By Arsi Sefaj '11
Two months into his freshman year at Yale, Tom McCarthy was
spending most of his time in bed, too tired to do much besides
sleep. After only eight days of practice, he had contracted
mononucleosis. Sidelined by the viral illness, McCarthy had lost 25
pounds during his first five weeks at Yale and certain coaches were
even asking him if he was going to quit football altogether.
“It was tough,” said McCarthy. “I dropped down to 200 pounds, I just laid around all day, and for those first two months, nobody really knew who I was.”
This wasn’t exactly an ideal way to begin his football career at Yale, but McCarthy was determined to get through it. After recovering from the illness, he was able to return to practice in the spring. He put in long hours in the weight room and at the end of four months, he had gained 45 pounds.
Miraculous though it may be, McCarthy’s freshman year comeback was just one of a chain of events that has brought him to where he is now. Admittedly, Tom McCarthy’s path to a starting spot on the Yale defensive line has been a rather unlikely one. Yet at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, McCarthy has become Yale’s best pass rusher and will be one of the anchors of a Bulldog squad that finished first in the nation in scoring defense the past two years.
Up until the middle of his high school career, Tom McCarthy had never played football. Growing up, McCarthy had been a baseball and soccer player.
“Baseball was my first love,” said McCarthy. “It was the sport I enjoyed the most during my childhood.”
This all changed during McCarthy’s sophomore year at Delbarton School. His older brother, Kevin McCarthy ’08, was going to be a senior on the football team and he tried to convince Tom to join the team. Though they had played sports throughout their lives, the two brothers had never been on the same team before, so McCarthy gave in to his brother’s requests.
“Growing up, I modeled myself after my older brother,” said McCarthy. “I did everything he did, so it was great having him as a teammate. I started playing football for him.”
Having decided to play mainly because of his brother’s insistence, Tom admits to not having really enjoyed football during that first year. At the time, he was only 5-foot-10, making him one of the smallest guys in a powerhouse high school program.
“I didn’t really enjoy football that much sophomore year because I was so small and always getting beat up by the first teamers. I only got about 10 snaps per game, playing on JV,” said McCarthy.
However, the summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school brought big changes for Tom McCarthy. He hit a growth spurt and grew about seven inches over the course of one year. The very sudden and dramatic growth left McCarthy very skinny and a bit awkward, a fact which induced him to start putting extra effort into his lifting. He quickly start to fill out.
“Everyone always thought I was going to be the runt of the family,” joked McCarthy.
During his junior season, McCarthy got some snaps in on the varsity level, then during his senior year he started to get recruited. Unfortunately, due to a groin injury, he was able to play only four games his senior season. As a result, Yale was the only Division I team that paid any attention to him.
“I did send a tape to Dartmouth,” joked McCarthy. “But I never heard back from them.”
Luckily for McCarthy, his brother was already a sophomore on the Yale football team by this point. During Tom’s visits up to Yale, he had caught the eye of defensive line coach Duane Brooks.
“I would see him when he came to visit his brother,” said Brooks. “He looked really interested, and to me he was a no brainer because he was a tall man, he was smart and he listened. Plus his brother was here, so I felt I should give him a chance.”
Though Tom wasn’t an impressive high school player, Brooks saw a lot of potential in the young McCarthy because he was very tall and very athletic.
“Tom has more athletic ability than anyone I’ve ever coached,” said Brooks. “He’s only 250, but he plays like he’s 300 pounds. When he first got here he was a bit weak. But he decided that he wanted to be great, and he put the work in. You know, we can all be good – the question is do we want to be great.”
After working through his illness during freshman year, McCarthy came back during his sophomore year and began to see some playing time on the varsity squad.
“It was enough to get my feet wet,” said McCarthy. “It was enough to give me a feel for that level of play, and it really helped me get better for the following year.”
It was the following year that was McCarthy’s breakout year. He arrived to training camp for his junior season with an unassuming attitude. After all, he wasn’t supposed to be the starter.
“I was the last guy in the rotation,” explained McCarthy. “I think becoming the starter was just a byproduct of going out there and not worrying too much. I had spent the last couple of summers in New Haven, working out with other guys from the team, and I just kept working really hard at workouts.”
As a result of this hard work, and his natural ability, by the end of training camp, McCarthy had won the starting job. During the 2008 season, he started all 10 games at defensive tackle, picking up four sacks for the season and an interception against Dartmouth.
“At the beginning of last season, everyone was asking me, ‘Why are you starting him?’,” said Brooks. “And I’d say, ‘Because he’s the best guy.’ Nobody believed he was the best guy.”
Now entering his senior season, McCarthy hopes to build on his success from last year and compete for an Ivy Championship. He has also decided to apply for a medical hardship waiver for his missed freshman season, so that he can come back and play one more year.
“When I got back this season, I realized how much I loved playing Yale football,” explained McCarthy. “I realized that it was really something that I wanted to be doing as long as possible, so I decided to take the redshirt option.”
Moreover, McCarthy has NFL aspirations. His size and athleticism make him a legitimate possibility to play on Sundays, and this past summer he attended a long snapping camp to add to his versatility. And with the support of Brooks, who has helped many previous Yale players get shots at the NFL, McCarthy hopes to get on film and get a chance for a tryout.
Sophomore defensive lineman Reed Spiller commented on McCarthy’s abilities: “He stays low off the ball, then uses his long arms to get separation. After that, he's athletic enough to get off blocks and make plays. He has that special combination of height and athleticism that's rare in the Ivy League.”
Aside from his high level of play, McCarthy’s teammates also appreciate his commitment to hard work, his unassuming attitude, and his ability to lead by example.
“Tom is one of the players on our team that is always there,” said senior wide receiver Reid Lathan. “He is out at practice snapping early, he is always in the weight room, and he is always around when we are just hanging out. It is a rare occasion to see Tom unhappy, but that doesn't mean he doesn't complain about being tired or pretend that he is lazy. Despite his efforts to pretend to sandbag he is one of our hardest workers and leaders.”
“It’s kind of surreal,” reflected McCarthy. “I started late, I wasn’t really recruited, I got so sick as a freshman that some coaches asked if I would quit. It’s really satisfying to be successful at this level after all of that.”
Brooks has molded many Bulldogs into All-Ivy defensive linemen (17 since he joined the staff in 1997). McCarthy’s work has him in position to be the next.
“I’d like to take the credit,” said Brooks, “But it’s all him. It’s worked out beyond his expectations, but not mine.”
In turn, McCarthy is appreciative of what Brooks has done for him.
“All other Ivy League coaches didn’t want to take a chance on me, but coach Brooks took a chance and I am very grateful to him,” said McCarthy. “Each day, I try to justify him in taking that chance.”