CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After 17 years in the NFL, quarterback Josh McCown announced his retirement in June and happily transitioned to the role of quarterbacks coach for Myers Park High School in Charlotte, where his sons Owen and Aiden play.
As he also worked as an NFL analyst for ESPN, McCown received enough interest from NFL teams over the summer that he left the door for a return open a crack, but the circumstances had to be just right: The team had to have a chance to win, be located on the East Coast and be good with him flying home twice a week in-season so he could continue to coach high school ball.
When Philadelphia Eagles backups Nate Sudfeld and Cody Kessler went down because of injuries in back-to-back preseason games, Myers Park football coach Scott Chadwick concluded, "Yeah, this is not going to end well for me," knowing an NFL opportunity could be waiting for McCown.
"He came in on a Saturday morning after one of our scrimmages and just told the kids, 'Hey, I've got this opportunity,'" Chadwick said, "and the kids were great. They applauded him." They gave McCown a standing ovation the next week, as he returned after throwing two touchdowns and posting a 122 quarterback rating in a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens.
He continues to juggle both gigs. With the Eagles' blessing, he flies back to Charlotte on Mondays, to be there as the quarterbacks coach for high school practice when the game plan is installed for the week, and then again on Fridays for games.
"That's dope," Eagles teammate Avonte Maddox said. "I ask him all the time, 'How do you do it?'"
McCown gave ESPN's Tim McManus inside access to follow the journey from Philadelphia to Charlotte for Myers Park's state playoff game against Ardrey Kell on Nov. 22.
Friday afternoon: It all begins
12:32 p.m.: Eagles practice ends. McCown hits the recovery tubs -- a must each week at age 40, he notes in typical self-deprecating fashion -- before getting dressed and making the 15-minute drive to the Philadelphia airport, where a private plane awaits. All of this travel to and from Charlotte is on McCown's dime. "We've got a really good booster club," Chadwick jokes, "but it ain't that good." Atlantic Aviation, the service McCown uses, offers light jets for about $13,000 to $14,000 per round trip from Philadelphia to Charlotte, though there are discounts for regular customers, a rep says. If you drop it down to $10,000 per flight, the 13 Friday night trips alone puts the bill at six figures.
1:30 p.m.: McCown's flight takes off. It's 52 degrees and raining in Philadelphia, but it'll be much nicer on the other side, with a forecast of 64 degrees and sunshine in Charlotte. It's Seahawks week for the Eagles. McCown uses the hour-and-a-half flight to watch a full game of the upcoming opponent, and mentally applies the week's game plan on top of it. If tape study ever gets overwhelming, he can mellow out by putting on some Myers Park film. "It's funny to sit for a couple hours and watch Seattle and Jadeveon Clowney wreck everybody's offense and make your heart beat fast, and then you turn on the high school film and you're like (in soothing voice), 'Oh yeah. This guy's not nearly as big as Clowney.' It's therapeutic."
From PHL to CLT
3 p.m.: McCown lands in Charlotte and makes the half-hour drive home to visit with his wife, Natalie, and daughter Aubrey, who gets back from school at 4. His oldest daughter, Bridget, who once gave her dad an unintentional ribbing by pointing out she's less than a year younger than Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, is away at the University of Tennessee. For McCown, it's just a short drive from his Charlotte home to Myers Park, the largest high school in North Carolina with about 3,500 students.
The sprawling, college-like campus backs up to the Myers Park Country Club and is a quick walk to a neighborhood filled with finely manicured, million-dollar homes set back on picturesque, tree-lined streets. There are also lower-income neighborhoods within the catchment, creating a melting-pot effect to which McCown was drawn. Chadwick provides further evidence of the two extremes by noting that he'll have one player talk to him about his family's spring break trip to Belize while another might ask if he can take home a protein bar because there's not enough to eat.
McCown welcomed back to the pack
5:24 p.m.: McCown walks into the school's expansive library, where the football team has been passing the time between dismissal and the game by lounging on rocking chairs, watching movies on the projector screen or, in one large boy's case, sleeping on a table with an open book over his face to block out the lights. They're stirring now as the pregame meeting begins. One Myers Park player said when McCown first joined the staff, "That's Josh McCown. I be using him in Madden.' It's just normal now. That's just Coach McCown."
Josh greets his sons, sophomore Owen and freshman Aiden, with hugs. Both boys are quarterbacks. Aiden is the junior varsity QB. Owen, who has the same blond, cropped hair as his old man, is the varsity backup and "would be the starter on 90% of the teams in North Carolina," according to Chadwick, but happens to be on the same team as one of the best QBs in the country, Drake Maye, a 6-foot-5, golden-armed Alabama commit who enters with 45 touchdowns to one interception on the season for the 11-0 Mustangs, who average 52 points per game and have been crushing souls all season.
