When Youngstown, Ohio native and Cardinal Mooney High School standout Kyle McCarthy concluded his collegiate career at Notre Dame in 2009, he was and remains the only safety in school history to lead the Fighting Irish in tackles in back-to-back seasons. Five of his eight career interceptions came in his final season with the Irish. He totaled 211 tackles in 2008-09.
While his tackle numbers at safety may have been a reflection of the Notre Dame defenses during a very trying time, it certainly was not a negative reflection on McCarthy, who was one of four captains on the ’09 squad.
Undrafted out of Notre Dame, McCarthy latched on with Denver where he spent two seasons as an integral part of the Broncos’ sub-packages and special teams before moving on to Kansas City and Oakland. Multiple knee injuries put an end to his football playing career after four seasons.
McCarthy returned to Notre Dame as a graduate assistant in February of 2014 to begin the next phase of his life. But when stomach and lower back pain cropped up that summer, McCarthy knew something wasn’t right. He was diagnosed with Stage 3 testicular cancer. It had spread to the lymph nodes in his abdomen and lungs.
McCarthy underwent chemotherapy shortly thereafter and throughout the 2014 football season. Through it all, he remained on the field coaching the Irish safeties until surgery late in the season forced him off the field.
Commended by head coach Brian Kelly for his coaching ability and football acumen in addition to his courageous fight against cancer, McCarthy made a difficult decision. He would leave Notre Dame to take a job as Director of Coaching with Athletes First -- the largest player/coach/broadcaster representation agency in football.
Headed up by CEO David Dunn and company president/Notre Dame graduate Brian Murphy, Athletes First gives McCarthy a taste of coaching. It helps replicate the thrill—well, almost -- that comes with a 3rd-and-7 tackle short of the first down.
Among the players, coaches and broadcasters represented by Athletes First are: Aaron Rodgers, Jamaal Charles, Von Miller, Clay Matthews, (Notre Dame’s) Kyle Rudolph, Chip Kelly, Jason Garrett, Steve Young, Trent Dilfer and Ray Lewis.
When Irish Illustrated contacted McCarthy, he said he would be happy to be interviewed, although it would have to wait a few hours. He was in the process of making his first skydive.
A few days later, McCarthy – who married his college sweetheart and fellow ’09 Notre Dame graduate, Kelsey Knox, on May 14 – talked with Irish Illustrated about his Notre Dame experience, both as a player and coach, and his harrowing battle with cancer.
Declared cancer free in November of 2014, which he announced to the Notre Dame players amidst considerable applause, he is healthy and thriving and looking forward to a long life.
“You have to go through proper protocol, so I have checkups every few months,” McCarthy said. “But I’ve got a clean bill of health.
“It’s been over a year now, which was a big milestone to hit. I’m feeling great and definitely back to my old self. It’s definitely behind me and a thing of the past.”
The newlywed of one month considers himself incredibly blessed.
“She’s been through a lot with me,” said McCarthy of wife Kelsey. “I was hired and fired in four years as much as most people are in a lifetime. She’s a trooper and an incredible person. I’m very lucky to have her.”
IRISH ILLUSTRATED: Your grandfather, Jack Mayo, attended Notre Dame in the ‘40s, and I’m sure Cardinal Mooney produces its fair share of Notre Dame students. Was that always the McCarthy plan, for you and your brother, Dan, to play football at Notre Dame?
KYLE MCCARTHY: I don’t know if it was always the McCarthy plan, but it was definitely the McCarthy dream. My older brother, Brian (a 2006 graduate), set the tempo by going to Notre Dame. Then Dan came to Notre Dame after me.
My grandfather was a captain back in the late ‘40s with the baseball team. He was always an enormous role model for us while we were growing up. We were always close to him and he was so proud of being from Notre Dame.
On the other side of the family, the McCarthy side, we were the stereotypical, northeast Ohio, blue-collar, Irish Catholic family. From birth, I was brainwashed a little bit to go play for the Irish, or at least try to. So it was definitely a dream for my brothers and myself growing up.
A little story about my grandpa (who joined the U. S. Marine Corps out of high school). He was on the Notre Dame baseball team and an incredible athlete. The football coaches approached him about playing football because of his speed. So he went out for football for two weeks. It was during the war, so they said anyone that had less than a B average was getting shipped off to war. So he packed it in with football and started studying really hard to stay in school. We were close to having another generation of Notre Dame football players in the McCarthy family.
II: If you hadn’t gone to Notre Dame, where would you have gone?
KM: That’s a tough question to answer. Ohio State was definitely a large option for me and close to home. I would not have ruled out Northwestern or even the Naval Academy to stay with my quarterback-playing days in high school. I was intrigued with the Naval Academy and the opportunity that it offered. That sounds crazy to most people. But it was something about the respect and honor those guys have. That really intrigued me.
You know, after the 3-9 season (in 2007), Coach (Charlie) Weis sat me and Tommy (Zbikowski) down and said he was putting together something for an option-type package. Then we got blasted by Michigan and I think those plans went out the window.
