John McCluskey. Photo by Martin Boling


Back in 1964, when he was a junior at Harvard University, John McCluskey was the first African American to start at quarterback for an Ivy League team. He also started his senior year, and it tickles him now to think that George W. Bush was a cheerleader on the sidelines and that John Kerry watched from the stands while McCluskey led Harvard to victories over Yale.

McCluskey, who retired from Indiana University as a professor of African American and African diaspora studies, grew up in Middletown, Ohio, where he played saxophone and football. His high school football coach taught Shakespeare and would sometimes quote the Bard at halftime. 

He says Middletown was a place where people greeted one another on the street, and the move to Harvard was a culture shock. “The streets of Boston were cold to me, at least for the first two years, and not just temperature-wise,” McCluskey says. The football team—along with a nurturing aunt in nearby Roxbury—sustained him. “Football was very kind to me.”

John McCluskey in his playing days at Harvard University. Photo courtesy of Harvard Athletics

McCluskey, 75, doesn’t mind talking about his historic football experiences, but he doesn’t dwell on them, either. “When I graduated, I turned a page and went on to another chapter of my life,” he says.

Several chapters, in fact. His teaching career began at Miles College, a historically black college outside Birmingham, Alabama, and he was active in the civil rights movement there. In 1972, he completed a master of fine arts degree in creative writing at Stanford University. Soon after, he met novelist Toni Morrison—then an editor at Random House—and asked her to read the manuscript of his first novel. She liked it, and Random House published Look What They Done to My Song in 1974.

In 1977, he was hired by IU, where he continued to write, publish, and teach creative writing. While at IU, he spearheaded the creation of master’s and doctoral programs in African American studies. He retired in 2008. 

McCluskey remains active. He runs, swims, hikes, participates in mini triathlons, does yoga, and recently discovered kettlebells. He enjoys gardening, photography, and traveling with his wife of 50 years, Audrey McCluskey, who is also retired from IU. 

And he’s still writing. “Right now my energy is in short fiction,” he says. He is also interviewing and profiling jazz legends such as Sonny Rollins and Ahmad Jamal. “I want to know about things they think about—religion, politics, family, and community—as well as their art.”