By Dan Guttenplan
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Joe Clancy has played just about every role on a football field — high school phenom, Thanksgiving Day goat, record-setting senior, college backup, part-time relief quarterback and, again, record-setting senior.
After seeing the gridiron from just about every angle over the last 13 years, the former Newburyport High quarterback may take the field for the last time Saturday when Merrimack College takes on Southern Connecticut State in Northeast-10 Conference Championship Weekend.
Much like his high school career, Clancy will finish at Merrimack without a conference championship to his record, but he will have his name etched all over the school’s record book for passing statistics. In his two years as a starter and another as a part-time quarterback, Clancy has set school marks for career completions (779), attempts (1,222) and touchdowns (85). This fall, as a fifth-year senior, Clancy leads all Division 2 quarterbacks in the nation in touchdowns (44) and ranks second in passing yards (3,856).
“I grew up in Chelmsford,” said Merrimack football coach Dan Curran, who played eight years of professional football. “If you told me 10 years ago a kid from Newburyport would make it to the NFL, I would have laughed at you. Joe’s come a long way here. He’s forced the hands of NFL executives so that they have to take a look at him. He’s been that good.”
The family tradition
Clancy admits he was destined to play football. His father, Brian, was a Newburyport Clipper. His uncle, Kevin Sullivan, and cousin, also Kevin Sullivan, were quarterbacks at Newburyport. His brother, Conor, and cousin, Sean Sullivan, were running backs. Another cousin, Pat Foley, was a linebacker at Newburyport and is now coaching at Brooks School.
“The way I was brought up, I learned to enjoy and love football,” Clancy said. “Growing up, I wanted to be a part of the family. I did the things my older cousins did.”
Clancy started playing football in fifth grade for the Newburyport Youth B team. He was a quarterback from the beginning, which at the youth level, meant taking snaps, turning around and handing the ball to a running back.
“I guess you could say it came easy because it was easy,” Clancy said. “When I struggled is when I got to high school and started throwing the ball more. I had struggles as a sophomore when the game became more complex.”
Clancy showed enough promise as a sophomore that he took over as the varsity starting quarterback at the tail end of a losing season. If ever there was a game that might shatter the confidence of a young quarterback, it was Clancy’s Thanksgiving Day performance. In a 20-0 loss to Amesbury, he completed just one pass and was intercepted four times.
“Obviously it’s hard to struggle,” Clancy said. “You can feel somewhat helpless. It’s not something that shakes my confidence. The fact is that the Newburyport coaches gave me that responsibility at a young age. That gave me confidence to keep working on my game.”
Becoming a Clipper legend
Heading into Clancy’s junior season, Newburyport’s coaching staff designed a wide-open passing attack that played to the 6-foot-3 quarterback’s strengths. The team’s best skill position players were moved from the backfield to the perimeter. Over the next two seasons, Clancy broke Newburyport’s program records for career completions, attempts, yardage and touchdowns.
The one thing lacking from Clancy’s high school resume is a Cape Ann League title or playoff appearance. During his junior year, the Clippers were in the driver’s seat for a CAL Small title heading into the Thanksgiving game. However, in the final quarter of the final game before Thanksgiving against Lynnfield, Clancy exchanged shoves with a Lynnfield linebacker after a late hit, and both players were ejected. By MIAA rule, Clancy was ineligible to play on Thanksgiving, and Newburyport lost to Amesbury.
As a senior, Clancy’s Clippers again played Amesbury on Thanksgiving with a CAL Small title on the line. A stacked Amesbury squad held off the Clippers and went on to win a Super Bowl.
“He was a great kid to coach,” Newburyport coach Ed Gaudiano said. “I don’t look back. He was great to have on the team. Everything he did with us led up to the success he had in college. It’s not to say he didn’t have bumps in the road, but I don’t think he would have had the success he had in college if he was looking back.”
Clancy doesn’t spend much time wondering what could have been at Newburyport.
“There’s always going to be disappointment that I never got to win a championship and compete in the playoffs,” Clancy said. “I wouldn’t call it regret because I enjoyed my time at Newburyport and Merrimack. I have such great memories with teammates. Regret is not a word I throw around because I cherish those times.”
The waiting game
When Clancy arrived on the Merrimack campus in 2009, he discovered his place on the team was on the sideline. A 6-foot-3, 165-pound freshman, he needed to put on weight, he needed to learn the intricacies of college football, and he needed to wait for James Suozzo to graduate.
Clancy redshirted his first year at Merimack, sat behind Suozzo as a redshirt freshman, and served as a relief quarterback as a sophomore.
“I always say it was good for me because I got to see the game from a different point of view,” Clancy said. “Those two years behind James, I learned a lot about offense and how the game’s played in this conference. As a competitor, I always want to play, but who knows if I was ready? Who knows if game day experience would have helped?”
Clancy took over as the starting quarterback after Suozzo’s graduation in 2012, and left no question whether he was ready for the job. As a junior, he broke nearly every passing record in Merrimack history, completing 323 of 510 passes for 3,945 yards and 31 touchdown passes along with three rushing touchdowns to lead the Northeast-10 Conference in all passing categories. Clancy also led the nation in passing yards per game (394.5) and total yards per game (399.4). He was named Northeast-10 Conference Offensive Player of the Year and first team All-NE-10 after posting the best season in Merrimack program history for a quarterback.
“We all knew Joe had ability,” Curran said. “It’s amazing how he went from being a backup quarterback to the best quarterback in the history of Merrimack. I think he’s the best quarterback in the history of this league and possibly Division 2. I would argue that, right now, he’s the best quarterback in all of New England.”
Quarterbacks like Joe Clancy aren’t drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, they’re not rewarded with large signing bonuses, and they’re not thrust into starting lineups as saviors of NFL franchises.
There isn’t a long list of Division 2 quarterbacks who have had lengthy careers in the NFL. Clancy will start his uphill climb as soon as Saturday’s game is over, as he continues to train to add strength to his 195-pound frame in preparation for potential pre-draft workouts next spring.
Clancy is no lock to earn an invitation to the NFL Combine in the spring. Regardless, if he is going to play professionally, he will have to scratch and claw his way onto a roster as the low man on the totem pole. He’ll likely have to take his lumps on a practice squad, and eventually, if everything goes his way, he might catch the perfect break to show what he can do at the highest level.
“My goal is to continue playing professionally,” Clancy said. “That’s obviously something that’s not easy. I know that coming from a small school, it’s a bit of a long shot. It’s a goal I take very seriously, and it’s something I’ll put my best effort toward achieving.”
Curran admits that 10 years ago he would have dismissed the notion of a quarterback from Merrimack College earning a chance to play in the NFL. After getting to know Joe Clancy, he’s changed his mind.
Clancy’s college career
Att. Comp. Yds. TD INT
2013 363* 563* 3,856* 44* 9
Career 779* 1,222* 85* 31
* Denotes Merrimack College record
Clancy’s high school records
Career completions (240)
Career attempts (446)
Career passing yardage (3,512)
Career touchdowns (40)
Hits in a season (42)
Hits in two seasons (67)
RBI in a season (36)
Hitting streak (20 games)