II: In the years before you came to Notre Dame, while you were at Notre Dame, and thereafter, that was somewhat of a golden age for safeties at Notre Dame. David Bruton, Zbikowski, Sergio Brown, who’s still playing in the NFL, you and then Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta were part of a really talented and productive group of safeties at Notre Dame.
KM: A lot of that was recruiting, but a lot of that goes to (former Irish secondary coach) Bill Lewis, in my opinion. He was the guy that recruited me to Notre Dame.
What a phenomenal guy, what a phenomenal person and football coach. He was someone we all loved playing for and respected. He taught us how to play the game the right way, and in my opinion, that trickled down through Harrison and those guys. Coach Lewis had built a culture at Notre Dame at defensive back. We were fundamentally sound. Also, Coach (Bobby) Elliott. We didn’t miss a stride when he came in.
II: Your defenses during your time at Notre Dame really struggled. What were those last few years at Notre Dame like with Weis, and Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta as defensive coordinators? That was a pretty volatile time, wasn’t it?
KM: In my last two years, 2008-09, both seasons started off promising. We won our first two games in ’08, including a win over Michigan in the rain at home. The next year, we lost a nail-biter against Michigan, but won four of our first five, which included a win over Michigan State.
There are always depth issues when you start getting into injuries. We were a young team. As far as the coaching staff goes, I thought Coach Tenuta was an absolutely fantastic football coach. We all knew he had our back and we all loved playing for him. To this day, Harrison and Coach Tenuta are extremely close. Harrison attributes a lot of his success to what Coach Tenuta taught him.
We were certainly a close bunch and loved playing together. For whatever the reasons, the stars didn’t align and the chemistry wasn’t quite there. When you’re at a place like Notre Dame and playing top-level competition, things happen. Obviously, it wasn’t the season we envisioned for our team in my last year. I don’t think it was a lack of effort and commitment. Maybe it wasn’t the right mix. The margin is so small in big-time college football.
II: You didn’t get drafted out of Notre Dame, but you made a run in the NFL, first with the Broncos and then the Chiefs. Did you feel like you were getting a foothold and had a chance to hang in there and really stretch your career out?
KM: Certainly I would have loved to be drafted. I thought I deserved to be drafted. But now that I’ve been around the business for a while, I understand things happen.
I ended up making it the hard way and made the squad. I even got into a starting nickel and dime role and played all the core special teams my first year in Denver.
Not making excuses, but I had a pretty significant knee injury. I rehabbed that and came back the next season in Denver and really thought I had made it. I expected to have a fun and competitive career. Unfortunately, I had another knee injury, and after three surgeries, I tried to give it another go…and then I had another knee surgery.
Who knows what would have happened. I wanted to have a long, fun and exciting career, and that may have been the case if not for all the knee injuries. (Note: McCarthy’s brother Dan, whom Kyle always said was the better player, had his Notre Dame career cut short due to injuries.)
I’m thankful for the opportunity and experience I had. I’m reminded of it every day by the way my knee feels when I wake up. It was time to hang ‘em up. The doctors have told me I’m a candidate right now for (knee replacement). My knee even swelled up when I was coaching.
II: What’s life in the NFL like? It’s got to be thrilling, but the world of professional football has to be incredibly brutal, too.
KM: It’s absolutely the greatest job on planet earth in my opinion. You’re doing what you love. If you love the game of football and get to play it as a profession, it’s a dream come true. The camaraderie in the locker room and the competitiveness in practice and games…There’s just no profession quite like it.
Football, in my opinion, is the greatest team sport there is. To have the opportunity to participate in something in which the whole world is watching you do your craft is something that’s pretty cool.
On the flip side, there aren’t many professions out there that have the pressure that goes with playing in the NFL. There certainly are times throughout the year when you’re walking into the facility and you’re looking over your shoulder to make sure the grim reaper – the guy who tells you to turn your playbook in – isn’t coming to get you.
You see grown men cry. You’re competing with dads that have kids they’re trying to provide for while you’re also trying to make a name for yourself. It’s a very interesting dynamic and an incredible opportunity. But there’s no question it’s pressure-packed, especially for bubble guys like me.
II: So when you finally knew your knee wouldn’t allow you to keep playing, did you know then that you would pursue something in coaching?
KM: I always anticipated getting into coaching. I knew how much I loved the game of football. The passion was still there. Maybe there was a chip on my shoulder for not having the career I hoped for. But the passion was there and I knew I wanted to get into coaching. I had kept in touch with all of my coaches in the past, which was a huge benefit for me. So I had guys that were advocates for me to land a job.
I went down to the coaching convention in Indianapolis after I had my last knee surgery with the Raiders, kind of limped around and expressed my desire to get into the coaching profession. I left there with a few coaching opportunities.
At the time, Notre Dame said they didn’t have anything open. No hard feelings. I understood it was a business. But I always loved Notre Dame and wanted to be a part of Notre Dame.
Coach Kelly called me when I was visiting another school. He asked me if I would be interested and I told him I was definitely interested. So I made the trip up to Notre Dame, talked to Coach (Brian) VanGorder, and I eventually came back.
II: Coach Kelly always talked about how well you adapted to your role and how well the players responded to you. Did that allow you to recapture some of the thrill of the game?
