I initially conducted this Q&A with Don McPherson a bunch of weeks ago. Yet I was so blown away by his depth, intelligence and perspective that I pitched his saga to the Wall Street Journal. They agreed he was worthy of a profile, so I held off on the Quaz and wrote this. Now, however, I’m thrilled to be able to run the transcript of my chat with Don.
I’ve covered sports for more than 15 years, and I can count on, well, zero fingers the number of athletic figures I’ve agreed with more than Don McPherson. He’s as far from the cliche-plagued, just-happy-to-be-here jock as Earth is from Pluto, and would rather eat his left toe than spend his days focused only on what he achieved some two decades ago. Odds of you running into McPherson at the next Holiday Inn Autograph Extravaganza? I’d say, oh, 0.
In other words, he gets it. Don hates the way women are viewed in organized sports, questions the role youth athletics play in society and enjoys the music of Barbra Streisand (I’ll admit—that one throws me a tad). He can be found at his website, as well as on Twitter. He’s a genuinely decent and righteous man, and I’m honored to welcome Don McPherson to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: You obviously had an insanely fantastic college football career. I was 16 when you were drafted by the Eagles in 1988, and I was pretty sure we were about to witness the next great NFL QB. Admittedly, I was just a kid … but I never understood what happened. You played professionally, but only for a brief spell, and without ever throwing a regular season NFL pass. Was this a matter of (a) African-American QBs still having to prove themselves in unfair ways? (b) Your game not translating to the NFL (c) other?
DON MCPHERSON: I had no illusions of an NFL career. The year I was the best quarterback in college football, Doug Williams had a record-setting performance in the Super Bowl. Prior to that game he was asked, “How long have you been a black quarterback?” The issue of black quarterbacks in the NFL was being talked about more and, myself and other black quarterbacks were emerging in college. Despite being the No. 1 quarterback in college, people were talking about me playing another position. To avoid having a public fight with an NFL team that painted me as some unappreciative prima dona, I sent a letter to every NFL team, stating that if they had no intention of drafting and playing me as a quarterback, not to draft me. As you can imagine, that limited my options in the NFL. And, that was okay, as my integrity was and is more important to me.
J.P.: You placed second to Tim Brown in the 1987 Heisman voting. You’re sitting there, waiting … waiting … waiting. Did you think, in the five seconds before the formal announcement, that you were about to win? And when you smiled and congratulating him, were you a big enough man at age 22 to truly feel happy for him? Or were you thinking, “Crap. This stinks.”?
D.M.: I may have been the best quarterback in college football in 1987, but I was not the best player in my own huddle. Nor did think myself the best college football player. The Heisman saga, while an incredible honor and a lot of fun, was more stressful for Tim Brown than for me. He was the front-runner in September and I came out of nowhere mid season. On Monday of the week it was awarded he was supposed to win. By Friday I was the talk of the award. I had a blast with the whole thing as I really never thought I would win it. After the announcement Tim received a call from President Reagan. I asked Tim if Reagan mentioned that Bush would be calling me soon. I enjoyed messing with him … and was very happy for him.
J.P.: I’ve always had mixed feelings about fame—especially sports fame, especially fleeting sports fame (relatively). You threw your last collegiate pass at age 22. You’re about to turn 46, yet I’m sure you get Syracuse questions/comments/etc every single day (or two). What is that like, always being reminded of something you did in another life? Is it affirming and positive, or do you ever feel like, “Dang, can a man not move on?”
D.M.: I’m like you. I don’t like fame. Never did. But, I am very grateful and lucky to have attended Syracuse and spent time in the community. While many people there (and other parts of the country) may remember me as a 22 year old quarterback, I don’t identify with that part of myself and my life. There are some great memories, but I had some great times away from football as well. If I’m in Syracuse and someone wants to talk 1987 football, I’m thrilled, because their perspective is usually interesting and I appreciate that.
J.P.: I’ve covered hundreds of athletes through the years who had no clue how to handle the aftermath. Yet when you retired in 1994, you immediately joined the staff of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. I find that incredibly impressive. How did you know where to go? What to do? NOT to open up a restaurant?
D.M.: I was fortunate that my academic and social interest as a college student applied to my life after school. I started working with a program and organization in college that I eventually would run for 18 years following college. In fact, I brought the program to Canada when I played there and took the job at Northeastern University (to expand the concept nationally) in the middle of my last season. Ironically, my favorite professor in college was a former colleague of the man who hired me in Boston. I found that out years later and it made me realize the the key to the transition out of sports is sticking to what you are passionate about and not chasing money or what other people think you should do.
