This article appears in the October 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
If everything had unfolded the way he once thought, James McCluskey would right now be less than a year away from concluding basic training boot camp as a United States Marine Corps recruit and, quite possibly, ticketed for some faraway, unfriendly destination.
It's a life plan the Billerica senior linebacker is still plenty comfortable with ("I still like the idea of serving — I always have," he says), but chow lines and obstacle courses are on the backburner. At least for a while.
Instead, McCluskey is now less than a year away from Boston College football training camp as one of the Eagles' prized recruits in the Class of 2006. That's a long way from the Marines.
"Before football became such an important part of my life, I was pretty set on going into the Marines," says McCluskey, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound tackling machine who also plays multiple pass-catching and lead-blocking positions as a slot back in the Indians' offense. "My uncle is a lieutenant colonel in the Marines, so it's just kind of in the family. It's been passed on. It's in the blood."
Apparently the football gene is just as prevalent in the McCluskey clan. After being unable to play organized Pop Warner football as an eighth-grader because he exceeded the weight limits, McCluskey earned regular action on special teams for the Billerica varsity as a freshman before producing a breakout season as a sophomore.
Finally given an opportunity to be an every-down player in the third quarter of an early-season game against Lowell in 2003, McCluskey collected four second-half sacks, the last of which came with only three down linemen rushing on the game's final play as the Indians clung to a one-point lead and Lowell threatened in the shadow of the Billerica end zone.
"That's probably when I realized I could do something with football," says McCluskey, who will attend BC on a full athletic scholarship next year.
McCluskey finished his sophomore season with 92 tackles, 14 sacks, nine forced fumbles and eight pass deflections. As a junior, he followed up with 97 tackles, nine sacks, six forced fumbles and 13 pass deflections on defense while also catching five touchdown passes on offense.
The bottom line is: When Billerica needs to make a play, McCluskey always finds his way into the mix. Entering this season, 20 percent of his career tackles occurred behind the line of scrimmage.
"In 35 years of coaching, I've never had a guy who was such a difference-maker," says Billerica head coach Peter Flynn, 59. "He makes the difference in allowing us to be successful. For somebody so big to move with such agility, quickness and possess such great closing speed, well, his athleticism is second to none. He's a pure thoroughbred."
Thanks to that athleticism, McCluskey will play college football for a program he's idolized his entire life. A Boston College fan since early childhood, McCluskey has maintained a lifelong rooting interest in the Eagles.
But as one of three children in a single-parent family, he didn't have the luxury of being a regular at Alumni Stadium while growing up. In fact, he attended his first BC game just last fall on a recruiting visit.
"Being able to stay local and play somewhere people could come see me was a big part of my decision," says McCluskey, who will turn 18 on Feb. 10. "But I've always been a fan. And when I went there, I was blown away by the people and the atmosphere there."
While the Eagles certainly had the home-field advantage in recruiting McCluskey, there were plenty of other suitors. According to Flynn, after reviewing film from McCluskey's sophomore season, the Wisconsin staff said he was the best prospect they'd seen in the summer of 2004, regardless of class or position.
Even so, McCluskey says he sensed a stigma associated with East Coast football recruits, branding them as inferior to talent from traditional football hotbeds like Texas, Florida and many Midwestern states.
"It definitely makes you play with a chip on your shoulder," says McCluskey, who has two younger sisters, Alycia, 14, and Audrey, 3. "You want to let people know you can play on the same level and with the same intensity as anyone in the country."
And though he entered this year with a personal-best time of just 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash, McCluskey does seem to possess a different game-speed gear. His unique combination of quickness off the ball, stellar read-and-react skills and ball-carrier-flattening toughness makes it difficult to bet against him making the necessary adjustments for success at the next level.
For his part, Flynn believes McCluskey's character will have as much to do with his collegiate success as his skills.
"I've seen so many excellent student-athletes go through this school system, and James truly exhibits the great things about our youth in America," says Flynn. "He never swears. He's very polished. He's mature beyond his years. He's a complete gentleman — one of the most conscientious people I've ever met. He wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth, either. He comes from a single-parent family. Life hasn't been easy.
"But he's Jekyll and Hyde on the football field," Flynn adds. "He's so gifted on defense. His footwork and explosion are exceptional. His motor never stops. On film, he just jumps out at you. He's always around the ball and always at the point of attack."
Glory and redemption, mind you, are not what drive McCluskey on the gridiron. His answer to that question is the best evidence that he has a bright future in college football and beyond.
"Your motivation is about your friends — the group of guys you play with," says McCluskey, who fumed for much of this past offseason over last Thanksgiving Day's overtime loss to archrival Chelmsford, which denied the Indians (7-4) a postseason berth. "Being part of a team is what motivates you in this game. We haven't won a Super Bowl yet, so we've got a lot to motivate us as a team."
Perhaps best of all, McCluskey's attitude and enthusiasm have injected new life into the Billerica football program. After three consecutive years of having 65 to 72 players in their sophomore through senior years on the Indians' roster, Billerica entered this season with 100 total players from those three classes.
"I attribute that jump entirely to James McCluskey," says Flynn. "He's been a great ambassador."
From potential Marine recruit to Billerica football ambassador. Not a bad promotion.