Being larger than most is usually an asset when it comes to football. But for former Notre Dame and Green Bay Packers standout lineman Mike McCoy, being larger meant being told at an early age that he wasn’t able to play a sport in which he would eventually excel at the highest level. McCoy was not allowed to play football in elementary school for fear he may hurt someone. Once he reached Cathedral Prep High in Erie, Pa., McCoy finally found an ally in head coach Tony Zambrowski. Zambrowski and other coaches helped McCoy learn to turn his size into an asset, a weapon that with learned aggression would push him toward a college scholarship and eventually a job in the NFL. McCoy was a three-year letter-winner at Notre Dame who earned consensus All-America honors under former Irish coach Ara Parseghian.
McCoy was selected second overall in the 1970 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers and played 11 seasons with the Packers, Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants. McCoy’s pro football honors include being named Packers Rookie of the Year, Packers Dodge NFL Man of the Year, Notre Dame Pro Player of the Year, and induction into the Erie, Pa., Pro Hall of Fame, Cathedral Prep Hall of Fame and the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. McCoy also received the Harvey Foster Humanitarian Award from the Notre Dame Alumni Association. Another prestigious honor was the Bronco Nagurski Legends award, which recognized the top defensive players in last 40 years. McCoy now is the driving force behind the inspirational Mike McCoy Ministries program and lives in Jefferson, Ga., with his wife, Kia. The couple has four children, Molly, Maggie, Katie and Caleb, along with six grandchildren and another on the way.
Q: Being from Pennsylvania, wasn’t Penn State or Pitt a more likely college choice? What about Notre Dame caught your attention?
A: “I did not start playing football until my sophomore year in high school (at Cathedral Prep), because I had always been told that I was too big to play football. My mom used to always tell me, ‘Don’t sit on your friends’ bicycles because you will break them.’ Coach Tony Zambrowski was a driving force in my high-school football career. After a very successful junior year a lot of colleges began to look at me. Coach Zambrowski asked me where I was looking to go to college. I told him that I had no idea where I wanted to go. He asked me if I had ever considered going to Notre Dame (Zambrowski’s alma mater) and at that point I did not even know that Notre Dame existed. He took me on a trip to visit the campus, and I knew very quickly that Notre Dame fit me perfectly. I was the first person from my high school class to sign a letter of intent to play college football. I also visited Syracuse, Penn State and Indiana.”
Q: What was your best Notre Dame football memory?A: “The rivalries with USC and Michigan State were very fierce during my time at Notre Dame. We didn’t do so well against Purdue when I was there, so we won’t talk about that. (laughs) The game we played against USC my junior year, however, has to be the best game during my college career. (It was the last game of the 1968 regular season against defending national champion USC, and prior to the game the Los Angeles media had proclaimed McCoy as a “sure bet All-American for 1969.”) The media said I was a ‘dominating force on the line of scrimmage’ against USC that day, and the Notre Dame defense held Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson to a career-low 55 yards on 22 carries. At one point during the fourth quarter, Simpson looked up at me and said, ‘Oh no, not you again.’ I guess I left quite an impression on him.”
“My senior year we were invited to play the Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, which was the first time that Notre Dame had been invited to a bowl game in 45 years. That was pretty special. When we were recruited to play football at Notre Dame, we were told that Notre Dame never went to bowl games, so to receive that invitation was quite an achievement for us as a team.” (Texas beat Notre Dame 21-17 and won the national championship.)
Q: What was the weight training program like under Father Bernard Lange, Notre Dame’s legendary weight room guru?
A: “South Bend was a very small town, and other than school and football, there wasn’t much to be offered. Father Lange’s gym was right behind Keenan Hall, and on my own I started going over there to lift weights. This was not an activity that was encouraged by the football coaches. It was different era. Father Lange’s gym was such a unique environment and Fr. Lange was such a force that it drew us back to his gym. Our time was precious. Between football and school work we did not have a lot of free time, but I really enjoyed going over to the gym and spending time with the other guys who were there. More important than lifting weights was the time that I spent getting to know Father Lange as a person. He was such a remarkable person. I remember one time I went over to the gym, Father Lange was in his 80s and he was partially blind from being a diabetic. He asked me to help him down onto his bench. Then he said, ‘Can you hand me those dumbbells so that I can do some flys?’ I looked at him and said, ‘The 35 pound ones?’ And he replied, ‘No, the 85 pound ones.’ And then I did some flys with him. Even in his 80s he was still in amazing shape.”
Q: What was it like playing for Ara Parseghian?
