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 took the field for the last time yesterday when Merrimack College took on Southern Connecticut State.
Much like his high school career, Clancy finished 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.
Prior to yesterday, in his two years as a starter and another as a part-time quarterback, Clancy set school marks for career completions (779), attempts (1,222) and touchdowns (85). This fall, as a fifth-year senior, Clancy began the weekend leading all Division 2 quarterbacks in the nation in touchdowns (44) and ranked 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. 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.”
Clancy showed enough promise as a sophomore at Newburyport that he took over as the varsity starting quarterback at the tail end of a losing season.
Making 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.
“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.”
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.”
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. 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 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.
“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.”
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.