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2nd calling: After football career ends, former SU star McPherson becomes social activist
Daryl Johnston remembers being in the huddle at the Carrier Dome on Oct. 17, 1987. Syracuse was about to beat Penn State — a defining moment in the Orangemen’s football history. Johnston looked into the eyes of quarterback Don McPherson and saw a true leader — someone who was mature beyond his age and someone he believed to be the best player in college football.
Johnston saw that same man he saw 25 years ago at a luncheon in Dallas in September for an organization that combats family violence. Since his retirement from pro football in 1994, McPherson has been a “social justice entrepreneur,” advocating against domestic violence and aiding students to make better life choices.
McPherson was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy following SU’s undefeated 1987 season, in which SU went 11-0-1 after tying Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. He has since garnered attention by labeling himself a “feminist,” what he defines as someone who cares about and respects women’s rights.
“To me it’s very simple,” McPherson said. “And I don’t complicate it, because people try to complicate things because they don’t want people to really embrace it or see what it really is. If you put ‘-ist’ at the end of any word, it just means that you care about the preceding word.”
McPherson professes his message as positive, proactive and practical. He talks to men about masculinity, how they define what it means to be a man and how they often do that at the expense of women.
He says that especially with Syracuse’s communications and citizenship programs, SU students are in a good place to change disrespect toward women in the media and public policy.
“I think sometimes people have the wrong goals,” McPherson said. “They have the goal that they’re going to eliminate violence or they’re going to stop drug use. … But what you can do is have the goal to increase awareness, increasing involvement from people.”
McPherson has preached these ideals at hundreds of universities and on television, including twice on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Johnston, who co-owns a synthetic field turf company with McPherson, heard McPherson’s message firsthand at the event in Dallas.
“When the event was over, people continued to talk about it,” Johnston said. “‘We’ve got to have him back down. We need to get him in front of an audience of young men and fathers.’ It’s a very enlightening, moving speech that he presents.”
McPherson testified twice in front of Congress in addition to working with the U.S. Departments of Education and Defense on sexual violence in education and the military.
“Don has been a tremendous advocate to engage men to work on violence against women,” said Rita Smith, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in an email. “His effort to work with athletes and coaches, speaking at events and talking to the media, represents a powerful message that men have an important role in ending violence against women.”
Smith recalls when McPherson came to an NCADV event in Washington, D.C., in 2003. During his visit, he spoke with key Congress members to ask them to pass the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
“He has been a great partner to NCADV over the years, and his voice is still one of the few male voices calling for change,” Smith said. “We need many, many more men like him to stand up and speak out.”
Along with public speaking, McPherson is a college football analyst for Sportsnet New York. He sees being on television as a way to stay involved in football and to stay relevant.
“It’s more than just going out and giving talks or going out and doing workshops,” McPherson said. “It’s finding new ways, more efficient ways, to help people to be able to deal with issues in their lives. … But also to use the platform and the power of sports to communicate to young people about what’s really going on, not just in the world of sports, but in the larger society.”
McPherson mentioned John Mackey, Dave Bing and Jim Brown as players who came through Syracuse and became social leaders. And McPherson’s work places him in that group too.
“I think the thing about Syracuse is that it’s always been a place that was welcoming of people of color and women,” he said. “I’ve been very proud, especially in the last few years as I’ve become more closely connected to the school, about how the university continues to remain in that spirit of understanding Scholarship in Action and understanding that we’re connected.”
McPherson said his post-football life has been especially rewarding.
Said McPherson: “Even more so, and this may be a surprise … or say equally as being a part of that special team in 1987.”
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