The journey of J.J. McCarthy: From Nazareth to NFL Draft

McCarthy set to be one of top quarterbacks taken in Thursday’s NFL Draft

Nazareth Academy's J.J. McCarthy (2) throws a pass against Simeon in a 7A quarterfinal state playoff game in Chicago Nov. 10, 2018.

An almost quarter mile stretch of 31st Street in La Grange Park looks like many Midwest towns on a sunny Saturday afternoon in early April.

Two auto repair shops and a YMCA greet drivers and pedestrians at Kemman Avenue while a hardware store, restaurants and other small businesses line the street heading west. Homes take over before giving way to a few more businesses and a couple of gas stations at the end of the stretch approaching La Grange Road.

But near the beginning of April, 25 streetlight banners differentiated that stretch of 31st Street from other streets. The banners featured pictures of La Grange Park native and former Nazareth Academy quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Whether it was a photo of McCarthy in a youth football, Nazareth or University of Michigan uniform, each photo was accompanied by a simple phrase that has become McCarthy’s trademark.

“Just a kid from La Grange Park.”

The village is celebrating one of its own as he’s about to make more history. After helping Nazareth win a state championship and Michigan win a national college football title, McCarthy is set to be selected high in this week’s NFL Draft in Detroit.

His former coaches – and even those who coached against him – don’t doubt McCarthy can succeed in the NFL wherever he goes. To many, McCarthy is still that same kid from La Grange Park who’s carried the same mental strength, physical talent and drive every step of the way.

“He’s just a kid from La Grange Park, Illinois, that just wanted to play a kid’s game,” McCarthy’s childhood quarterback coach Greg Holcomb said. “It just so happened to work out that it’s positioned him into the highest position possible in professional football.”

‘I think he’s ready’

Nazareth coach Tim Racki didn’t show how extremely nervous he was walking around Valenta Stadium on Aug. 24, 2018.

A huge crowd had congregated on Nazareth’s campus to watch the defending IHSA Class 6A state runner-up Roadrunners play St. Louis powerhouse Lutheran North. Many packed the stands despite some on-and-off light drizzle to watch McCarthy make his first varsity start as a much-hyped sophomore.

Racki didn’t know what to expect as McCarthy prepared to take his first snap. McCarthy’s first pass attempt became a play Racki will remember for the rest of his life.

McCarthy rolled out to his right in Roadrunners territory and checked off one receiver before planting his foot and turning his shoulders. He fired a 35-yard dart downfield that landed right into Michael Love’s hands between two Lutheran North defenders.

There was pure silence on the Nazareth coaches’ headsets for a few seconds as the crowd erupted in celebration.

“Well, boys,” Racki finally said. “I think he’s ready.”

That moment had been almost three years in the making since Racki first met McCarthy as a seventh grader. McCarthy could barely palm a high school football when he worked out with some Nazareth players during the spring. But Racki could see that McCarthy even at a young age had the mental strength to take over his program one day.

Racki used “kid gloves” with McCarthy when he came to Nazareth. McCarthy could have started on varsity as a freshman after earning a scholarship offer from Iowa State as an eighth grader. Instead, he spent time among the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams where coaches grilled him and teammates embraced him.

When the Roadrunners met for summer camp before McCarthy’s sophomore season, upperclassmen such as Love said the kid was ready.

“When you know, you know,” Racki said. “He just proved it through his play. He didn’t try to overperform or try to be vocal because he was the quarterback and thought he had to. He was more discreet.”

Carl Reed Jr. had asked his Chicago friends for a scouting report on McCarthy before the then-Lutheran North coach brought his team to La Grange Park in 2018. Reed heard about McCarthy’s physical talents, but he didn’t know about McCarthy’s poise.

“He’s just a kid from La Grange Park, Illinois, that just wanted to play a kid’s game. It just so happened to work out that it’s positioned him into the highest position possible in professional football.”

—  Greg Holcomb, Next Level Quarterback Training founder

Lutheran North had two Division I edge rushers who constantly beat Nazareth’s offensive line. But it didn’t matter. McCarthy shrugged them off for most of the night, threw for 145 yards and led Nazareth to a 20-6 win.

“He just had that kind of ability, a calmness that all the great ones do,” Reed said. “He had total command of what they wanted to do offensively. And you can get most young guys to make mistakes and come off script. But he didn’t do that. He was able to run the plays exactly the way that they wanted him.”

McCarthy displayed that poise and calmness the rest of his sophomore season. Nazareth scored at least 31 points in 11 of its games that year and won by at least 14 points 12 times.

Even when he suffered a setback loss to East Suburban Catholic Conference rival Marist in the middle of the season, McCarthy kept pushing himself and his teammates. The Roadrunners won the Class 7A state championship and finished with a 13-1 record.

Racki could write a book about all the impressive throws McCarthy made in the pocket or off a scramble in both games and practices. McCarthy’s maturity and calmness is something Racki isn’t sure he’ll see again.

“It would be genuine, it would be sincere, be who he was,” Racki said. “He never tried to portray somebody he wasn’t, which is hard to do when you have that type of success projected on you by so many outside people. He handled it flawlessly.”

The wink

Batavia coach Dennis Piron and defensive coordinator Matt Holm sat on a bench at Valenta Stadium ahead of the Bulldogs’ Class 7A semifinal game in November 2018. Batavia was still getting dressed in the locker room, so Piron and Holm decided to take a moment before the defending 7A champions tried to return to the state title game for the third time in six years.

On the field, Piron and Holm found McCarthy warming up with his receivers. McCarthy progressed down the field and didn’t miss a throw as they watched. The only drop happened when a Nazareth receiver let the ball bounce off his chest.

