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Todd Helton bowed his head, unable at first to make eye contact. Never known as being very expressive, the Colorado Rockies' first baseman appeared as though he was trying not to cry. It had been just 48 hours since his friend and Rockies team president Keli McGregor was found dead in a Utah hotel room.
Asked to describe the 48-year-old McGregor, Helton fidgeted, then lifted his head.
|Manager Jim Tracy and members of the Rockies observe a moment of silence in honor of Keli McGregor before Colorado's game against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday.|
"That's a tough one," he said, quietly. "If you went around and asked anybody in this room what kind of man you'd want to grow up and be, 99 percent would have said him. He's the type of guy we all strive to be."
When the Rockies honor McGregor on Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time at a service at their ballpark, many might wonder: Just who was Keli McGregor and why did he die?
McGregor was roughly 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, and stunningly fit. He worked out nearly every day, and often times in the Rockies' gym, could be mistaken for a player or a strength coach. Thought to be in exceptional shape, McGregor in recent months confided to a friend he was having headaches, and that he had participated in a study of ex-NFL players to monitor his health. He was found unconscious in a Salt Lake City hotel room Tuesday and later pronounced dead. It is still unclear why and exactly how he died; police said initial results indicated natural causes. The medical examiner's office will determine cause and time of death.
To most fans, and some in the baseball world, the Rockies' team president was anonymous. To the Rockies, the Denver community and countless others, he was a husband and father of four kids, ranging in age from 11 to 19. He was physically fit, and personally one of the kindest souls they had ever known.
Maybe that's why, on the day McGregor died, manager Jim Tracy visibly shook and cried when talking to reporters about a man he had known for only 18 months.
The son of a successful Arvada, Colo., high school football coach, Brian McGregor, Keli McGregor grew up just outside Denver. Keli went unrecruited out of Lakewood High School, but walked on to Colorado State University's football team in 1981.
Sonny Lubick was an assistant coach when McGregor, then about 4 inches shorter and 80 pounds lighter, talked his way onto the team. By the time McGregor left, he was an All-American tight end who had set a single-season record at his position with 69 catches his junior year.
A fourth-round pick by the Broncos in the 1985 draft, he played in just eight NFL games, two with Denver and six with Indianapolis. He soon left the sport and focused on trying to become a sports administrator. He had jobs with both the University of Florida and the University of Arkansas before being lured back home to Colorado.
Offered a low-level position in operations with the Colorado Rockies in 1993, it was a way for McGregor to get into management and a perfect opportunity to be home near his family. His wife Lori, who'd been his high school sweetheart, was also a local, and alma mater CSU was only 60 miles away. McGregor jumped at the chance, and immersed himself in baseball.
"I think the [Rockies'] owners saw great hope, great potential, knew what kind of person he was," Lubick said, explaining why he thought McGregor was offered the job.
McGregor was part of a CSU advisory committee and in 1993 got Lubick -- then coaching at Miami -- back as the Rams' head coach. McGregor's involvement with the school continued until his death; he was constantly involved in fundraising efforts, gave big donations and kept in touch with administrators, former teammates and coaches. His oldest daughter, Jordan, is currently a sophomore at the school.
And so is his godson, Ben Tedford. A defensive end at CSU, Tedford's parents are extremely close with the McGregor family. They would vacation to places like Disney World, Mexico and the Rockies' spring home of Tucson, Ariz. Tedford said he considered McGregor to be like a "second father." Before McGregor's youngest child and only son, Logan, was born, Tedford was like a first son.
Tedford, who's 6-6 and 251 pounds, said McGregor recognized his size early, and spoke from experience when he would remind Tedford that the majority of people he met in his life would literally be looking up to him. Tedford said McGregor would always remind him that other people should be "looking up to you for other reasons as well."
"It's probably one of the best things he instilled in me," said Tedford, who has worn McGregor's No. 88 since he was 9 years old. "He was always teaching us to be a good person."
Lubick knows that well. When his son, Marc, was diagnosed with cancer, McGregor was a source of support. One of the first times Marc made it outside of his house was to go to a Rockies game. McGregor came down and sat with the family for a few innings, even as business awaited.
"There was no arrogance to him," Lubick said.
McGregor also never missed a chance to celebrate. One of Lubrick's best memories is a 1994 CSU game against No. 6 Arizona, one of the top programs at the time. CSU was 5-0 and playing host to a national champion favorite. A 77-yard fumble return for a TD was the signature play of the game, giving CSU a 21-16 win.
McGregor, staying at the team hotel in Tucson, pulled Lubick aside after the win and told him that sleep was not an option.
"You better savor this one," Lubick recalled McGregor telling him, "this is the greatest moment of your life."
Lubick, McGregor and a big group of coaches and alumni stayed up until 4 that morning reliving the win.
Karen and Tim Elmont have been next-door neighbors with the McGregor family for more than a decade. Karen always noticed Keli was willing to help out with anything; whether it was shoveling extra snow or doing extra yard work, it seemed his presence was always felt in the neighborhood.
|Keli McGregor celebrates in the locker room after the Rockies' win against the Arizona Diamondbacks during Game 4 of the National League Championship Series at Coors Field in 2007.|
Nearly 10 years ago, Karen and Tim's son, Matthew, 15 at the time, suffered a brain aneurysm. Matthew lost 65 percent of his brain function, lost the capacity to walk and lost most of his memory, Karen says.
When Matthew was in the hospital recovering, Keli asked what he could do to help. A huge Broncos fan, Matthew said he'd love to meet John Elway. Former teammates, Elway and McGregor had developed a close friendship over the years. He took Elway to Matthew's room, where the two spent an hour together.
