“You called me at the worst possible time, can we talk in an hour or so?” barrelled Clark Atlanta University graduate student Johnathon McCrary, who sounded nearly out of breath. He had a 5:30 p.m. class that he was en route on foot to with only minutes to spare when he answered the phone.
The Atlanta native and second-year Panther quarterback had already endured a busy day and was looking forward to winding down a bit after class.
McCrary’s daily schedule reads much more like an ultimate to-do list than it does that of a 23-year old’s daily agenda: football practice at 5 a.m., teaching classes at a local charter school from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., followed by classes at 5:30 p.m. McCrary is on track to graduate with a master’s degree in School Counseling.
A quarterback’s job is hard and McCray’s journey to this particular moment — days before his final collegiate football game against AUC rival Morehouse College — has been a grind and a blessing at the same time.
“I grew up a lot here at Clark (Atlanta),” McCrary said, an hour after complete class, once he got a chance to catch his breath. “I had to change my schedule, get a job, find a way to study and become a grown up. This (football) is icing on the cake.”
McCrary and the rest of the Clark Atlanta Panthers will take a short bus ride down Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard over to Westview Drive at B.T. Harvey Stadium to face rival Morehouse College. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m.
The proverbial “icing” on McCrary collegiate career could also likely be said about beating Morehouse College on Saturday afternoon. “Those guys across the way (at Morehouse), we have business to attend to (on Saturday),” he said. “We plan on going all out.”
Though there is a myriad of deep-seated rivalries among historically black college football programs — Hampton vs. Howard, Alabama A&M vs. Alabama State and Florida A&M vs. Bethune-Cookman — the rivalry between Clark Atlanta and Morehouse may perhaps take the cake as one of the fiercest and most storied HBCU football rivalries of them all.
The two schools have been playing football for generations and this factor alone coincides with McCrary and his family, who have been attending Clark Atlanta — going back to when it was Clark College — for decades.
McCrary’s father, the late Greg McCrary played his college football at Clark College before having a career in the National Football League and later in high school football coaching in and around Atlanta.
Playing college football was in McCray’s and older brother Greg’s blood, as was the importance of attending an HBCU.
McCrary can barely remember attending the annual Clark Atlanta vs. Morehouse game as a kid, but does remember hearing his father and other relatives — McCrary has aunts, uncles, cousins that all have attended Clark Atlanta.
McCrary’s cousin Valerie Jordan, who also graduated from Clark Atlanta, now works in the university’s office of telecommunications. Jordan also happens to be a Panther football fan. And, especially a fan of the Panther quarterback.
During McCrary’s first season back in Atlanta, Jordan admits she was one of McCrary’s loudest boosters in the stands. “I would be yelling, ‘Go, Johnathon, go number 12,'” she remembered. “People would ask me why I was always screaming for number 12 and I would tell them that’s my cousin.”
McCrary wore number 12 last season, but now he wears number 2.
Morehouse College was established in 1867 and Clark College officially opened its doors two years later. Clark College and Atlanta University made the decision to become one institution in 1988, creating Clark Atlanta University.
The football games between Clark and Morehouse go back over 100 years, the overall win-loss record varies depending on where you look for the information. Such is a rivalry of neighboring schools with alumni and current students who at least for one day in the fall live in divided houses.
Saturday’s game will have no championship implications. There will be no trophy handed out at the end of the game. However, there will be ends to the means. This game is bigger than wins and loses. Much bigger.
“We have to see what team runs the yard this year,” Jordan said with a bit of bravado. “It would be big to be able to beat them over there.”
Morehouse may not be having the best season but the annual affair with Clark Atlanta could change that, according to Yusuf Davis, Morehouse’s sports information director.
“For us, this is probably the biggest game of the year,” says Davis, a Temple University alum who has worked at Morehouse for past 15 years. “Sometimes we have losing seasons, but if we beat Clark Atlanta it can save our season.”
“The schools are like brothers that sometimes get along great but sometimes don’t get along at all,” he added. “This is a backyard brawl and it’s for bragging rights.”
Morehouse, 3-6 overall, has not won a game since its Sept. 30 bout against Kentucky State University and is currently on a four-game losing streak. A win over their longtime rival would do a lot to soften the blow of a losing season.