All of a sudden, Piron and Holm realized that McCarthy was sprinting toward them with the ball in his hands. He did a 360-degree spin and threw a perfect pass that was caught in the back corner of the end zone.

When McCarthy landed, he put his hands on his knees, looked at Piron and Holm and did something more unexpected than the throw.

He winked at them.

“What’s weird about that is because if a coach saw something like that, generally, they’d get pissed off, like, they’re taunting me, right?” Holm said. “I remember just being impressed and thinking, ‘Wow, this kid knows what he can do.’”

McCarthy has known what he can do since he started throwing a football. He threw for 3,289 yards and completed 72% of his passes in 2018 and added another 2,820 yards, completing 63% of his passes as a junior.

But the statistics offer only a glimpse into his athleticism. Just ask St. Charles North coach Rob Pomazak.

The North Stars thought they had McCarthy trapped in the second quarter of the 2018 Class 7A state championship game. McCarthy took the snap out of the shotgun from Nazareth’s 21-yard line when the pocket quickly collapsed.

Defenders chased McCarthy back to the 2, so he turned and threw the ball in the air at the 4 and completed a pass to Jeremy Puckett at the 33.

“You certainly can’t draw that type of play up,” Pomazak said. “You certainly do like a rodeo drill and practice, you’re working scramble drills during seven-on-seven. But you don’t have an athlete like JJ McCarthy playing that position on the scout team.”

Brent Dolan notices McCarthy’s hockey skills when he watches McCarthy make those types of scramble throws. Dolan is the hockey director of Park Ridge-based Northern Express Hockey and coached McCarthy for two seasons.

McCarthy quickly had to develop his split-second decision-making once checking was allowed during his U13 season. In theory, he became an easier target since McCarthy was bigger than most kids on the ice. But that theory didn’t pan out.

“He just had an innate ability to create offense, whether for himself or for his teammates. He never took any big hits because he was elusive,” Dolan said. “So he was able to move away from getting drilled and it’s not like he was running away from it, he would just angle his body a certain way. So he wasn’t taking on a direct hit, which allowed him to maintain possession of the puck and, you know, create plays for the team and himself.”

McCarthy threw for 320 yards to beat Batavia in the semifinals as a sophomore. He added another 226 against the Bulldogs in the quarterfinals during his junior season. In both games, he knew which matchups in the secondary to exploit and how to avoid any pressure.

Batavia coaches and players texted one another at times when they watched McCarthy play at Michigan. Holm would call out key moments from those playoff games such as when Jackson Williams intercepted McCarthy twice in 2018.

Sometimes that’s all you can do against the best.

“You weren’t happy to lose games to him,” Holm said. “But if you lose, you may as well lose to the best. That’s what happened.”

Drive to succeed

For a moment, former Marist coach Ron Dawczak thought history was about to repeat itself as he stood on the sidelines of Marist’s Red and White Stadium on Oct. 11, 2019.

The RedHawks were up 14-0 in the first quarter against their former ESCC rival Nazareth. But it hardly felt like a rivalry anymore. Marist beat Nazareth 42-0 in 2017 and 34-13 in 2018.

“For a second there, it was like, ‘OK, is this going to be similar to the previous two years?’” Dawczak said.

McCarthy made sure it wasn’t.

Nazareth chiseled Marist’s lead to 14-13 at the half before McCarthy turned two turnovers into touchdowns. McCarthy threw two touchdowns and rushed for another near the goal line to give the Roadrunners a 39-29 win.

“He kept his head and didn’t panic and played a great game, getting rid of the ball against pressure and getting it to the open receivers,” Dawczak said. “What was harder to prepare for wasn’t the physical talent. He had the ability to learn the game so quickly.”

Nazareth’s J.J. McCarthy passes the ball against Cardinal Ritter in La Grange Park Aug. 31, 2019.

Those lessons started almost immediately after a game. Instead of going out with friends on Friday nights after games, Racki said McCarthy would grab one of his notebooks or write on a whiteboard in his room and start dissecting his performance.

On Saturday he’d begin looking at the next week’s opponent.

Come Sunday morning at 6 a.m., he’d sit in on the Nazareth coaches’ planning session for the upcoming week.

Holcomb started working with McCarthy as his quarterback trainer in seventh grade and noticed that drive even then. McCarthy self-diagnosed the good and the bad in a win or a loss.

For as much poise and physical talent as he had, McCarthy knew studying would elevate his game to an elite level.

“Those are moments that he probably remembers more than successful situations,” Holcomb said. “He has this kind of switch where I’m not going to put myself in that position again or I’m going to try not to so I’m going to be proactive.”

Both Holcomb and Racki remember how McCarthy reacted to his only other loss as a starter at Nazareth. As soon as he returned home from DeKalb late at night after losing to Mount Carmel in the 2019 Class 7A state championship game, McCarthy started working on his whiteboard.

As the story goes, he woke up about 6 a.m. the next morning and went on a five-mile run.

It was time to get back to work.

Always a Roadrunner

On a warm Thursday evening in June 2023, Nazareth faculty, alumni and fans convened on the La Grange Park campus to retire former football player Julian Love’s number. Love became the first Nazareth football player to have his number retired. He also was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame.

Love helped Nazareth win two state championships in 2014 and 2015 before becoming an All-American at Notre Dame. He started his career in the NFL for the New York Giants and now plays for the Seattle Seahawks.

There’s no question whose number will be retired next. McCarthy transferred to IMG Academy his senior year because there was no fall football in Illinois because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he is not a Nazareth graduate.

Still, there’s no doubt McCarthy soon will join Love in Roadrunners history.

“He’s always going be a Roadrunner,” Racki said. “He loves us, we love him, everybody. Absolutely, he will always be in the Nazareth family.”

After all, he’s just a kid from La Grange Park.