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THE VERDICT: Keith Magnuson's son carries on Special Olympics tradition

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

Kevin Magnuson is sleeping fast these days. There is his real job as an agent representing numerous hockey players. Then there is this massive global celebration coming to Soldier Field in July: the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics. Thousands of athletes from 172 countries will participate, and as president of Special Olympics Chicago, Kevin is the chief cook and bottle washer.

Call him very busy, but don't call him for a parking pass. Also, rest assured that this acorn did not fall far from an icon. His father, Keith, was a beloved member of the Blackhawks, a serial giver whose No. 3 banner hangs above the United Center not only because of how he played with so much heart, but how he lived his life with such verve.

"After my dad and Cliff Koroll's rookie year was over in 1970, Stan Mikita gave them a call during the summer," Kevin recalled. "Stan asked them to meet him for lunch. Dad and Cliff thought they were going to have a sandwich and a few laughs. Instead, Stan took them to Soldier Field for the Special Olympics. Stan told them, 'this is what you do when you are a Blackhawk… this is part of your job.'

"Well, my Dad was hooked. He was always a happy guy, but I remember him coming home after being at Soldier Field. He was floating on air. He said he just had an amazing day. He brought a few trinkets with him and maybe a T-shirt or two. But he just kept talking about the experience, being around all those kids and adults with special needs, their parents, their siblings. Stan and George Armstrong of the Toronto Maple Leafs were there for the first one in 1968. My dad was always there for Special Olympics after his first one."

Now Kevin is there, as you knew he would be. It's his pedigree. When he started going to games at the Stadium, Kevin noticed how Keith always showed respect for everyone, whether you parked cars or wore a silk suit. Keith played defense with an edge, dropped his gloves often, won fights not so often. His spirit was instrumental in the Blackhawks' unprecedented leap from last place in 1969 to first in 1970, his first year in the NHL. A couple months later, Mikita took him to Soldier Field.

This 50th anniversary celebration will be bigger than then, bigger than ever. Starting on July 17, the Unified Cup kicks off at Toyota Park when 24 teams ­- 16 mens' and eight womens' - begin a soccer tournament. Squads will be comprised of special needs athletes playing beside those without special needs. At Soldier Field, law enforcement officers and Special Olympic participants will conclude a torch run by lighting the Eternal Flame of Hope. The weekend will also feature a Global Day of Inclusion, a festival of games, food and live entertainment.

Admission to Special Olympics is free. And if you've never been, attendance is recommended.

"There are athletes from age 8 until they can't compete anymore," said Kevin. "Many of them are involved in multiple sports, and I mean involved. This means so much to them, not only the participation but the relationships they form. They're so passionate, so sincere. It's life-changing, how the athletes partake while families and friends are rallying around them, along with professional athletes, like my dad and Stan a long time ago.

"I'd be surprised if there weren't a bunch of Blackhawks on hand. Patrick Kane hosted a hockey tournament for us in Fox Valley last year, and it raised a bunch of money. All of the Chicago teams pitch in big time. The Bears, Fire, Sky, Bulls, Cubs, White Sox. And the Blackhawks have been terrific, going back to Bill Wirtz. And now Rocky. John McDonough is on the board of Special Olympics Illinois. There's that organization, plus Special Olympics Chicago and Special Olympics International, based in Washington. But, obviously, we all work together and coordinate. We could be talking 30,000 participants."

Once upon a less enlightened time, these special people were occasionally referred to as "handicapped." But that horrid label is neither fair, nor true. These joyful souls are into hugging and smiling and high fives and togetherness. Hubris is out, so are egos. Unlike us "normal" folks, they aren't chained to their cellphones, don't hate the boss or fudge on taxes or wallow in road rage. The dilemma for parents is what happens when they're gone, when they're not able to care for a special needs son or daughter.

"It's a subject we talk about constantly," said Kevin. "And, as part of our legacy, we have a program for 'aging athletes.' That focuses on housing, hopefully employment. It's about what happens next."

Kevin was an excellent player at the University of Michigan, where he was a staple on the 1998 NCAA champions while earning a degree in political science. He took a whirl at the sport on the minor pro level. His first day with Baton Rouge of the East Coast League was memorable.

"This huge guy starts approaching me, a teammate," Kevin recalled. "He was maybe 220 pounds, missing a few teeth, and I didn't know what to expect. Did he want to initiate me? Maybe go at it with the new kid in town? He stuck out his hand and said, 'My name is Keith Bland. I want you to know that I was named after your dad. My father is a big Boston Bruins fan, but he loved the way your dad played.' How about that? I heard that wherever I went about my dad, how everybody loved him. Keith Bland is now a police officer in New Jersey."

When Kevin realized the NHL was not in his future, he pondered a way to stay in the game he loved.

"It was my Dad's idea," said Kevin. "He suggested I go to law school and become an agent. Which I am now, with KO Sports. And I love it. In 2006, I happened to see Bill Wirtz downtown. I told him, 'Mr. Wirtz, I just passed the bar exam at DePaul.' Well, it was like I was one of his own. He was thrilled. A couple days later, on the team website, there was this headline about the Blackhawks congratulating Kevin Magnuson. Must have been a slow news day. Mr. Wirtz was incredible, the most under-the-radar generous person you could imagine. He was great to our family, in good times and bad. He took entire care of the funeral."

The funeral. A tragic automobile accident claimed Keith Magnuson in mid-December 2003. He was 56. At the visitation, hundreds of admirers stood outside in frigid conditions to pay their respects. Upon entering, a Special Olympic family met Keith's widow, Cindy, daughter, Molly, and Kevin. The young athlete removed a gold medal from his neck and asked if it could be buried with Keith. A couple days later, with the full Blackhawks' team joining in a packed First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, Kevin talked about his father's "first Christmas in heaven."

Kevin, who somehow held it together, was now the man of the family.

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