Sometimes the best country music is inspired by pain and hardships endured in real life. At least that was the case for Tim McGraw's heartbreaking ballad "Live Like You Were Dying." The song was written in honor of his late father Tug McGraw: a man the country singer didn't even meet for the first time until he was 11 years old. The two had a complicated relationship in the early years but ultimately became incredibly close up until Tug's passing in 2004.
Tim was the result of a summer fling between his mother Betty D'Agostino and Tug while Tug was playing minor league baseball in Jacksonville, Fla. Despite her pregnancy, Tug decided to follow his dreams of becoming a baseball star and Betty ended up married to a truck driver by the name of Horace Smith, settling down in Louisiana. In fact, Tim spent his early childhood believing that his name was actually Tim Smith. Though Betty and Horace's relationship would end in a divorce, Tim has credited his stepdad with instilling in him an early love and appreciation of country music. According to Tug's memoir Ya Gotta Believe!, Tim only figured out that Horace wasn't his father because he was snooping around his mother's closet and came across his birth certificate. His real dad's name had been scratched out on the document, but his occupation, baseball player, remained legible.
Betty confessed to her son that it was true and picked up the phone to tell Tug that he had a child who wanted to meet his biological father. Though Tug hesitantly agreed to meet the 11-year-old boy, he had no interest in being his father. He had since remarried and had a couple more kids. Though Betty would consistently push to bring the two of them together over the years, Tug wouldn't acknowledge Tim as his son until he was a 17-year-old high school student.
At the time, Tim himself had become a talented athlete, but his mother's limited finances made options for college difficult. Betty decided to reach out to Tug to finally force him to step up after the MLB star announced his retirement. Not only did the state of Louisiana demand child support, but her lawyer negotiated additional funds to pay for a college education. Part of the deal was Tug finally wanted a paternity test to prove that this was actually his kid but he also wanted Tim to stop reaching out to him. Apparently, Tim agreed on the condition that he meet his dad in person one last time and after seeing the teenager, Tug had no doubt in his mind that he was looking at his child based on their physical resemblance. He decided a paternity test wasn't necessary and the two decided to start their relationship fresh.
Tug felt so bad about all of his absent years that he helped Tim's music career get started in Nashville. He passed along his demo tape to a record executive he met at a team party for the Phillies and even purchased a van for his son and his band to be able to make it to gigs. Tim was able to land a record deal and pretty soon, meaning he didn't need any more financial support from his father. As we know, he became the superstar we know and love today.
The elder McGraw played Major League Baseball as a relief pitcher from 1965 to 1984. He won World Series rings with the 1969 New York Mets and the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies. For the latter championship, McGraw memorably threw the final pitch, striking out the Kansas City Royals' Willie Wilson. In between those World Series wins, Tug won over fans in New York City and Philadelphia with his "Ya Gotta Believe" catchphrase and outgoing personality.
Despite their rocky beginning, the McGraws eventually became close and remained so until Tug passed away following a bout with brain cancer. In 2003, Tim honored his father by starting the Tug McGraw Foundation, which helps enhance the quality of life for children and adults with "neurological brain conditions such as brain tumors, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder."
In 2020, Tim McGraw celebrated what would've been his father's 76th birthday with a moving video paired with "Live Like You Were Dying." The country star's brief tribute to his dad's "nuttiness" included the hashtag Ya Gotta Believe, a reference to his dad's catchphrase during his years pitching for the New York Mets.
This article was originally published in 2020.