How J.J. McCarthy, Michigan’s star QB, found key to his own success, peace

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

J.J. McCarthy wore figure skates — once. His mother, a former figure skater herself, got him to try a pair. He went on the ice and “kept falling on my face.” 

So he made an announcement: “I’m not wearing those things anymore.”

He was 5 years old.

Near as I can tell, that was the last misstep J.J. McCarthy made. From that point forward, he was bound and determined to be exactly where he is now, perched as one of the best college athletes in the nation and a sure bet to go pro — in something.

“Back then, I didn’t know if it was the NHL or the NFL,” he says, “but I knew it was one of them.”

Wait. You knew you were going pro when you were 5?

“Yeah. I was just full go, all the time.”

Full go. Those words should be emblazoned across the Michigan football quarterback’s forehead — if you could find it under that impossibly thick nest of auburn hair. Full go. He studies great athletes, memorizes their quotes, mimics their routines. Full go. He drills, drills, and drills some more. Full go. McCarthy doesn’t so much study being a quarterback as bull-rush it. He won’t just eat, drink and sleep the position, he’ll even meditate on it. 

You’ve no doubt seen him under a goal post before a game, legs crossed, arms out, eyes closed, blissing out — something he says he does every morning no matter what — reminding film fans of the quarterback they called “Sunshine” in “Remember the Titans,” an airy, breezy, go-with-the-flow leader. 

But J.J. McCarthy doesn’t merely go with the flow. 

He controls the faucet.

His greatest battle wasn’t against a defense

Did you know that McCarthy left home in his senior year of high school? COVID-19 had postponed football in his home state of Illinois, and he wanted desperately to play in the fall. So, with his parents’ blessing, he moved to Florida to attend the IMG Academy. It was there, in a first-class room with all the amenities a budding sports star could want, that McCarthy learned the most critical lessons that forged his current existence.

No, not reading the zone blitz or how to throw the deep out.

Depression. Loneliness. Self-doubt.

Until that point in his life, all the lights had turned green for the kid from La Grange Park, a small, middle-class town less than an hour outside Chicago. J.J’s thin frame had shot up 3 inches in his sophomore year, leaving him beyond the 6-foot-2 mark that coaches salivate over. His accuracy was enviable. His work ethic was unquestioned. He received enough scholarship offers to go for three lifetimes. He had friends, family, local acclaim, joy.

But alone in Florida, he felt it all slipping away. 

“I went there expecting so much and none of those expectations got met. I felt stuck. I was homesick. It was the first time I was out of La Grange Park for more than a week. And you know, just the combination of missing that family type environment, and being locked in my room all day because of COVID. Nobody knew how to deal with it. 

“I don’t put any blame towards the academy at all. But you know, you stick a kid like myself — with severe ADHD — inside a room for hours and hours on end. And the schedule was the same from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.. And it was just, you know, nothing that I expected.” 

He lost weight. He grew depressed. He had nights where he teared up thinking of what he missed.

“I had to learn the hard lesson of accepting things as they are, and appreciating whatever it is. … I don’t know if it’s a Bible quote or something along the lines of ‘you might not know now, but you will later.’ … Just that feeling of missing home, missing the lifestyle I was living when I was a normal high school student back in La Grange Park. And that absence of true, genuine love. 

“That’s (a lesson) I took with me to Michigan. I make sure all the freshmen feel that love — whether it’s from me or from the other guys. Because I know what it does to somebody (not to have it). 

“If you don’t have your mental health right, then you can’t really accomplish anything.”

Spreading the love

That’s pretty heady stuff from a 20-year-old. But that’s who he is. To talk to McCarthy is to hear about positive energy, self-discipline, focus. He can quote scripture one moment and Kobe Bryant the next (“anything and everything he learned outside of the basketball court was about how to be a better basketball player”). And that giddiness J.J. effuses when his backups have success? It’s genuine. McCarthy gets so happy when a teammate throws a touchdown, you want to hand him pom-poms.

“When I see that guy who’s going out there and busting his absolute butt all offseason,” McCarthy explains, “all spring ball, all fall camp, he’s doing the same exact stuff that I’m doing — who am I to prey on the kid’s downfall, to say that it should be me in there, it shouldn’t be him? …

“I’m a true believer in what you give out is what you’ll get back.”

He experienced that firsthand himself. When McCarthy first arrived at Michigan, Cade McNamara had the starting QB job. J.J. had to wait and watch. But according to McCarthy, when the passing of the torch became inevitable last season, McNamara approached him in the locker room and said, “It’s yours, bro. I couldn’t be more proud. Go get ‘em.”

“That little message just went so far for me,” McCarthy says.