"'How can I leverage my experience to maybe make somebody else's journey better or share something with them that can encourage them?' That's why high school football is important to me."Eagles QB and Myers Park High School QBs coach Josh McCown
McCown settles into the background as a defensive coach begins to stoke the embers by talking about the boastful chatter allegedly coming out of Ardrey Kell's neck of the woods. "They think they're going to come in here and beat you," he says. "And to be perfectly honest, that kind of pisses me off!" As the meeting wraps up, a number of players line up to welcome McCown back into the fold. "Hey big dog. How was your week?" McCown asks one student, and then another. "Any tests today?"
5:55 p.m.: McCown takes a seat in Chadwick's office, which is situated across the hall from a 3,000-square foot weight room where the players are getting ready. He scarfs down a Chick-fil-A sandwich and goes over the play sheet Chadwick has handed to him. McCown was here for installs Monday, and he and Chadwick speak once during the week as well ("I have a 35-minute drive home and he's up there by himself, so I'll just put him on speaker and chat it up," Chadwick says) so there's just a detail or two to go over, leaving time for some casual conversation. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson comes up. "I'll tell you what, he did some things on tape versus Seattle I haven't seen many people do over my time," he said. "He's going to be a good one."
Local television outlets are reporting live from Myers Park's stadium. McCown and Chadwick look up at the TV in Chadwick's office and see players warming up in the background. "Is this live?" McCown asks as he springs from his chair and scrambles out the door. "You should definitely write that: 'Josh McCown learns he is late for warm-ups by watching TV,' " Chadwick jokes.
Pregame warm-ups begin
6:31 p.m.: McCown, wearing a grey Myers Park hooded sweatshirt and black athletic pants, pulls several footballs out of a duffel bag and begins to work with the quarterbacks and wide receivers, firing off passes and playing the role of designated catcher so his QBs have to worry only about throwing. They're practicing 40-yard corner routes and McCown, now situated near the end zone, slaps his hands together as a ball falls to the turf. Standards are pretty high around here, with five players on offense alone committed to play for FBS programs. That includes receiver Muhsin Muhammad III, the son of the former Panthers wideout who played with McCown in Carolina in 2008 and 2009. Muhammad, who is headed to Texas A&M next year, enters with more than 1,000 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns.
"He teaches me new things every day and every time he shows up at practice," Muhammad said of McCown. "I feel like every moment I'm with Josh is kind of a meaningful moment. I know that sounds over the top but I just stop and think, 'Man, this guy is really doing his thing and I hope to be there one day.' Just taking it all in every time we link up." The wealth of athletic ability just oozes from this team. As the players begin to form a large huddle near midfield, Muhammad and tight end Logan Mauldin casually pull off backflips before sprinting toward the circle.
Leadership at kickoff
7:12 p.m.: Students fill the metal bleachers as well as the grassy mound that snuggles up alongside. The seniors get to pick a theme for every home game, and this week it's "Patriotic." The student section dresses accordingly -- a sea of and red, white and blue under the Friday night lights, making for one gigantic slice of hometown Americana. The public-address announcer urges them to make sure they take a trip to the tennis courts for some $12 barbecue before the big game. House music blasts over the speakers and clashes with the student band's drums and horns.
The team slips away following warm-ups and takes refuge on a hill behind a brick building a couple hundred yards from the field that blocks out the noise. McCown gathers the quarterbacks and, in a hushed tone, delivers a message that will soon prove timely. Players and coaches bow their heads and place an arm on each other's back as team chaplain John Patterson leads them in prayer. "Just seeing him come around the team, it's a great example of leadership and humility," Patterson says as the team makes its way back to the field. "He's doing the little stuff. He's picking up bags. He's doing that servant leadership work. We have a lot of big-talent guys, and for them to see Josh as kind of like a role model and see the way he moves and the way he works, I think that's awesome."
7:35 p.m.: Maye, the star quarterback (girls scream from the bleachers when his name is called out during introductions), loses a fumble on the opening possession -- a rare miscue. As he takes a seat on the bench, one coach comes over to correct him. McCown pulls up a seat next to Maye and offers an encouraging slap on the thigh pad before they review the play together on a tablet. Maye responds by orchestrating a long drive on the next series, which he caps with a 10-yard touchdown run to put Myers Park up 6-0.
Back on the sideline, McCown, Maye and the rest of the quarterbacks joke about how prescient their conversation on the hill had been. "They asked me how my week was. I said it was a good week. You have ups and downs, you have different people in and out of the lineup and you have to, as a quarterback and an Eagle -- Carson [Wentz] did a great job with it -- handling all the different variables. Bad things happen. Good and bad things happen and you've got to be ready for that. And so we were just laughing because a low snap, a turnover. That's life. Things happen. How do you respond? [Maye's] done a good job so far. Gotta keep it going."
