Josh McCown (center) was an unmistakable presence on the sideline for Marvin Ridge High School in Waxhaw, N.C. Mavericks coach Scott Chadwick calls McCown “a great role model for the guys.” | Troy Cherry~For the Sun-Times
Updated: January 31, 2012 8:26AM
Hours before kickoff at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, in his first NFL start in nearly four years, Bears quarterback Josh McCown received a text message from a high-school senior just outside of Charlotte.
“Good luck,” the message from Cam Hunt said. “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done.”
Since he was signed Nov. 23, after starter Jay Cutler broke his right thumb, McCown has endeared himself to his Bears teammates with his professionalism as a backup quarterback. But in the months before that, he inspired players at Marvin Ridge High School in Waxhaw, N.C., as a volunteer assistant coach and helped the Mavericks overcome the loss of 18 starters and complete the finest season in the school’s brief history.
“He was great,” senior receiver Carter Harris said of coach McCown. “He showed his love for the game by developing us, not just as football players but as men. I honestly appreciate everything he taught me.”
A devout Christian, McCown weathered a turbulent couple years as a quarterback, struggling to stick on an NFL roster and starting in the United Football League last year. But McCown, 32, always longed to be a high school football coach, and he relished his opportunity to work with Mavericks coach Scott Chadwick and his players.
“Toward the end of the season, it was like, ‘Man, it would be tough if an NFL team called me now. I don’t know if I could just bail out on these guys,’ ” McCown recalled thinking earlier this week. “For me, playing on Christmas at Lambeau Field is special. But it’s just as special to watch the kids do something they didn’t think they could do.”
‘Hey, I’m here’
In August 2009, the Carolina Panthers shipped a seventh-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins to acquire McCown.
Upon arrival, the McCowns fell in love with Charlotte, where Josh spent the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Unsure of his football future in January 2010, McCown drove the two miles to the high school closest to his home.
McCown explained to Chadwick that he was interested in coaching and offered to help in any way.
“He came to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m here,’ ” said Chadwick, the school’s coach since 2008.
Usually, Chadwick handles the quarterbacks, a group that includes his son Tyler. But he asked McCown to work with that unit last season.
More impressive than his work with the team was how McCown immersed himself in the students and the school. He played pick-up basketball at the gym, attended the team’s Bible study after class on Wednesdays and participated in Friday morning meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Once, McCown arrived at the FCA meeting with dozens of donuts. Chadwick also noted that McCown purchased a quarterback training net he insisted the young players needed.
“He wasn’t just some guy who showed up and coached a little bit,” Chadwick said. “He was very valuable to what we did on the field. But, more importantly, he contributed more off the field with the kids. He’s just a great role model for the guys.”
To stay sharp, McCown practiced throwing to the team’s receivers. After practice, he switched to NFL footballs.
“Our balls weren’t good enough for him,” Chadwick jokingly said.
The awe of McCown coaching them wore off the players quickly.
“When he first walked in, I was shell-shocked,” said Hunt, who instantly recognized McCown from his time with the Panthers. “But as I got to know him, you wouldn’t have even known he was an NFL quarterback, the way he carried himself.”
In private conversations, McCown preached to the players the virtues of hard work, faith in God and trust in teammates.
The expectations of the 2011 team were low with the departure of 28 seniors, 18 of them starters. The school had fielded talented players, namely linebacker Vinnie Sunseri and receiver K.J. Brent, who earned scholarships to Alabama and South Carolina in the last two years.
But the 2011 Mavericks didn’t have a single player who would earn a Division I scholarship.
“Our team wasn’t supposed to do anything,” Hunt said. “We didn’t have many superstars. But every guy on the team just wanted to work hard.”
Hunt credited the team’s success to attitude, something McCown helped instill in them.
No player was more important than Tyler Chadwick, the starting quarterback, and no player worked more closely with McCown.
He helped Chadwick learn how to read defenses and refined his mechanics. Chadwick also realized the importance of leadership and setting an example.
“From my sophomore year to my junior year, I would get down in games and maybe lose focus,” said Chadwick, who earned a baseball scholarship to Coastal Carolina. “But he taught me that everyone is always looking at you.
“So no matter what’s going wrong, you have to stay focused and don’t get too high or get too low.”
The Mavericks upset several more talented teams en route to a 10-2 record and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Two weeks later, the Bears signed McCown.
Six weeks later, the Bears started McCown.
Everyone, including his high school players, were surprised by the result.
The Bears lost 35-21 to the Green Bay Packers, but McCown performed well, completing 19 of 28 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
‘Passes on the money’
“In practice, he would chuck it 70 yards deep,” Hunt said. “But I had no idea he would go out and throw passes on the money against the Green Bay Packers.
“He totally surprised me.”
In the fourth quarter, McCown gave his players ammunition to poke fun at him. After running in a two-point conversion, McCown dunked the football on the goal post.
“Our head coach likes to keep it classy and not rub it anyone’s faces,” Harris said.
Told his players are looking forward to razzing him about the dunk, McCown said, “It’s much deserved.
“I will wear it well.”
Despite some personal disappointment, McCown said he’s convinced that God wanted him with the Mavericks.
“For me and those kids, that timing was perfect,” he said. “That’s where I was supposed to be.
“I was thankful to watch them grow. They’re great kids, and they’re going to be great men and great dads, and you want to see that. Our country needs that.”