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The story of Rootstown’s Brian McClure and his NFL career

The story of Rootstown’s Brian McClure and his NFL career


By Tom Nader

Publisher and Editor

Brian McClure’s NFL career was shorter than he would have wanted it to be.

Brian McClure drops back to pass during his lone NFL regular-season game against the New York Giants.

But he had an NFL career.

Few get the chance to say that.

In fact, he is the only one from Portage County who can say they played quarterback in the NFL.

McClure first put himself on the national radar as a senior at Rootstown High School.

The 1982 graduate lit up the airways during the Rovers’ magical 1981 season, throwing for 2,421 yards and leading the team to an undefeated 10-0 regular season that eventually ended with a 30-22 loss to Tontogany Otsego in the state semifinals.

With the rise of the Rovers and the weekly efforts of their 6-foot-6 senior right-handed quarterback, scouts from all over the country began to contact head coach Doug Mori.

Joe Paterno at Penn State.

Howard Schnellenberger at the University of Miami.

Jim Young at Purdue University.

Dick MacPherson at Syracuse University.

Earle Bruce at Ohio State University.

And more.

Playing for the Buckeyes’ was an exhilarating thought for any kid from Northeast Ohio and Bruce offered McClure a five-year, full-ride scholarship. The downside was that included a redshirt freshman year and McClure wanted the chance to compete for playing time as a first-year college player.

“Coach Bruce told Brian, ‘You don’t understand. We think that playing one year at Ohio State is much more valuable than playing four years at any other school’,” the late Doug Mori told me in a story back in 2011.

The Hurricanes flew McClure to Miami for a visit and placed another full-ride offer in front of him.

“I had never flown in a plane before,” said McClure, whose son Kade is a right-handed pitcher in the San Francisco Giants minor-league system. “When I left the Cleveland airport it was snowing outside. The flight went to Pittsburgh first, then to Miami and by the time I got off the plane in Miami it was 75 degrees outside and sunny. I stepped off the plane in my Rootstown letterman’s jacket, and I had to take it off, and I thought to myself, ‘I am definitely going here’.”

Coach Schnellenberger wanted that, too.

Jim Kelly was McClure’s host for the weekend, which eventually included McClure and his parents, Bob and Sue, sitting with the Hurricanes’ coach in his office.

“He told me that they were going to give a scholarship to one more quarterback. It was either going to be me or the kid from Boardman,” McClure remembers.

The “kid from Boardman” was Bernie Kosar.

“Whoever says they want it first, gets it,” McClure remembered Schnellenberger telling him. “I told him that I understood, but this was my first trip, and I had a couple of other places I wanted to go to.”

At Kosar’s next visit to Coral Gables, he accepted the scholarship, which eliminated the ’Canes from McClure’s options.

He had settled on a final list of schools that included Ohio State, Syracuse, Purdue, Penn State and, maybe to some the surprise of the group, Bowling Green.

Brian McClure during his senior year at Rootstown High School.

The surprise became reality when McClure visited Bowling Green.

“I fell in love with the place,” McClure said. “It was great. It was another small town like Rootstown.”

So much so that he canceled all of his upcoming college visits.

“I knew that leaving Rootstown was going to be a shock for me. I was just a kid from a small town that liked hanging out with friends and listening to AC/DC,” McClure said. “Honestly, I feel like I could have played and done well at any of the schools that were recruiting me. I felt like at the big schools though, it would be like fighting for your starting job every single year. Bowling Green kept recruiting quarterbacks behind me, but they came after my freshman and sophomore years, and I was already setting records. I had earned that I was the starter until I was gone.”

McClure finished his college career with the Falcons with 10,280 yards and 63 touchdowns. He posted a 32-9 record, his Falcons were ranked as high as No. 20 in the poll in 1985, completed 63 percent of his passes and had a quarterback rating of 130.0. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1991.

Playing in the NFL went from something he “really didn’t think about much” when he first arrived at Bowling Green to a real possibility.

He hired an agent, performed workouts and started to plan for a future as a professional football player.

He hoped that he could somehow get drafted by the Cleveland Browns, who had drafted Kosar in 1985 and had publicly stated they were not planning to draft another quarterback in 1986.

Then, they did, selecting Kansas’ Mike North with the 174th overall pick (7th round).

McClure’s agent thought his client would be chosen in the middle rounds of what was then a 12-round NFL Draft.

On the second day of the draft, April 30, 1986, McClure’s parents and his college roommates set up a draft-day party, but when the sixth and seventh rounds came and went — where McClure’s agent anticipated he may land — the group decided to call it a night.

McClure’s parents drove back home to Rootstown and McClure went to bed.

“At that point, right before I went to bed, my agent thought it would be better not to be drafted at all and become an undrafted free agent. He explained all the pros to that idea, and I was fine with it. I told him that I was going to get some sleep and that we would work on it the next morning.”

While McClure was sleeping, though, the phone rang.

“One of my buddies was listening to the draft, he said the Chargers were up with the pick, but that Buffalo had swapped picks with them and some of the people talking thought they might be looking at a quarterback.”