J.P.: You’re a former football player who is an outspoken critic of gender roles. I can’t believe I just wrote that, so I’ll say it again: You’re a former football player who is an outspoken critic of gender roles. As a father who does all the laundry and dishes and has changed more diapers than a guy can count, my hat’s off to you. That said—how the f%$ did this happen?
D.M.: A major reason why I went to Northeastern University to work at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society was because of the founder, Richard Lapchick. Rich is a white man who has dedicated his life to “racism in sports.” That was “my issue” as a black quarterback. One of the programs I was hired to oversee was a gender violence prevention program. I learned two very profound lessons from the program. First, that my life had been more profoundly impacted by my gender than by my race (given all I’ve said to this point, you can imagine how that was a powerful lesson). Second, and more important, is how the socialization of boys regarding masculinity is often at the expense of women. I came to realize that we don’t raise boys to be men, we raise them not to be women (or gay men). We teach boys that girls and women are “less than” and that leads to violence by some and silence by many. It’s important for men to stand up to not only stop men’s violence against women but, to teach young men a broader definition of masculinity that includes being empathetic, loving and non-violent.
J.P.: Why is there such a connection between professional athletes and domestic violence? Is it the person who is drawn to sports, or what sports do to people?
D.M.: When it comes to professional athletes and domestic violence there are two things that not many people are willing to talk about. First, they are our warriors, our identity. And, by “our” I mean the families, communities and schools from which they come. We have asked very little of them as people and the result is a concentration of incredibly narcissistic people whose behavior is validated by virtually every sector of the larger culture. That would be the “entitlement” argument. Second, they fit the stereotype. If every professional athlete were abusive every day, it would do very little to explain the millions of cases of men’s violence against women and girls each year. One athlete commits a crime and it’s front page news, painting a very broad picture. That broad picture is not just of athletes but of the type of man that is an abuser. It provides a convenient and believable (entitled athlete) story of what an abuser looks like. It does little to explain the millions of cases of domestic violence that occur each year in our country.
J.P.: Is sports as closed-minded a world as we think?
D.M.: I don’t think sports is closed minded. I think many people enjoy sports because it allows then to shut off their minds. It has always been the great diversion, a break from reality. When the ugly reality of sports is exposed, we think it’s sports that has the problem. While some of this may be true, we have to be honest about what sport has always been.
J.P.: We have yet to have an openly gay member of a men’s professional sports team here in the U.S. Why? And will it happen within the next 10 years? And when you were playing, did you have teammates who you knew to be gay, but couldn’t be themselves.
D.M.: It will be very hard for a player to “come out” once in professional sports. I believe there will be an openly gay athlete in high school who will matriculate and continue to perform on the field and be accepted by his peers and fans. I did play with a few guys who were gay and no one talked about it publicly, but it was just understood.
J.P.: You’re a Big East football commentator for Sports Net New York. I’m guessing you’ve seen/watched/called/played in 8 million football games. Do you ever find yourself watching games and thinking, “If I never see another one of these, I’d be the happiest man in the world”?
D.M.: When I retired, I stopped paying attention to football for a couple of years. And, slowly worked my back. I love college football. I am only troubled by the impact of business and some of the “issues,” but the game, I love.
J.P.: The Jets called and said, “We need a backup for next season … any interest in giving it a try?” What do you say?
D.M.: Absolutely NOT.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DON MCPHERSON:
• Celine Dion or Babs Streisand?: Babs all the way … I LOVE Babs. I listened to six songs before every game. Two of the six were from Yentl. Lots of parallels between the stories. She was a woman who was told she could not study the Bible (but she already knew more than most men). As a kid who just wanted to play quarterback and had people doubt or try to deny, just because I was black … I identified with Anchel. It was inspiring and the lyrics (Where is it Written? and APiece of Sky) were perfect.
The others were all similarly more sedate and emotionally intense:
Sightless Bird—Bobby McFerrin
Greatest Love of All—George Benson
Could You Believe—Al Jarreau
Amazing Grace—Hubert Laws
I plan to write the book, “Six Songs of Inspiration.”
• How many times in your life have people started a sentence with, “Donovan, …” : Rarely.
• Best NFL player you saw who nobody would think to put on a BEST list: Keith Jackson (although he may be on the list).
• Best mall on Long Island?: Roosevelt Field (I grew up there)
• Why didn’t Pearl Washington dominate the NBA?: Ah, long story … too loaded.
• Worst movie you’ve ever seen?: Joe Versus the Volcano (also worst date ever).
• Voice box or colostomy bag?: Colostomy bag.
• If you can go anywhere for a week: My backyard with my kids.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match right now: You or Shane Conlan?: Shane will always kick my butt … just the reality of it.