It is a chilly November evening; the sun has just dipped below the horizon and Mike McCarthy, quarterback for the Vineyarders football team, stands in back of the high school answering a reporter’s questions about this weekend’s Island Cup game.
Nearby a group of cheerleaders is spray-painting signs and posters with words of encouragement for the team. Some of the signs will be used to decorate the bedrooms of the starters and seniors on the football team; others may be brought over to Nantucket this weekend to cheer on the Vineyarders during the game.
As McCarthy answers questions, a steady stream of students pass by and shout greetings to the unassuming football star. One of his classmates encourages him to “harpoon the Whalers,” but other comments fall more into the category of good-natured ribbing.
“Hey Mikey . . . smile for the camera,” shouts one student.
“Don’t tell them anything,” suggests another.
One young man simply shouts: “Mike McCarthy, you are a superstar!”
But the tongue-in-cheek commentary from the peanut gallery doesn’t faze McCarthy, who simply smiles and nods his head in acknowledgement while continuing to answer questions without missing a beat. As a three-year starter at quarterback for the varsity team, he is accustomed to this level of scrutiny the week of the big game.
When McCarthy was only a sophomore he led his team to victory in the Island Cup game while playing in front of a frenzied Nantucket crowd. Earlier that season coach Donald Herman named McCarthy starting quarterback and the underclassman responded — going 5-1 and leading his team to a 47-22 win over the Whalers.
Clearly McCarthy is no stranger to pressure.
“I love it . . . this is my favorite week of the year,” he says — and he means it. Not because he likes being the focus of attention, but because he truly loves playing in this game. “There is so much hype. So much buildup. So much excitement. It gets you psyched to play Nantucket.”
He adds: “I can’t wait for the game to get here.”
The Nantucket team the Vineyarders face tomorrow is not one that strikes fear into the heart. The Whalers went 0-7 this season, and last week dressed only 13 varsity players for a game after losing many players to injury and academic ineligibility. But McCarthy knows it’s still the Island Cup game, and there will still be pressure on him to perform well on Nantucket.
“The [Nantucket] crowd was pretty bad two years ago; shouting things at us, trying to insult us. But I didn’t mind it . . . I like going against the crowd,” he said.
As if that’s not pressure enough, McCarthy then has to guide his team through the Division 3A playoffs in the weeks following the Island Cup game. For the first time in five years the Vineyard has qualified for the playoffs, and much of the team’s success can be traced to McCarthy’s strong play at quarterback.
Pressure is a relative term to McCarthy, as there were expectations for him to play well even before he stepped on the field. He hails from one of the better known football families on the Island — his father Mike McCarthy Sr., now a guidance counselor at the high school, played on the team and is also a former assistant coach.
Both his older brothers also played for the team; Ryan McCarthy was a conference all-star who excelled at linebacker and tight end, while Eric McCarthy played quarterback. McCarthy also has about seven cousins who have played for the team and took part in the rivalry.
Then there is his grandfather, the late Dan McCarthy, the first high school football coach for the Vineyard and also the school’s long-time athletic director. His grandfather was such a figure in athletics and football that the field was named after him. In theory that adds another layer of pressure on the young McCarthy.
But he takes it all in stride.
“I was too young to ever meet [my grandfather]. But to me it’s an honor to go out there and play on a field with his name on it. Sometimes when I play I think of everyone [in my family] who has played for the team. And I think I play better at home because of that,” he said.
Family ties run deep in the McCarthy clan. Big brother Eric comes back to the Vineyard for every home game to watch brother play quarterback, just as he did six years ago. And after every game — win or lose — he gets a call from his grandmother, the wife of the late Dan McCarthy.
“I think she’s my biggest fan. She can’t come to the games anymore, but she watches on TV. She calls me after every game . . . that means a lot to me,” he said.
Growing up a member of such an established football family, McCarthy said he often thought of playing for the Vineyarders while playing Pop Warner and junior high school football, but he admits he had doubts about whether he could live up to the family tradition
“I thought about playing for the varsity, but I wasn’t sure if it would happen. Growing up watching my brother Eric I only wanted to be like him. My goal was to get good enough so maybe I could play my senior year . . . I never thought I’d be as good as Eric . . . I never thought I would start [at quarterback] as a sophomore.”
Since his first year as starting quarterback, McCarthy has grown stronger as a player. He amassed 1,022 total yards this season with 31 touchdowns, 17 on the ground and 14 passing. He also led his team to a 9-1 record overall and a perfect 6-0 in the Mayflower League Large, and his team has won eight straight games heading into tomorrow’s inter-Island match.
McCarthy is clearly aware of his accomplishments with the Vineyarders. He explains he is one of only a handful of players ever to start three years at quarterback, and he is also aware this team could be the first to win the Island Cup six years in a row. But as his high school football career draws to a close, he looks forward and not back.
He wants to play football next year for a college team and has sent out his game film to schools like the University of Rhode Island, University of Connecticut and University of Massachusetts.
Some day, McCarthy may peer at his trophy case or flip through the newspaper clippings and reflect on all of the highlights: when he went 5-1 at quarterback as a sophomore, when his team was featured on a nationally televised game on NBC, and that time he led his team to a 48-6 win over the Whalers on the field named after his grandfather.
But right now he has his sights set on tomorrow’s game and a familiar rival that plays 15 miles across the ocean.
“That’s what I’m focused on. Beating Nantucket. After we beat them, I can think about what’s next. But right now it’s about winning the Cup,” he said.