Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Sunday, June 16
The Indiana Daily Student


Professor of the pigskin

Students and colleagues of African-American Studies professor John McCluskey might know of his Harvard education. But he's less likely to reveal to them a piece of information that might win a few bar bets and prove his role as a football pioneer. \nMcCluskey, who played for Harvard from 1962-65, was the first black student to start at quarterback in the history of the Ivy League. \n"The Boston paper had a headline that said I was the first black quarterback (at Harvard) in 350 years," McCluskey said.\nOf course, the headline writers that day neglected to point out the fact that football didn't exist for about 250 of those years. But it emphasized the significance of McCluskey being named starter.\nMcCluskey had been a high school standout in Middletown, Ohio. Running the offense of legendary coach Glen "Tiger" Ellison, who is considered to be the father of the run and shoot, McCluskey was recruited by a number of Big Ten schools and was named an All-American by Parade Magazine.\n"He had a tremendous arm -- he could read the defense very well, and of course he is a very intelligent person," Ed Payne, who was an assistant coach for Middletown at the time, said.\nAmong the schools courting McCluskey was Minnesota, which went to the Rose Bowl after the 1961 season under the guidance of one of the few black quarterbacks in major college football at the time, Sandy Stephens.\n"When I went to visit, I was sort of in awe of him," McCluskey said.\nStephens' No. 15 was the first to be retired in Minnesota football history.\nBut McCluskey decided to further his education and his career in the Ivy League.\n"Only a handful of African Americans played football at any position in the Ivy League in those days," McCluskey said.\nAlthough he was one of the handful, McCluskey doesn't remember any racial hostility coming from opponents or the crowd. But he does remember a story about a group of fans that were quite surprised to find out he wasn't white.\nThe fans, from South Boston, Mass., went to Harvard because they thought they could see an "Irish laddie," McCluskey, at quarterback.\n"They kept asking, 'Where's the Irish lad going to come from?'" McCluskey said. "And some guy finally told them 'he's already out there on the field.' They stayed for the rest of the game, but I don't think they ever came back." \nIn the era when he played, freshmen weren't allowed to play at the varsity level. So after playing freshman and junior varsity his first two years, McCluskey became the starting quarterback for the Crimson's varsity squad his junior year.\nOne of the biggest adjustments he had to make was in the vastly different offenses he ran in high school compared to college. Like switching cars from a Corvette to a station wagon, the tempo slowed down considerably when McCluskey got to Harvard because of the Crimson's run-based offense\n"I was spoiled in high school," McCluskey said. "We threw as much as we ran. It was so entertaining to watch that people drove from towns an hour away just to see us play on Friday night."\nAt Harvard, that type of excitement was reserved for one game a year. Simply known as "The Game" -- it is Harvard's annual scuffle with Yale.\nMcCluskey remembers being confused after the referees signaled for a timeout in the middle of a Harvard drive downfield. After asking them what was going on, they explained to him that it was a TV timeout.\nAt the end of his career, some fans congratulated McCluskey for four good years.\n"I said, 'Ah, they were OK.' And they said, 'Oh no. You never lost to Yale," he said.\nMcCluskey continued to describe a Yalie as "someone who takes a loss to Harvard with good cheer."\nMcCluskey has taught at IU since 1977. He said there are lessons learned on the football field that can be carried into the world of academia.\n"Football -- particularly being quarterback, teaches you discipline … and how to be very calm and collected. And a very important lesson from football is trying to do your best. The crowd may applaud or the crowd may be silent, but you have to have a standard inside," McCluskey said.\nMcCluskey doesn't often reflect on the games themselves, though.\n"That chapter of life is over," McCluskey said. "A lot of friends want to relive their football years, but you have to move on in life." \n-- Contact senior writer Alex Hickey at

Get stories like this in your inbox