Infectious Groove

BCBSMT Volunteer of the Year Cliff McKay Comes Full Circle as Mentor

Cliff McKay constantly wears a big, infectious smile that makes you immediately like him. He’s one of those people whose presence positively charges a room. And when news went public that he was named Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana’ (BCBSMT) 2017 Volunteer of the Year, the general reaction was, “Well, yeah, of course.”

It just felt right.

McKay carries a blue-collar streak about him, and together with his kindness, wit, and a pinch of mischievous charm, you soon see a particular characteristic emerge in his volunteerism: he is a mentor.

McKay spends most of his free time as a wrestling coach, although he also gives time to Habitat for Humanity and BCBSMT opportunities like our KaBOOM! playground builds. In total, he devoted more than 400 hours of community service in 2017.

But there’s just something special about working directly with kids, he said.

“To me, it’s so much more exciting, looking for that ‘a-ha’ moment. Kids that maybe think they want to do something, then try to talk themselves out of it – to help that kid through something that’s tough, that’s all part of it.”

The journey in overcoming adversity comes with a unique payout, McKay said. It’s that universal sign of respect and gratitude: a simple handshake, and “thank you.”

“Seeing those kids stick out their hands at the end of the season is a testament to their own will,” McKay said, flashing his signature smile. “That mentorship, being able to interact when they are emotionally charged after a loss, or maybe dealing with things outside of school or outside athletics, being a shoulder to lean on. That’s what it’s all about.”

That mentorship, being able to interact when they are emotionally charged after a loss, or maybe dealing with things outside of school or outside athletics, being a shoulder to lean on. That’s what it’s all about.

Wrestling holds a special place in McKay’s life. While football “is a close second,” he said, wrestling is what helped shape him into the person he is today. Individual sports require a level of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and responsibility that team sports can mask just by their nature. Wrestling puts competitors under a spotlight, which can be a challenge, especially for kids. McKay has been there, and has found a way to share his journey with others while offering guidance that only a practitioner and coach can know.

“When your name is called, everyone’s watching. You gotta get out there … it’s time to rumble. You can’t pass the ball, you can’t hand it off, you can’t call time out. You need to push yourself and prepare yourself or else it’ll get a lot tougher if you don’t.”

Two of McKay’s own mentors instilled that in him during his middle- and high-school years. But there’s something else, something more important than simple physical prowess in wrestling. It’s something that spans work, life, volunteering and mentoring: Respect.

“There’s the physical element, but beyond that, the 51 percent, the majority, and the reason that I love wrestling so much, is respect.

“Respect for yourself, respect for your elders, respect for your teammates, respect for the uniform you’re wearing,” he said.

Those are the types of things that transfer to all aspects of life and to growing up.

“I’m 40 and I think about that stuff. Every day.”

The ability to share those lessons with young people is a gift, and it’s one that McKay relishes.

“I want to instill that same amount of integrity. As a coach, you never, never resign to the point where you think he won’t have that (a-ha) moment. Patience is key. You can’t give up on them.”

And that, more than all of the lessons he’s learned and imparted to his kids, is what’s at the core of McKay’s drive to volunteer. It’s that giving of time, and the patience to keep giving.

Recently, at an end-of-season gathering, the realization of McKay’s volunteer work sunk in for his wrestlers. One of the head coaches was dolling out thanks, and mentioned, “Coach McKay goes to work early in the morning so he can come here and give of himself to all of you.”

When the kids realized that he wasn’t getting paid, McKay could see some of their faces light up.

It was as if they were saying, “You’re here and you don’t have to be?”

“That hit me like a truck,” he said.

He was there because he wanted to be. Because he had something that somebody imparted to him as a child, and he wanted to share it in the only way he knew how.

Seeing the kids make that connection, like he once did, was profound for McKay.

“That’s huge.”