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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

From pucks to pigskin: Teacher turns Broncos hate into Super Bowl love

Rachel McCann, a St. Thomas More teacher and hockey billet, surprised with tickets to Super Bowl 50

Denver Broncos fan Rachael McCann will be attending the Super Bowl on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. Former Spokane Chief Michael Grabner bought tickets and airfare for McCann  and her husband, Rob. Grabner, who now skates for the Toronto Maple Leafs, lived with the McCanns while playing for the Chiefs and knew of Rachael’s love for the Broncos. McCann’s eigth-grade students, shown behind her, are Seahawks fans. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Ridicule has been turned into a dream ride for a Spokane teacher who is going to the Super Bowl to cheer for her beloved Denver Broncos.

Rachael McCann grew up the seventh of eight children in her family’s Walla Walla home, which, just like the Lilac City, sits firmly inside Seattle Seahawks territory.

As a little girl, McCann started rooting for Denver, the team her three older brothers hated most. The ensuing mockery lasted decades and continues even today from her students at St. Thomas More Catholic School, where the pupils leave pro-Seahawks messages on the chalkboard or anti-Broncos missives in their homework.

“Even my kids are not Broncos fans. They make fun of them,” McCann said. “My son calls them the Donkeys.”

But the 42-year-old mother of two is getting a slice of sweet revenge. She and her husband, Rob, already have arrived in California to watch her beloved Broncos play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

Billet never ends

The story of the McCanns’ road to the Super Bowl started years ago.

Each year the family billets, or serves as a host family, for members of the Spokane Chiefs.

One of those former Chiefs is Michael Grabner, currently a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League. The native of Villach, Austria, was drafted by the Chiefs in 2004 and lived with the McCanns through the 2007 season.

“When you leave home at that young of an age, (the McCanns) definitely made it easier for me,” Grabner said. “They were really young. It was easy to relate with them. That was the best three years of my life.”

The Vancouver Canucks called Grabner up in 2009. He then spent five seasons with the New York Islanders before he was traded to Toronto, where he has scored six goals and five assists in 48 games.

While living in Spokane, Grabner was like all the other hockey players who have lived with the McCanns: They all harass Rachael about her football team.

“I didn’t really get into football until I got to the U.S.,” said Grabner, who now roots for San Francisco. “She’s obviously a big Broncos fan. No matter when the Broncos played, I always rooted against them just to make Rachael mad.”

It worked.

“They would just try to drive me a little crazy,” she said. “They would root for the Patriots, too, which would send me over the edge. We don’t say ‘Tom Brady’ in this house. Let’s just make that clear.”

But over the years, Grabner became a member of the family.

“Michael’s parents didn’t fly when he first came over,” McCann said. “Whenever Michael started having success and got invited to different things, we stood in as his parents. When he first got drafted, we went so he would have parents there.

“We definitely consider him ours.”

Grabner and his wife, Heather, also of Spokane, come back to visit every summer. They sometimes even host the McCanns’ 10-year-old son, Timothy, back in New York.

Last Friday, Rachael came home from school where she teaches algebra and literature and instantly knew something was up.

“My husband told me that Heather and Michael were going to FaceTime me,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they are pregnant. They are telling me something big.’

“Then they told me they got tickets for the Super Bowl for myself and Rob. (Grabner) was so cute. He was really excited about giving this to me.”

The tickets to the game and flight to California are extras the McCanns never could have afforded, she said.

“It’s not just the Super Bowl. This is my team,” she said. “It is really special that he even thought of this. He has been incredibly generous.”

Grabner respectfully declined to say how much he spent on the flight and game tickets.

“I don’t want Rob to know. He wants to pay me back a portion of it,” Grabner said. “It’s obviously just a perfect situation with the Super Bowl (near) San Francisco and the Broncos being in it. Hopefully, they will have a good time.”

Buck’n Broncos

The trip is ultimate payback for McCann, who isn’t just your casual fan.

She rooted for the Broncos when they stumbled and then succeeded under John Elway, including the three Super Bowl losses in four years from 1986-89.

“It was a rough ’80s. I’m not going to lie,” she said. “I had a John Elway poster in my room. My brothers defaced it and turned it into Mr. Ed.”

McCann worked as a bartender a decade later when an older Elway led the Broncos back to the Super Bowl in 1997.

“When they played Green Bay, I wouldn’t let anyone sit at the bar if they were rooting for” the Packers, she said. “I had to have good love at my bar. But my manager would get crazy annoyed with me. It was nice when (the Broncos) won.”

Even when Rob McCann, who leads Catholic Charities Spokane, first met Rachael, he couldn’t help but root against Denver.

“He enjoys watching football, but he’s never really had a team,” she said. “When we were dating, he would cheer for whoever the Broncos were playing just to get me going.”

Now, two years after her phone lit up every 30 seconds as the Seahawks demolished her Broncos in the 2014 Super Bowl, Rachael McCann is having a deserved laugh. And it all came from the generosity of a hockey player.

“I couldn’t understand why (Rob) was filming my reaction,” she said. “It never crossed my mind that (Grabner) was giving me tickets to the Super Bowl. It was pretty exciting.”