- The New York Rangers and their fans got to say goodbye to Detective Steven McDonald on Friday, who served as inspiration to the team and city.
NEW YORK — Every great team has its own internal rallying cry, and in 2014, when the New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final, “above and beyond” was their reveille—nothing special, but for its origin.
Each season since 1986-87, the team has handed out the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award to the Ranger who goes “above and beyond the call of duty.” Fans will recall, 1986 was one of the best-ever years to be a sports fan in New York. A superlative Mets squad won the World Series in unforgettable fashion. The Giants went 14-2, en route to a Super Bowl. Even the Jets won a playoff game. And that spring the Rangers had gone to the conference finals for the first time in five years.
In every other way, though, 1986 was a dark time in New York. It was a year of rampant, sensationalized violence: the racist mob killing in Howard Beach, the Preppie Murder, random machete killings on the Staten Island Ferry. America believed the city to be a place so dangerous that a 15-year-old kid could shoot a cop on a drizzly summer Saturday afternoon in Central Park, because that was exactly what had happened to one New Yorker, NYPD detective Steven McDonald.
McDonald died at 59 on Tuesday after a heart attack, bringing to an end one of the most remarkable and moral lives a New Yorker has ever led. In a Daily News remembrance, Cardinal Timothy Dolan called him “a prophet of the dignity of all human life.” Former police commissioner Ray Kelly said he hoped the Catholic Church would canonize him.
He was just 29 years old on July 12, 1986, a newlywed, in his second year on the same force that had employed his father and grandfather, his wife Patti Ann three months pregnant. He was on a plainclothes patrol of the park near Fifth Avenue and 107th Street when he stumbled upon three boys whom he figured might have been the bicycle thieves for whom he was searching. He showed them his badge and moved to pat down a bulge in the pantcuffs of one of the three, when the oldest (a 15-year-old, Shavod Jones) reached for a gun and shot him three times. One bullet went through his neck and shattered. Shrapnel landed in his spinal column, instantly paralyzing him from the neck down.
His case received wide notice. President Reagan phoned. McDonald, a devout Roman Catholic and diehard Mets fan, was visited in the hospital by Archbishop John O’Connor, who gave him the strength to carry on, and Mets reliever Jesse Orosco, who gave him his glove after closing out the Series. And the Rangers established the annual award.
The press, meanwhile, seized on the youth and truancy of the perpetrator, who had entered a guilty plea for armed robbery just months before the shooting. Pundits called for tougher sentences. And the public wondered how things had gone so wrong in such a short encounter. McDonald would never again breathe without a respirator or walk, and he would need round-the-clock assistance from a nurse.
But—improbably—he would live. And even more improbably, when months after the shooting McDonald’s newborn son, Conor, was due to be baptized, he asked his wife to read a statement of forgiveness for his assailant. "I'm sometimes angry at the teenage boy who shot me. But more often, I feel sorry for him. I only hope he can turn his life into helping and not hurting people. I forgive him, and hope he can find peace and purpose in his life."
McDonald, further surprising his family and friends, set about making it happen. He struck up a correspondence with Jones and met members of his family. The shooter called him collect from prison one day to make amends. McDonald, who was still serving the NYPD as a goodwill ambassador, dreamed of the two of them touring the nation: an improbable pair, white and black, cop and convict, spreading the gospel of mercy and forgiveness. But life complicated matters. Jones asked for McDonald’s support in a parole hearing, and McDonald declined, chilling their relationship. When in 1995 his release did eventually come, Jones was dead three days afterward, in a motorcycle accident in Harlem.
McDonald told their story anyway, turning his misfortune into a blessing. He visited Northern Ireland during the Troubles and spoke often at New York schools. And he became a fixture at Madison Square Garden, during triumphant, disappointing, and then triumphant-again years for the Rangers.
He was laid to rest Friday morning at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with thousands of NYPD officers filling the pews. Rangers great Adam Graves, who won the McDonald Award five times, spoke at the service. Said Graves, “You’ve all heard a lot over the last few days about how much the New York Rangers meant to Steven McDonald, and we’re grateful and humbled by the role our team played in this remarkable man’s life. But … Steven McDonald meant more to the New York Rangers and our fans than we could ever mean to him.” As McDonald would have had it, the service brought together powerful factions that have seemed at odds over the years: Mayors David Dinkins and Bill de Blasio, and the officers who have complained about them.
Friday night, though, was for the Rangers and their fans. Around the Garden, team employees wore special badges with McDonald’s name on them. For the pregame skate, every Blueshirt took the ice with a McDonald jersey, wearing 104, McDonald’s badge number, on their backs. The public-address announcer asked for cheers in lieu of a moment of silence, and the Garden roared. For the ceremonial puck drop, Graves and Mark Messier accompanied Patti Ann and Conor (now 29 himself and a sergeant in the NYPD) to center ice.
At the game’s first stoppage the overhead television showed a video tribute to McDonald, with Graves and Mike Richter joining current Rangers in praising the detective. Then the camera cut to his widow and son, standing in the tunnel where McDonald had been a familiar presence. Without prompting the crowd rose to its feet and roared, uninterrupted, for two minutes, delaying the ensuing faceoff. And then they chanted his name as though he had made a stellar save. “STEVE MC-DONALD.” CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP. “STEVE MC-DONALD.” Ranger fans are a passionate bunch, but this was even by their standards extraordinary—above and beyond.