Recovery has been slow for Matthew Elmont. He can walk with a cane, but just about 100 steps at a time. He is bound to his wheelchair, but throughout the years, McGregor made sure Matthew still had joys in life. He took him to Rockies games and the two remained close.
Depression can be a side effect of serious brain trauma, but Matthew has avoided it in the 10 years since his freak injury, Karen says. Since he was given the news about McGregor's passing, he's been very sad. In tribute, Matthew has been wearing a Rockies hat that McGregor gave him every day since his death.
"Keli was not any different in his public life than his private life," Karen said. "He was very compassionate, driven and honest. He will be missed."
One of McGregor's latest projects was working in collaboration with the Arizona Diamondbacks to secure a move from the teams' spring training homes in Tucson to a shared complex in the Phoenix area. Derrick Hall is team president of the Diamondbacks, and over the past several months the two men spent hours together, driving back and forth between the two cities, working to finalize the move.
Hall says they grew to be close friends, and it was during one of those recent drives about a month ago when McGregor confided that he was participating in a study of ex-NFL players.
"He told me he was glad he was a part of it," Hall said. "He said, 'I still have headaches and I wonder if it's post-concussion.' When he told me that, it scared me."
Hall said McGregor told him that the study was an overall examination of his health. He said he was OK, but that it sometimes seemed as though he was feeling the effects of his playing career. Jay Alves, vice president of communications for the Rockies, confirmed McGregor had been participating in a study involving former NFL players, but said he was unaware to what extent.
"He had concerns, no question," Alves said. "As a former player himself as well as for other former players."
It is impossible at this point to know whether McGregor's concerns had anything to do with his death. At that time, Hall says, he was just scared for McGregor.
"Hopefully," he said, "that's not involved here."
|Rockies manager Jim Tracy wears a patch with the initials "KSM" on the sleeve of his jacket in honor of team president Keli McGregor.|
Rockies players and coaches are trying to find ways to grieve. Helton, who was drafted in 1995, just two years after McGregor joined the team, had a teammate come up and rub his shoulders in support during an interview about McGregor. Helton says that when he was all but traded to Boston three years ago, it was McGregor who stepped in and told him he would regret leaving the only franchise he had known.
"There's not too many guys who would sit down and tell you that," Helton said. "You could tell he really meant it. It was what he said it was: He felt it in his heart.
"I'm grateful to him for keeping me here."
Aaron Cook, who's been with the organization since 1997, had tears in his eyes when remembering how McGregor treated people with respect, and how he approached his job with total transparency. Clint Barmes, with Colorado since 2000, has found it difficult to process his grief, but says how much he appreciated how McGregor treated the players the same as he treated the cleaning crew and security guards. Tracy says he fell to his knees when told of McGregor's death and says holding a team meeting to announce it was one of the hardest moments he's ever been through.
"Brutal," Tracy said.
All are in agreement that McGregor was extremely close with his family. The McGregors' pastor, Peter Morin, of the Faith Lutheran church in Golden, Colo., has been counseling Lori and the couple's three daughters, Jordan, Taylor and Landri, and son Logan.
Morin says he and Keli would often discuss leadership and baseball, and that the game wasn't just about winning, that it was also about people.
"We'd talk a lot about changing the culture of the Rockies," Morin said. "He talked about having to grow from within and not being able to go out and buy the team, and that who people are is as important as their skills and ability."
Morin says the family is doing as well as expected. He says their closeness will help them grieve. The day after Keli's death, Taylor, a junior at Golden High School, played in her team's soccer game. Normally Taylor wears the No. 8, but on Wednesday she taped an extra 8 to her jersey in honor of her father, and scored the first goal of the game. Wearing purple ribbons (the Rockies' color) in their hair and purple tape on their socks, Taylor and her teammates played in memory of Keli. Ben Tedford, McGregor's godson, was at the game and watched as Taylor raised her hands to the sky after the ball went in. "That was for you, Dad," she said, according to The Denver Post.
"It was very emotional," Tedford said.
As a local freelance videographer, Jim Levy has worked a Father of the Year benefit dinner for the American Diabetes Association for the past eight years. He's responsible for making video tributes to each father, interviewing all of the kids and the wives.
"Some of the families you wonder, 'Is this guy really father of the year?'" Levy said. "Not Keli's family, you could see the love and devotion."
When Keli McGregor was named Father of the Year in 2005, Levy taped segments with all four McGregor kids and with Lori as part of a video tribute shown at the dinner. Michael Hancock, a Denver city councilman, was one of the fathers honored that night and when he heard of McGregor's death earlier this week, he says that the dinner was the first memory that came to mind. The Rocky Mountain News at the time wrote a recap of the benefit, and noted that McGregor's acceptance speech brought many in the room to tears.
In the tribute video, McGregor himself is interviewed and says knowing that kids want to be just like their parents is what guides him as a father, but also reminds him what a heady responsibility it is. And that it is important to remember that "everything you're saying you're molding someone who wants to be just like you."
Jordan, his oldest, told Levy that if she ever had a problem she would always talk to her dad because "he would know exactly what to do" and how comforting that was.
Third-born Landri said her dad's laugh was the "funniest in the world," and that he was always making people laugh. Logan, his son and the youngest who was around 6 years old at the time, drew laughter when he said his dad loved everyone and that he liked "to keep everyone in the game, even if they're supposed to be out."
Lori, who Morin said would have been married to McGregor for 25 years this spring, said she couldn't have wished for a better father for her children and that she couldn't "think of anybody who deserves it more than you."
Perhaps the most touching tribute came from Taylor, the soccer player. And what she said probably reflects how many people feel about the life of Keli McGregor.
"To me, he means a lot," she told the camera, "because without him, I couldn't be what I am today."Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.