There hasn’t been a ton of winning on the other side of campus either. Clark, 4-5 overall, has lost four of their last five games with their only win being their homecoming against Albany State University, 44-36, on Oct. 21.
McCrary used the opportunity to throw for 357 yards and five touchdowns in the comeback win. The lessons he learned from his time as a four-star All-American recruit at Vanderbilt University coming out of Cedar Grove High School five years ago.
After playing in 17 games in two seasons in Nashville, 11 of which he started consecutively from the end of the 2014 season through the beginning of the 2015 season, his sophomore year, he was essentially cut.
After being asked to leave the program to preserve his eligibility, despite being throwing for over 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns (and 20 interceptions) and being on track to graduate with an undergraduate degree in sociology, McCrary has had to face an entirely new level of adversity that he said pales in comparison to a rivalry football game.
I had to grow up a lot in that situation,” admits McCrary. “Sometimes you have to step back and appreciate what you’re going through.”
Though he speaks well of current Vanderbilt head football coach Derek Mason, he has vivid memories of how hard that semester was. “I had to take 20 hours that last semester, studying all day and all night.”
The decision to continue his college football career at what could easily be considered a family legacy, Clark Atlanta University, was a no-brainer and one that McCrary said he does not regret.
“It has been a breath of fresh air and I can’t thank the people of Clark Atlanta enough, and there have been a lot of people that have helped me,” said McCrary. “My father always told me about the people at Clark and how they were always like family.”
“I think nobody could have handled that adversity better than Johnathon did,” said older brother Greg McCrary, who played college football at Savannah State University, Fort Valley State University and Benedict College. “He chose Vanderbilt, the worst team in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) coming out of high school as a U.S. Army All-American.
“Then, he chooses to transfer to Clark Atlanta, the worse team in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) after that,” Greg continued. “That says a whole lot about Johnathon’s character. Great quarterbacks are able to make teams better.”
McCrary has dreams of playing professional football, dreams that are similar to the life lived by his father Greg McCrary, who was a 1975 fifth round pick of the Atlanta Falcons. The elder McCrary passed away in 2013 but left a legacy for his sons to follow and lessons that his youngest son still goes to in times of reflection.
“A month before he passed my dad told me, ‘All you can be is what you can be,’ and not only is that true but it still sits with me,” said McCrary, who also shared a text exchange between him and his father on March 24, 2013, his father’s 61st birthday. “It was strange but I just thanked him and told him, ‘Happy birthday.’”
A month later his father was gone but his memory and teachings remain evidence by many things in particular by how McCrary has positioned himself heading into the final Clark Atlanta/Morehouse game of his career.
McCrary had a good junior season last year, coming on just before the season to start at quarterback and play well enough to get the expectations higher for the Panthers heading into the 2017 season than in recent memory.
McCrary has taken his game to the next level this season, as evidenced by his five-touchdown, zero-interception victory against Albany State and in the Chicago Football Classic against Grambling State University at Soldier Field a month earlier.
The Tigers came into the game with the bulk of the hype and their quarterback Devante Kincade, like McCrary a former SEC quarterback turned HBCU signal-caller, came in, at least on paper, as the better NFL prospect at quarterback.
At halftime, the Tigers, an FCS program, was leading 17-13, and McCrary was on the way to winning the quarterback duel. Clark Atlanta lost the game but McCrary won some professional football admirers with is 23-55, 371 yards, two touchdown performance.
In comparison, Kincade, who is being projected as a late-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft by a number of draft services finished the game 19-31 for 230 yards and three touchdowns.
McCrary, a player who was asked to leave Vanderbilt (currently 3-5 overall and 0-5 in conference) three years ago is now preparing to accept his second degree and get a good shot at performing in front of pro football scouts. What a difference a few years makes!
“I’m trying to let everybody in the country know that I was going to compete,” McCrary said.
“I have a burning desire for this school and this sport,” added the 6’5”, 220-pound McCrary. “These last few games are my time to eat. When I get into the right groove and God allows me to do what I am blessed to do anything is possible. I just had to be patient.”