Making his way from home in the New Jersey suburbs toward Philadelphia for a midweek workout, Kyle McCord had to take a number of unexpected detours.
That’s not unusual by any means. Construction and traffic are common as the Ohio State quarterback commit makes his way westbound into the city where he plays high school football at legendary St. Joe’s Prep High School. Still, these days are different for McCord, just as they are for everyone.
These street closures, caused by protests and riots in the area following the horrific death of George Floyd in Minnesota nearly two weeks ago forced McCord to assess things a little closer. But it’s also something he’s been working to do throughout his life as a young, athlete playing a game with friends and teammates who come from all different walks of life.
For schools like St. Joe’s, that divide isn’t necessarily, or obviously, racial. The school is extremely diverse and has players from all backgrounds, including the sons of former NFL stars like Marvin Harrison and Jeremiah Trotter. Still, McCord has seen the challenges faced by teammates of color on the field and off, rich, poor and in-between.
“You know, it’s just, it’s messed up,” McCord told Lettermen Row. “There are some racial slurs that I’ve heard being used toward some of my teammates and it’s definitely messed up. It’s something that for me personally I’ll never have to go through. I feel for them, the guys just they’re out there playing football, but yet they’re being called terrible, terrible words.
“I can see the anger because I grew up with these kids and I spend each and every day with them. They’re my brothers. I can see why they’re so angry, why they’re so frustrated. I’ve been trying to pay attention to everything, I think it would be arrogant on my part to kind of tune everything out and stay silent. I’m trying to inform myself as much as possible.”
‘Just born with it’
Molding Kyle McCord as a quarterback really began before he became a teenager.
“It started in the sixth grade,” Derek McCord, a former quarterback at Rutgers, told Lettermen Row. “He played with mostly eighth-graders and he was the best quarterback in the league. That’s when we knew he could be something special. We started going over our coverages in the sixth grade, but you would be amazed at some of the footage from him in second and third grade, throwing the ball and completing it some 20 and 30 yards downfield.
“But it kind of all clicked for him that sixth-grade year.”
For the present-day quarterback in the McCord family, the love of the position came even earlier. Like most young athletes, that was fueled by his father.
“I was five years old when I knew I wanted to play quarterback,” Kyle McCord said. “I guess I was just born with it. I was taking after my dad and then it was just the feeling of touching the football every play. Always knowing the game was in my hands.”
Having a quarterback dad meant having a dad teaching him how to play quarterback. Unlike a lot of today’s Quarterback Dads, though, that didn’t lead to being coddled on or off the field for the future Ohio State gunslinger.
“He’s been hard on me since I was 5 years old, but that prepared me for the next level,” McCord said. “I appreciate it now when a coach is hard on me, because I can see that he is trying to get the best out of me. My dad taught me to listen to the message of the coach, not the tone.”
That style of coaching was intentional.
“I’d coach him harder because I was his biggest critic,” Derek McCord said. “He never pushed back too much because I think he understood the value and he trusted what I was saying was right for the most part.
“I always tell people: ‘You see the parents that don’t say anything during a game or practice but then have that difficult ride home where they rip into their kid,’ I was the opposite. I’d lay into him during the practice or games, and we would always talk it out on the ride home because I knew that is how it would be for him at the high school and college level. I wanted him to get used to being yelled at for [messing] up, but then being able to compartmentalize it, move forward and make the next play — which he always did. He’s had ice in his veins since he was in the fourth grade. He never gets too high or too low. Pressure doesn’t seem to affect him.”
Kyle McCord gets Super Bowl instruction
As a sophomore at St. Joe’s Prep, McCord stepped in to help lead St. Joe’s Prep to a state championship. He turned heads around the country and became a national recruit during that season, and he committed to Ohio State just five months after. Thanks to Ryan Day’s reputation as a developer of quarterbacks, the Buckeyes were able to pick and choose their 2021 quarterback from a number of big-time options — but none had the combination of traits of McCord, even if he’s not the same style of passer as Justin Fields or other recent quarterbacks in the program.
“I’m just a complete quarterback, I think,” McCord said. “I can do anything and everything on the field that the coaching staff needs me to do. When Ohio State was recruiting me, it was right after the 2018 season and I was watching highlights of Dwayne Haskins and I really saw myself in the offense. I saw him thrive, and I imagine my own success behind that offensive line under Coach Day.
“Ohio State fits really well with my skill set.”
McCord no longer calls his father his personal quarterback coach. A year ago, he began training with former Super Bowl winner Phil Simms, who runs Simms Complete QB. The Hall of Fame quarterback had reached out to Derek following Kyle’s sophomore, state-title winning season.
“My dad said once that he’s invested, everything that he knew into me,” Kyle McCord said. “He felt that the best thing for me was to start working with Phil and gain from his advice, his knowledge. And after Phil reached out we just took it from there.
“I think our first workout was March of 2019, and it’s just been consistent work since then and it’s been great. I’ve seen my game really skyrocket since I’ve been working with them.”
Matt Simms, Phil’s son who is a key part of the Simms Complete QB program, has no doubt that McCord has earned the right to work with their group.
