Practice had begun this morning, like many mornings at Clark Atlanta, at 5:30, a time that especially blurs the lines between Division II college football and another day of boot camp on Parris Island.
You could complain. Sleepwalk through drills when the opportunity presented itself. And if you’re the transfer quarterback with the SEC pedigree, you just might be tempted to resent your very humble surroundings at such an unholy hour.
Johnny McCrary chooses another approach. “Get your butt up. Get over there. And do your job,” he said.
Even in the half-light of dawn, McCrary stands out among his fellow Panthers. Being 6-foot-5, with all the body styling and arm strength to suggest a quarterback of variable threats is not a common sight at this level. There is in just the mere presence of a player like that the implication of a better day for a program that historically has won just a third of its games (and had but one winning season in the last quarter century).
In spite of the setting, McCrary, who started 12 games at Vanderbilt in two seasons before being moved aside, is determined to show Clark Atlanta is a perfectly acceptable platform on which to display his wares.
After all, his late father, Greg, provided the example for how it’s done. He always told the boy that if you’re good enough, the pros will find you. It’s not as if all the gold is on the surface, like seashells at the shore. Greg McCrary started at Clark (Before it was Clark Atlanta) and spent seven seasons in the NFL as a tight end, the first three with the Falcons.
“That’s all you want is an opportunity,” Greg McCrary’s very determined son said. “I’m going to get paid for playing football. Some way, somehow, I’m going to get paid for what I do.”
So, when it’s necessary, he gets up at 4:30 in the morning in order to get taped up and ready to go an hour later.
This is, after all, the same kid whose reaction after determining last spring he had no football future at Vandy was to immediately sign up for more classes. He piled on the credit hours in order to finish off his Vandy degree in sociology that semester, just three years in. Then he could have degree in hand and move on with two years’ eligibility as a graduate transfer.
“You handle what you got to handle with a positive attitude,” McCrary said.
“You got to have a great work ethic. You got to compete. And you got to sacrifice. Sometimes you can end up at a place like this and do great things. There are multiple guys I know who came from a level like this and went to the next level.”
McCrary was considered one of Vanderbilt’s highest-rated recruits ever when he signed out of DeKalb’s Cedar Grove High in 2013. In 17 career games there, following a redshirt season, he threw for 2,518 yards, 15 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Midway through his sophomore season in 2015, following a four-turnover game against South Carolina, McCrary lost the starting job to freshman Kyle Shurmer.
Considerable confusion followed, amid reports that McCrary had transferred to Mercer, and then had decided to return home to Clark Atlanta, but not necessarily to play football. When all the uncertainty evaporated, there was McCrary, settling into the one place as familiar as home, with a football still in his hand.
The McCrary name and Clark Atlanta are so closely joined there should be no less than a hyphen between them. Two McCrarys – Johnny’s father and his uncle Phillip – are in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. When Phillip begins rattling off all the various family members who passed through CAU, he reaches back multiple generations.
“I got cousins here I never knew existed,” Johnny said. “My sister is here now. My brother is going to be here. They got me in school and it was like one of those warm sensations. I came here and it was the perfect decision.”
His first season with the Panthers, McCrary threw for 1,903 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His high point was a victory over Morehouse in which he threw for 456 yards and five TDs.
Much-bigger-shark-in-smaller-pond update: McCrary is the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s preseason offensive player of the year for 2017.
With that projection comes big expectations from within a program unaccustomed to growing them quite so large.
“This is going to be a special year,” Panthers coach Kevin Ramsey said.
CAU’s offensive coordinator, Richard Moncrief, leaves no accolade unturned when talking about McCrary’s potential impact his senior season: “Getting a high-caliber person like that is the first thing you can build a program around. Second of all, his skill set is tremendous. People kind of categorize him as being the top player in this conference, but I really think he’s the top quarterback in the country.”
There is so much for McCrary to play for in his final collegiate season.
He is playing for his future, attempting to make a splash large enough in DII that a NFL scout somewhere gets wet.
He is playing to uplift a program that has placed so much hope in this transfer from the SEC, this son of Clark Atlanta returned.
He also is playing for his past, serving the memory of his parents, both with ties to Clark Atlanta. McCrary’s mother, Teri Smith, died when he was only 9. Nine years later, before he had the opportunity to see his son take his first collegiate snap, Greg McCrary suddenly died.
“I know that his dad would have loved this. For him to carry on that tradition, that’s a blessing to him and to the family,” said uncle Phillip, who in his time won five state titles as Columbia High’s basketball coach.
“I remember days in December when no one was here (around campus), and it’s just me. Moments I just felt the presence of my parents right with me, letting me know, hey, just because we’re physically not here doesn’t mean we’re not here,” Johnny said.
“The way to keep them alive is constantly remembering them, constantly playing for them and putting forth the type of person I am,” he said.