by Jason Gay
By his own admission, McPherson was never terribly comfortable playing the role
of Don McPherson, Star. Even in the midst of his spectacular 1987 senior year
at Syracuse, when he led his team to an undefeated 11-0-1 season and finished
second in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy, he was one weary 21-year-old.
Time of his life? No way.
"I hated it sometimes," McPherson recalls. "I hated being under the
microscope. I was always kind of a loner. I enjoyed being a fly on the wall,
going to restaurants or to the mall by myself and walking around. But suddenly,
I couldn't do that anymore. I couldn't be inconspicuous."
After college, McPherson headed to professional football, where he spent three
and a half years toiling as a backup for NFL teams in Philadelphia and Houston.
Anonymity, so prized and so absent at Syracuse, found him with a vengeance. In
the NFL, McPherson was a nowhere man.
Eager to play more often, McPherson headed north to the Canadian Football
League, where he quarterbacked for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and, later, the
Ottawa Rough Riders. The free-ranging, offense-happy league welcomed his
talents, and McPherson enjoyed the CFL, despite the league's quirks.
Nevertheless, by 1994 McPherson was ready to leave Ottawa and pro football
forever. Community service was a logical destination for his next career --
McPherson had worked with youth-service programs in the off-season -- and an
intriguing offer came up at Northeastern. McPherson was asked to join Sport in
Society, the pioneer program combining athletics and social science. Though he
had spent barely any time in the Boston area, McPherson arrived on the NU
campus in 1994 and never left.
The program McPherson runs sponsors on-campus workshops aimed at stopping
violence against women. Male student-athletes are encouraged to participate in
programs such as rape- and sexual-harassment -prevention projects. MVP has
visited schools not only in the Greater Boston area but nationwide, and now
offers a program teaching leadership skills to female student-athletes.
The organization's goals are ambitious. According to Sport in Society's annual
report, the chief aim of MVP is "to raise the awareness of high-school and
college student-athletes, and other campus leaders, on issues of gender
violence and to encourage them to become active bystanders in the face of
McPherson believes this mission is long overdue. In his travels, the MVP
director says, he has been alarmed by ways in which young males disrespect
their female peers. Though this disrespect may seem minor at first -- a joke
here, a crude remark there -- it can encourage broader, more violent action in
the future, he says. And talented athletes, idolized and used to getting what
they want, often think they're beyond reproach. "I tell kids, `Just because
everyone loves you doesn't mean that everyone wants to make love with
you,' " McPherson says.
But McPherson isn't ready to draw a clear connection between athletics and
violence toward women. Some theorists have posited that the culture of sports,
which traditionally rewards the most aggressive individuals, can serve as a
breeding ground for misogynistic, if not violent, behavior. But McPherson
believes that athletes are simply under greater media scrutiny -- witness the
page-one coverage of Cordero's travails -- and that domestic
violence is a society-wide crisis.
"Of course, if you look at sports, and only sports, you'll find a correlation
to violence," McPherson says. "But that's a narrow way of looking at it,
because once we start talking about violence and women, you're not talking
about athletes anymore -- you're really talking about male attitudes and
institutionalized behavior that exists worldwide. If you look at the military,
you'll find the same thing. Or what about a business like construction, or law
enforcement . . . or how about journalism? Some of the worst
locker-room talk I ever heard came from journalists."
In his work with young people and at MVP, McPherson has found his calling. No
longer is he judged by his touchdown-interception ratio or his time in the
40-yard dash. To some people on the Northeastern campus, McPherson is known as
just Don, the guy at Sport in Society. "That," McPherson says, "is a real kick.
I love that."
But McPherson isn't running from his past. He knows that athletics -- and
particularly, athletic celebrity -- is a sure way to gain the rapt attention of
young kids. To children, no PhD can stack up against McPherson's pro-football
"It's true," McPherson says. "If I went to a classroom with James Fox,
[Northeastern's] world-renowned criminologist, the kids are going to listen to
me, because I'm Don McPherson, the quarterback."
Jason Gay can be reached at email@example.com.