McCown is an 'unbelievable coach'
8:01 p.m.: McCown steps onto the field and calls timeout to discuss a fourth-down play. He's often at the hip of Chadwick, will shout out the playcall to the guys on the field on occasion and, judging by how active he is on the sideline, has a greater role on the staff than his title of quarterbacks coach suggests. The Mustangs convert, setting up a 13-yard TD from Maye to Muhammad. "I want to do the smoke and go. Let [the corners] come up and then go by them," McCown says from one knee as the offense takes a seat on the bench. "What's the bubble signal?" He motions with his hands, and the players mirror him.
After a bumpy start, the machine is up and rolling, as Myers Park heads into halftime leading 27-7. Maye has rebounded and is on his way to a four-touchdown performance. "He's an unbelievable coach -- one of the best in the country," Maye said. "It's a blessing to be out here with him. I try to get everything I can out of him, ask him every question I can think of."
9:50 p.m.: The lead has ballooned to 48-7 late in the third quarter, and Owen McCown is warming up. Owen has gotten to play a lot this season with Myers Park building up so many big leads. Josh stands beside Owen as he warms up, and the two have a quick chat before he heads into the game. "It's different, but it's also cool. He's your coach, but he's also your dad," Owen said of having Josh as part of the team. "I like it a lot, it's awesome." Owen, a lefty with a smooth delivery, slings a 13-yard completion to start things off. The drive ends with a running back fumble. "Owen!" Josh calls out, and brings the tablet to him so they can go over a play. For the first time all night, Josh shows some frustration as an issue on an exchange between Owen and a running back during the next series results in a broken play. But that quickly fades.
"One of the reasons he does this is he knows there's a limited time where your kids are this age. There's a limited time they're in high school and there's a limited time you get to have these moments," Chadwick says. "You can't play and then go back and do it. When it's gone, it's gone."
End of Friday night
10:13 p.m.: The school band begins to play "Sweet Caroline" with 2 minutes, 25 seconds left on the clock. They've gotten so used to winning around here, the band knows exactly when to start the song so it peaks at the moment the game ends. McCown takes a moment with linebacker Roe Chitwood to offer some parting thoughts, then finds Owen and gives him a slap on the back. After Chadwick addresses the team on the field, McCown gathers the quarterbacks together a few yards away from the pack. "You three guys, you set the tone for the team, so let's get on with the mission," he says. "I love you guys, man. See you next week."
10:25 p.m.: McCown gathers at the edge of the field with Natalie, and the kids pose for a few photos. After saying his goodbyes, he and his wife walk up the now-empty bleachers hand-in-hand before disappearing past the grassy mound and out of sight. He's usually back at the Charlotte airport by this time on Friday nights and on the ground in Philadelphia by 11:30, but the game started later and lasted longer than usual, pushing his timeline back by about an hour. He'll be back in Philadelphia a bit after midnight and asleep not long after.
Saturday, back in Philadelphia
8 a.m.: McCown wakes up and readies to head over to the Eagles' practice facility. The first meeting is at 9:30. Myers Park football has become a big conversation point with some of his teammates, who hit him up when he walks into the facility, wanting to know how the game went. "We're all pulling for him. We know how much that means to him and his family, so we're happy he's able to do that and still be on our team and still provide a lot of value for us," Eagles quarterback Kyle Lauletta said. The coaching acumen McCown has picked up is "definitely" being felt in the quarterback room, according to Wentz.
"My human experience has been involved with the game of football, right, through high school, college and this pro career that has taken me all over, everywhere. I just look at that and go, 'How can I leverage my experience to maybe make somebody else's journey better or share something with them that can encourage them?' That's why high school football is important to me," McCown says.
"And for so many reasons it's helped me even throughout this season to kind of stand in both of these worlds as a coach and a player because you understand what's important in a game and what's important about 'team' and what makes teams good. It's the same thing no matter where you're at: You've got to convince a group of people to give of themselves to something greater."
12:01 p.m.: Meetings end. Since it's a home game in Week 12, McCown and the rest of the Eagles team get the afternoon off and are free to hang out and mentally ready themselves. "It's a long day, but it's good," McCown said. "It's really been probably smoother than I thought, to be honest with you. You think, OK, I'm going to do this and there's all these moving parts, but then you get a routine going and it's really made the weeks kind of fly by."
McCown's time flying back and forth to Charlotte to coach has ended. Myers Park was defeated by top-seeded Richmond 35-32 in the third round of the state playoffs Friday. But with each of his sons moving up the ranks at the school, there is plenty of Friday night football ahead for the McCown family.