A: “My time playing under Coach Ara Parseghian was a great experience. It has become more significant to me as I’ve gotten older and have had a chance to look back on it. When you are in school you are so busy with classes and practice, and at that point in your life, you really don’t have a lot of experience with different coaches and game strategies. After playing in the NFL and having a chance to experience other coaches, it is then that you truly realize what a remarkable experience you had. When I look at the schools that we played when I was at Notre Dame, and the things we accomplished as a team, what we had under Coach Parseghian was really unique. You definitely appreciate it more as time goes by.”
“My senior year in high school, when I signed my letter of intent to play football at Notre Dame, Coach Parseghian sent me a picture with a message saying, ‘Welcome to the Notre Dame family.’ That meant so much to me. We still have it framed in our house. Notre Dame really is a family that stays with you throughout your life.”
“Parseghian also did a great job of surrounding himself with a great staff. He was an amazing coach, but his surrounding staff was made up of quality people, and that just enhanced what he could do on his own. This was probably the best group of coaches in college football at the time: Paul Shoults (defensive backs), John Ray (linebackers), Joe Yonto (defensive line), Tom Pagna (offensive backfield), Jerry Wamphler (offensive line), John Murphy (prep team), George Sefcik and Wally Moore (freshmen).”
Q: What do you remember about the NFL Draft?A: “Draft day back then was nothing like it is today. Monetarily, the NFL salaries back then were nothing like they are today, either. I did not go to New York City for the draft. It was not a big deal at all. In fact, I was not really even sure if I was going to get drafted, so I was busy making plans to head to law school. If it happened it happened, and if it didn’t I had other plans. The Chicago Bears had made a trade with the Green Bay Packers, and the Packers moved up to the second overall spot. The Pittsburgh Steelers had the first overall pick of the draft, and they selected Terry Bradshaw. Then I got the phone call from the Packers telling me that I was their pick.”
Q: What are the best and worst things about playing in the NFL?
A: “The NFL back in the 70′s was a totally different ball game than it is today. We all worked during the off-season because the NFL did not pay enough to be our sole form of income. I worked in several different fields – sales, banking and real estate – all the while trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. It was quite the balancing act. During the off season you worked in your alternate career for five or six months, working from 8-to-5, and then trained in the evening so that you would be ready to jump right back into the NFL. You didn’t even see your fellow teammates in the off season until training camp started back up. The team owners assumed that you would stay in shape during the off season and come to camp ready to play.”
Q: What did you do after football?
A: “I knew the end of my football career was coming when I got traded to the New York Giants for my 10th and 11th seasons. When I was no longer wanted by the NFL, we decided to move back to Pennsylvania to be near the grandparents.”
“Five years into retirement, my daughter – who was in seventh grade at the time – came home and began to tell about me all of the pressures and temptations she was being exposed to in school. At that moment I had a great epiphany about what I could do to help. I decided to join a friend of mine who was putting together an organization that was sending former NFL players around the country to speak at schools and serve as positive role models.”
“Notre Dame and NFL had given me this great platform to reach people and spread my message. I took a pay cut, and a huge leap of faith, and worked there and set out to make a difference. I was also on Bill Glass’ staff speaking in prisons, Public and Catholic schools. I now have Mike McCoy Ministries reaching students in Catholic Schools with the message of Hope, Faith and Encouragement. I have partnered with Notre Dame‘s with their “Play Like a Champion Today” Educational Series.”
(Over the last 20 years, McCoy has spoken around the world, from schools in Scotland to prisons in South Africa.)
“It brings me great satisfaction going into the schools and getting feedback from the kids; to hear exactly what they are going through and figure out how we can help them. A lot of students open up to me through our comment cards about a lot of serious subjects including depression, drug and alcohol abuse and other problems they are dealing with at home. This feedback allows me to help kids who are in tough situations get the guidance and trained help they need.”
“I believe every student in America is currently at risk regardless of their race, creed, or financial situation. Whether they attend a public school, private school, Christian school, or a Catholic school, they are all at risk due to the influences of our culture. The shift started in the late 1950′s and early 1960′s from faith, family and friends to what we have today – friends, friends, maybe family, and where faith is almost irrelevant. It’s my job to stand up against the influences that are undermining the future of so many.”
“We get some referrals through Notre Dame Alumni Clubs but the majority of our speaking engagements come through recommendations from schools we have previously visited and my Notre Dame contacts. The Ministry is basically me and my volunteer wife, Kia! I have a great board of directors who help guide the Ministry. Kia is presently battling a very rare cancer called Sarcoma.”
I’d like to give a big thank you to Mike McCoy for spending a little with us. If you’d like to help out the Mike McCoy Ministries visit his web site at www.mccoy77.com He would love to come to speak in your Catholic Schools. He only asks for expenses. You can also visit an NFLPA site www.sotl.com. Search Mike McCoy in the upper right search field and he will get a donation for every visit to his site. It costs you nothing!
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