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John McCluskey, Harvard’s first black QB, never worried about being a pioneer

‘I was going to be a quarterback or not play’

John McCluskey arrived at Harvard University in the fall of 1962. He was a hotshot freshman quarterback who found himself in a daunting new world.

McCluskey was raised in a predominantly black community in Middletown, Ohio. At Harvard, he would be one of 18 African American students in a freshman class of 1,500. In a year of great academic and social adjustments, the Harvard football team became McCluskey’s refuge.

“Football became my club,” he said during a recent phone conversation. “Football was important. It gave me something to stabilize my freshman year.”

Two years later, McCluskey made history when he became the first African American in Ivy League history to start at quarterback. McCluskey led Harvard to a 6-3 record in 1964 and a 5-2-2 record in 1965.

Today, McCluskey, 74, is a retired educator; he was a professor of African American and African diaspora studies at Indiana University. The lessons he learned on the football field at Harvard and on campus formed the rich narrative of his life.

“I was never worried or nervous about being a pioneer,” he said.

‘I was never worried or nervous about being a pioneer’

McCluskey said he was more apprehensive about competing academically.

“Coming from a public high school and going to school in New England, many fellow students were from prep schools, expensive prep schools, prestigious schools,” he said. “The thought was, and the fact was, freshman year, they’d be a little bit ahead of the public school guys.”

McCluskey was not worried about competing on the football field, even though he was one of 12 freshman quarterbacks at Harvard. He had been the star of a freewheeling, high-scoring high school offense.

His style of play was similar to the Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Pat Mahomes style of play that has become a pronounced influence at all levels of football.

“I was not nervous as a quarterback,” he said. “I looked around at the other guys trying out at quarterback. I thought I could handle the ball, I thought I could lead. I thought I could call the plays as well as anybody else.

“Nervousness, yes, in the classroom that first year. No nervousness on the field.”

The Harvard football team in 1965. John McCluskey led the team to a 5-2-2 record that year.

Harvard Athletics

His Harvard teammates were generally supportive. It was the first time many of his teammates had played with an African American — especially at quarterback.

In 1962, role models for an aspiring black college quarterback outside of historically black colleges were virtually nonexistent. Sandy Stephens, whom McCluskey met during a recruiting visit, was a star at the University of Minnesota. That was it.

“There weren’t many role models, but that didn’t deter me,” McCluskey said. “I just made it up as I went along.”

McCluskey couldn’t remember any other black quarterbacks in the Ivy League.

“In those days, you were lucky to get two brothers out of Dartmouth, two out of Penn, two out of Yale. There were not other black quarterbacks I was aware of.

“They weren’t at any level that I knew of or watched on TV. I was the black Johnny Unitas.”

The Ivies were in a relative bubble. At Harvard, McCluskey said, he did not face the hatred that would become the norm for generations of aspiring black quarterbacks at predominantly white colleges and in the NFL.

He was aware that athletic black quarterbacks like himself were routinely converted to wide receiver or defensive back. That was not his experience at Harvard. There was never an attempt to make him change positions.

“I would have walked away. My mind was made up,” he said. “I was a going to be a quarterback or not play.”

The closest he came was a case of mistaken identity in his sophomore season when he started a game at quarterback.

His aunt, who attended each of Harvard’s home games, told McCluskey about two men who had come to see him play. At least, they thought they had come to see him.

“She was sitting in the stands and these fellows from South Boston, of Irish descent, came in and said they were there because McCluskey was starting and they wanted to see the nice Irish lad lead Harvard down the field.” Midway through the first quarter, one of the men turned and asked, “Where’s McCluskey?”

“Somebody nearby said, ‘That’s McCluskey, there, the African American, No. 27.’ They got up and left.”

Once as a junior, McCluskey played with a serious injury rather than sit out for fear of losing his starting job. But that was more because his backup was a local favorite than because he was white.

Quarterback John McCluskey running the ball behind a blocker.

Harvard Athletics

After his senior year, McCluskey had no desire to extend his football career. By the time he finished playing, the tumult of civil rights violence had drastically shaped his priorities. “It was the civil rights era, Martin Luther King, the marches in the South,” he said. “My mind was looking more toward a larger political world.”

After graduation, McCluskey had his first teaching experience. On the advice and recommendation of a former college adviser, McCluskey took a job at Miles College, a historically black institution in Fairfield, Alabama. Coming out of high school, McCluskey was not familiar with many black colleges. He knew about Wilberforce and Central State, located in Ohio. He knew about Fisk University and Morehouse College. His one-year experience at Miles College gave him an entirely different view about the role of black colleges and shaped his approach to teaching.

A different kind of education at Miles College

At Miles, McCluskey also came to understand that he had been protected from the harsh realities of the fight for freedom. During the school years, he would have dinner at the homes of students whose houses had been bombed by white supremacists. In Alabama, he learned about moral and emotional courage.

“That was my graduate school,” he said. “That was a wonderful experience. It taught me how to teach: Set the bar high. Don’t settle and assume students cannot do certain things.

“I learned a lot about teaching. I learned lot about the South. I learned a lot about myself.” McCluskey went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Stanford. He began teaching at Indiana University in 1977 as a professor of African American and African diaspora studies.

On Saturday, Harvard will host the Howard University football team in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is the first football game between the two schools, and black student leaders from Harvard are using the game as a bridge-building opportunity for black students.

McCluskey has connections to Howard. His wife earned her master’s degree there, and his oldest son taught in the philosophy department.

Although he retired from teaching a few years ago, McCluskey said he would welcome a return to the teaching arena at a historically black university. He believes black colleges continue to play a vital role in maintaining the vitality of the African American community. “They nurture. They are doing things other schools are not equipped to do,” he said.

From his time as a Harvard student till now, McCluskey said, the role of historically black colleges has come sharply into view. The institutions reflect what should be the mission of individual African Americans.

“You have a focused mission to go back and serve,” he said. “Be the best professional you can be and reach down and pull another brother and sister up.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.