The next phone call McClure received was from Bills head coach Hank Bullough at 11:30 p.m.

McClure was a Buffalo Bill.

The skinny kid from Rootstown was the 313th overall pick in the 12th and final round of the 1986 draft. Just 20 spots from becoming an undrafted free agent in the 333-player draft class.

“Get ready to come to Buffalo,” Bullough told McClure.

“Me, my girlfriend, who is now my wife, my roommates and a couple of teammates all celebrated a little bit,” McClure said.

A couple days later, he was in Buffalo and in what appeared to be a good situation.

The Bills had three quarterbacks rostered, including Frank Reich, who they drafted in 1985, along with Bruce Mathison as the returning starter and Art Schlichter, who was later cut.

In Buffalo’s first preseason game at home against Cincinnati, McClure played in one quarter. The second preseason game, in Cleveland, he had “really hoped to get in,” but did not play.

McClure’s third preseason game was in Houston, he played a half and played so well that he was named the Player of the Game.

Following that performance, the Bills signed Jim Kelly from the USFL.

From that point forward, McClure admits that he felt that he was in a situation where he would forever be fighting for third string.

“I knew they were going to keep Frank (Reich) and Jim was always going to be there, so it was going to be between me and the others for the third spot,” McClure said.

Brian McClure (13) standing in the background with Jim Kelly during a preseason practice.

In the fourth preseason game of 1986, the Bills played the Chicago Bears at Notre Dame Stadium. McClure played the second half and did well.

He was then given special instructions for the fourth quarter.

“They told me to get hurt so they could hide me on the injured reserve,” McClure said. “I got sacked, and it hurt my shoulder I guess.”

McClure stayed on the roster, injured, for his entire 1986 rookie season.

He returned for preseason camp in 1987 and made it to the final round of cuts, but then got released after playing in only a couple preseason games.

He soon got a call back from Buffalo, though, when the league’s players went on what would become a 24-day strike after Week 2.

“When the strike hit, Buffalo called me back,” McClure said.

Ultimately, it took three calls to lure McClure back to the team.

“At first, I didn’t want to go back. My dad was a big union guy,” McClure said. I said no the first two times they called me and then when they called the third time, I felt like if I ever wanted a chance to play in the league again, I should go. It was a time when people were making deals with teams, and I said that if I am going to do this, then I want to be on the roster for the rest of the season. And they said, ‘OK’.”

McClure played in the third strike game of the 1987 season.

The date was Oct. 18, 1987, and the Bills won the game 6-3 in overtime.

Brian McClure releases a throw during his NFL game against the New York Giants.

“I think they deemed it as one of the worst NFL games ever,” McClure said with a laugh.

In the week leading up to the game, McClure was brought up to speed, but was also soon given some news — both good and bad.

“We walked into the quarterbacks meeting that Monday leading up to the game and the quarterbacks coach told me that he had some good news and some bad news,” said McClure, who requested the good news first.

The good news?

McClure was going to start the game on Sunday.

The bad news?

“Lawrence Taylor just decided to cross the line.”

Arguably the most feared defensive player in NFL history was going to be coming for McClure on every down.

“Our coaches said to take our prepared gameplay and throw it out the window, because we had no idea where he was going to line up,” McClure said. “They scaled the offense way down because of all the replacement players. I had been in camp with the team before, so I knew what I was doing, but it turned into a very long and painful game.”

The pain actually lasted for more than two weeks.

Taylor finished the game with two credited sacks, but McClure was hit early, often and throughout the game by “LT.”

“He hit me so many times that day,” McClure said. “He hit me a lot legally, and he hit me a lot illegally. The guy’s just a beast of a player — arguably the best linebacker in NFL history. I couldn’t move without feeling some kind of soreness for at least two weeks.”

Buffalo quarterback Brian McClure, a 1982 Rootstown High School graduate, braces for impact as New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor flies in for a hit.

On the day, McClure completed 20-of-38 passes for 181 yards and threw three interceptions.

In a “did you know?” type of NFL trivia, McClure’s completions, attempts and yards thrown remain a league record for any quarterback that played in just one NFL game.

McClure was brought back to camp for the 1988 season, alongside a couple of other quarterbacks, but was cut. He landed in Green Bay for a short period of time, but found himself in a situation where he knew he had to make a difficult decision.

“When Green Bay didn’t work out, I was going to try to play in Canada for a little while, but my wife Lisa and I had just gotten married, and I thought to myself that I could go be a camp arm for years and make a little money or just get on with my life. I decided to get on with my life, and I got out of it.

“I am very proud of my time in the NFL,” McClure added. “I enjoyed my time in Buffalo. I love the Bills. The organization was relatively good to me. I love the city, I love my teammates. It was a good experience, and I am glad I got to do it.

“People ask me about it, but to me it does not resonate as something spectacular. Sometimes I think back on what the accomplishment meant and it was a special time in my life, but I have had other special times since then, too.”

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