The two quarterbacks still text each other (McNamara transferred to Iowa) and J.J. recently checked up on Cade’s recovery from a season-ending knee injury

“The media tried to make it a hostile competition. But at the end of the day, we’re just human beings checking in on each other, making sure everyone’s doing OK, mentally, physically, spiritually.”

Spiritually? Well. Yes. Mental health is paramount to McCarthy. He could teach a yoga class, guest lecture a breathing seminar, or make a video for positive visualization exercises. 

When I ask the kid to describe himself, he says, “joyful, blissful and loving.”

Is this a Big Ten quarterback or the Dali Lama?

A good guy, a great player

Well. His numbers answer that question. Most are gaudy — like his 76% completion rate, his 188.68 passer rating, or his 18-to-3 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio, all figures near the top of the national rankings for quarterbacks. And I’m pretty sure the Dali Lama was never in the running for the Heisman Trophy.

But numbers, especially in college football, only tell you so much. It’s McCarthy’s personality that makes him an electric leader, his creativity under pressure, his confidence in making throws at Gumby angles, his willingness to tuck and run, and his effusive, team-first joyfulness that causes his coach, Jim Harbaugh, to go bug-eyed when he gushes about the young man’s talent. 

Harbaugh has said McCarthy could end up the best quarterback Michigan has ever had — and that includes Tom Brady, Brian Griese and Harbaugh himself. Earlier this week, the coach told the media that teams came into this year thinking they could stop the run and force McCarthy to beat them with his arm.

“We see how that has worked out,” Harbaugh said.

Starting this weekend, we’ll really see.

The real tests begin now

McCarthy is about to begin the biggest three-week stretch of his college career. A road game Saturday against No. 9 Penn State — the first ranked team on No. 2 Michigan’s oft-criticized schedule — followed by another road trip to Maryland, a trap game if there ever was one, because it’s followed by the mother of all battles, in Ann Arbor, against No. 3 Ohio State, the top team in the College Football Playoff rankings.

“I’m approaching (this stretch) the same way I have all season,” McCarthy says, bristling at the idea that these games are the “hard” ones and the rest were somehow easy. “I mean, honestly, we didn’t make the schedule. That’s something out of our control. … 

“I almost know that they’re going to come up with another excuse if we beat Penn State and the rest of the teams. There was this Kirk Cousins quote I absolutely love. He said, ‘If I had the ability to walk on water, they would say that I couldn’t swim.’ ”

J.J. grins. “There’s gonna be like stuff like that all the time. And we’re just gonna keep our head down and keep working.”

The same dynamic will face him in a few months, no matter what happens with the rest of this season. He’s good enough to be a high NFL draft pick. But he has the option to return to U-M. Could the current cloud of a sign-stealing controversy rob him of a Heisman Trophy shot? Would he want to return to prove to skeptics that all those wins he accumulated weren’t in some way tainted?

“To be honest with you, it’s 50/50 right now,” he says. “I’m so focused, I don’t even look that far ahead. I just appreciate every single day that I’m here, because there’s the thought in the back of my head that these could be my last.” 

If he did return, he says, it would be because “I absolutely love that this university makes you so uncomfortable. It’s really hard to be a student athlete of the University of Michigan. And, you know, I love that, because I’m growing so much. And to grow more over another year would be amazing. 

“This is one of the most special teams I’ve ever been on. Because we play for each other, we don’t play with each other. But we have a lot of young talent. A lot of young talent. Everyone’s saying, ‘Oh, it’s Houston or bust this year, yada yada, this is our last year to win a national championship.’ No. There’s still a lot of talent coming back. And it would be an honor to be able to play on that team — just as it would be to hear my name in that draft next year. 

“So it’s very 50/50 right now.”

We finish our conversation with me asking how he sees his college career. It’s a question I’ve asked many players over many seasons. But it’s the first time any of them answered this way:

“My career is like an apple tree. I’m gonna water and nurture the roots as much as possible. Whether that’s in my daily habits or in practices or in games. Because once you do that, then all the apples that fall from that tree aren’t about individual accolades, they’re just byproducts of what you do on a day-to-day basis.”

Do with that what you will. I’ll tell you this much. We have not seen a quarterback with the enthusiasm, energy, mental curiosity, or steady heartbeat this kid effuses every day. Not in a long time. Not to mention his top drawer talent that you can’t stop watching. 

Should he lead the Wolverines to wins over the next three weeks, and a shot at a national championship, he’ll have reached the brink of everything he visualizes each morning in his meditation sessions. At which point every maize and blue fan should say a small prayer of thanks that J.J. McCarthy couldn’t handle figure skates. Otherwise, we might all be glued to the Ice Capades. 

Full go or bust.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Follow him @mitchalbom.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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