KM: Absolutely, without question. I’ve talked to a lot of former teammates who have thought about getting into the profession. It’s without question the closest thing to playing. You still get the adrenaline rush when you’re getting ready to take the field. The nerves are still going.
There’s nothing like making a stop on 3rd-and-8 with the other team driving. There are certain aspects of it that you can’t replicate in the real world, which is what makes it so special. But coaching is the closest thing to playing.
The other side of it is the ability to impact lives. I know the incredible relationships with the coaches I had in high school and college and the NFL.
Being a young guy, it’s sometimes tough to get the players’ respect and to get them to understand you’re not their buddy; you’re their coach. It takes a while to make that transition.
But the one thing the players respected with me was that I was always very upfront with them from the way they carried themselves to my position with them. I like to have as much fun as anyone, but when it’s time for business, I expect things out of you and I’ll always give you the respect you deserve.
The two biggest things I always preached were respect and trust. If we had those two things, we could be friends and the friend-coach thing could mix well. If you have that, they’ll play for you, and that’s the goal – to get the maximum ability out of the players.
II: Having gone through your illness, what is your perspective on that time in your life?
KM: The Notre Dame family and followers were aware of the health scare that I went through. I can’t thank Coach Kelly, Coach VanGorder and the entire staff enough. I was given a job and an immense amount of responsibility from GA work to recruiting some of the state of Ohio. For a first-time coach, I had an incredible amount of responsibility. They gave me time off when I needed it due to my illness. That put them in a tough position.
I think Coach Kelly thought I was crazy when I said I didn’t want to miss any time. I’d be there each and every moment I could and I held true to that until I had to go through a pretty major surgery late in the season and I missed a few weeks. But I can’t thank Coach Kelly enough for sticking with me and trusting in me that I could still get the job done.
From the coaches to the players to the entire Notre Dame community, they were so supportive and so encouraging. My hometown, my family and friends…It was very humbling to see people come out of the woodwork and offer their support. It was motivating to be around the players.
It was an eye-opening experience, an incredible experience, and I’m thankful for my health. I didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was, but it gave me a new perspective on things and hopefully made me a better person.
People told me I needed to rest, but I couldn’t wait to get to the facility after sitting in a chair for eight hours with an IV in me and feeling a little down. I couldn’t wait to get to practice and watch kids jump around and hit each other. I totally forgot about what I was going through, although some of the guys had fun with my new haircut. Aside from that, it was a normal life to me. It’s all I’ve ever known. People don’t realize how much Notre Dame football helped me through that time.
II: When Todd Lyght was hired as DB coach, did you want that job, did you apply for that job, were you upset that you didn’t get that job?
KM: I made a decision to accept another opportunity after a lot of tough thought. It was absolutely one of the toughest decisions of my life. I left Notre Dame about two weeks before that position opened up.
The one thing I told my now-wife, my family and my friends was that this decision wasn’t about money or fame; it was about what I wanted to do with my life long-term.
I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind about coming back as the defensive backs coach at Notre Dame. But that wasn’t my decision. I never had that conversation with Jack (Swarbrick) or Brian (Kelly) or Coach VanGorder. Had it been two weeks prior, maybe things would have been different. But it is what it is and I made a decision. It was a fine line of timing.
I know Todd. His resume and background speak for themselves. He’s going to do a great job. I’m close with Coach VanGorder and all the guys on the staff, and I’m just thankful to have had the opportunity to work with them at a place I will always love.
II: Describe Athletes First and your role.
KM: We are a sports agency and we deal with NFL players, 130 NFL players, college and NFL coaches, about 50 coaches, and broadcasters. We work with the Monday Night Countdown crew. It’s a great gig. It’s a good deal for me.
My title is Director of Coaching. I head our coaching practices. I’m very involved in our DB coaching. I worked with Jalen Ramsey this year. I get my coaching fix through helping guys prepare through combine training and the draft.
Once they sign with us – I don’t deal with the recruitment of players – I offer my knowledge of going through the process of the Senior Bowl and combine. In addition to the fieldwork, I help them with prepping for mock interviews with GMs.
II: Last question. Did you always want to skydive?
KM: It was a team-building exercise offered through our company. I said, ‘What the heck?’ I’ll probably never do it again paying my own way.
I got very anxious on the flight up. It was a ragged plane with an open door in the middle. I was like, ‘Uh, oh.’ But there was no turning back at that point.
It was great, but I’ll never do it again. I can check it off the bucket list. I’m good to go. I always thought maybe I would do something like that, but when you’re up there, you can’t help but think, ‘Man, this is not the way I anticipated leaving this world.’
When you’re in the free-fall part of it, you can’t really think and you’re still so far up that you don’t realize you’re falling that fast. It’s crazy. Everything is so far away. It just feels like a bunch of air in your face.
Once the chute opens up, that’s what I didn’t like one bit. You free-fall for a minute, but then you’re in the chute for about four or five minutes, and you’re just suspended in the air with these two straps and you’re like, ‘All right, I’ve done it, now get me down now!’
II: So you’re still seeking the same thrill as a 3rd-and-7 tackle in the open field?
KM: (laughing) That’s why I jump out of airplanes.