was a big deal," Tomsula said of visiting Mike Machado's camp at Valley Christian High in San Jose. "They were getting it, and it was just pure competition. The closest I've seen to football in the backyard was high school football, but even that is getting to be not as pure. This is pure, man.

"I said, 'This would be perfect for Pittsburgh.' "

Perfect in that, even during the NFL lockout, the camp is getting support from the league's players and coaches. Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch and former Penn State and NFL receiver Bobby Engram, now a quality control assistant with the 49ers, served as guest speakers.

Tomsula and TJ's Bill Cherpak, who both played for George Novak at Steel Valley, joined with the Woodland Hills coach and their players to serve as instructors. They made it as authentic as possible, never cutting the campers a break — which is just the way they want to be coached.

"We're not going to put on the gloves and treat them soft and gentle," Tomsula said. "You try to make it as real a practice as you can, and they appreciate being treated just like a kid instead of a kid with ."

That's why it was hard to tell what Steve McGough was more excited to talk about: building TC House with a back deck that overlooks West Allegheny's football stadium or watching his son Chris fulfill a dream by playing football under the Friday night lights.

"It's his chance to go out and learn these things that he's watched for years," Steve McGough said. "He sees the Friday nights when other guys get recognition, and he gets to do that. When he's competing in the Camp for the Stars, it's with kids of his talent. And it's all about encouragement. To see him compete, it's no different for me than any other parent. It's exciting.

"He'll talk about it for a year and do it again next year."

Score it a touchdown for those touched by Down syndrome.

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