“We were more than willing to help him out, because Kyle was willing to put the work in,” Simms, who has spent six seasons on an NFL roster and is continuing to work toward returning to the league, told Lettermen Row. “That’s something we focus on. I don’t care if they’re all state or trying to be the best backup on the varsity or even the JV team. We want hard work, dedication, passion and respect for the game. Kyle has that.
“The measurables he has are obvious. He’s long-armed and a good athlete — and he spins the ball really well, too.”
There’s praise for McCord of course. But there’s been room to improve, too.
“We’ve been really focusing, especially the last few months, on how to become that player that seems to be taking over what the NFL is and what college is,” Simms said. “How do you make plays outside of the design of the play? That’s something we’ve really focused on with Kyle recently. How are you putting your feet in the proper position when you’re out of the pocket? Those things are easily discussed, but we can coach that.
“It’s about being reactionary and adjusting on the fly.”
McCord has learned about reacting on the fly in the last seven months. The 5-star quarterback prospect suffered a minor knee injury that forced him to miss the final four games of junior year, including a second straight state title game. Then the coronavirus pandemic removed an important spring of development, and now the racial tensions across America have put him in a position to speak up more than ever.
The only player to ever be named the prestigious Catholic League MVP twice had to learn a new way to lead.
Kyle McCord finds new motivation
It can be difficult to adjust to a new role for quarterbacks accustomed to being The Man.
Kyle McCord found that out the hard way, sitting and watching his teammates win a state title game he probably could have been cleared to play in.
“Missing those last few games last year was extremely tough,” he said. “Being a competitor, obviously, I wanted to be out there. I was probably healthy enough to be out there, but I just didn’t get the green light from the doctor.
“That lit a fire under me. It really made me want to go harder, so I tried to use that time to almost be a coach, to improve my game in a way that I have never had the ability to do before because I’ve never been hurt. That was my first time where I had to sit down and take a back seat, but I tried to get better with the mental side of the game, with my leadership and to make damn sure my teammates knew I was there for them every step of the way.”
Marvin Harrison felt that first hand.
A teammate of McCord at St. Joe’s and also an Ohio State commit, Harrison has seen growth from his quarterback after those missed games and missed months, on and off the field.
“Being out and being sidelined he really had to adjust his leadership — which he did,” Harrison told Lettermen Row. “Being a leader is a lot harder when you’re not out there with the guys the way you’re used to. It speaks volumes to not only the type of player and leader he is, but the type of person he is as well.
“He was already a great vocal leader. With everything going on right now, Kyle is standing up and speaking out is who he is, which he is saying is how he really feels. Kyle is a tremendous leader, and I think times like now just gives the people on the outside an opportunity to see how great of a person and leader he is.”
Ohio State quarterbacks raising expectations
The world is changing, so it’s changing for Kyle McCord, too.
He’s looking ahead to a time where he leaves the cozy confines of his private school prep life and enters the big stage of Ohio State. The future is riddled with questions about personal branding, personal platforms and how to best take advantage of the many things that being a Buckeyes quarterback can provide.
McCord wants to be perfect. That’s what is expected from Ohio State quarterbacks and what he expects from himself.
“It’s exciting to be a guy at Ohio State that requires you to be borderline perfect, you know?” McCord said. “The guys that have come before me, they set the ceiling extremely high and I’m just trying to carry on with that bar and maybe even push it a little higher for the next guy.
“In a weird way, I think the coronavirus stuff is helping me because I’m not sitting 17 hours a day. I think it gave me so much more time to focus on my game and improve. I think I’m getting better in every area, especially my mental preparation.”
Part of pushing that ceiling means using the platform that comes with being the Buckeyes quarterback for good. That’s not always easy. In a lot of cases, playing quarterback at a place like Ohio State has traditionally meant Sticking to Sports, and the state of the world today means athletes simply can’t do that.
Kyle McCord doesn’t want to anyway.
“I think that’s huge, kind of blending all the cultures together,” McCord told Lettermen Row. “I think is something that I think is very underrated in sports, and people will talk about how important it is to have that within a team.
“I’m going to school right now with a ton of African-American kids. When I get to Ohio State, there’s a ton of African-American kids, and to see something like this right now, I hope I can kind of sort of be a bridge between culltures. I am not black obviously but it’s important for me to speak out, especially in my position and with my platform. I think it’s crucial for me to speak out on things like this. Those guys in the locker room, of all colors, they matter to me, and I really value all their lives.”
Harrison has seen that it’s not lip-service either. What the world sees is what it gets from McCord.
“Kyle standing up and speaking out? That is who he is,” Harrison said. “What he is saying is how he really feels. Kyle is a tremendous leader, and I think times like now just shows the people on the outside how great of a person and leader he is.
“He respects the differences. The way he interacts and includes everyone, he’s the same Kyle no matter where the person comes from.”
McCord knows where he’s from, and the reminders are clear on those daily drives about how it continues to shape him. And he knows he’s not done learning, growing and developing — on or off the field.
“I think there is going to be positivity that comes out of all this,” McCord added. “I think that as much as people would say that times like this are dividing us, I know I’ve grown closer to all my black friends, especially in a time like this. There has to be some sense of accountability to each other.”
Kyle McCord can’t be perfect, of course. But if he can keep navigating himself and teammates around detours that lay ahead, Ohio State couldn’t ask for more.