Catching the Writing Bug

Catching the Writing Bug

By Adam Klinker

Former All-American and NFL tight end Jim McFarland pursues a master’s degree in creative writing

On a dreary, cold day in the fall of 1967, Jim McFarland was a scout-team tight end for the vaunted University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football team, and he was at the end of his rope.

In the locker room after a particularly bone-jarring, mud-spattered practice session in which he took his lumps from the balance of the Husker Blackshirts getting tuned up for a weekend tilt with rival Missouri, McFarland sat dejected and alone. And as he sat, pondering his next move, a figure breezed by him and gave a wave. It was his coach, the legendary Bob Devaney.

“I said, ‘Hey, Coach,’” McFarland recalled. “A few moments pass, he walks back and has a seat next to me. ‘Jim McFarland,’ he says, ‘I’ve been watching you in practice. You keep it up. You’re going to play a lot of football for us next year.’ Here, I was going to quit! I never forgot that. I’ve thought about it almost every day since.”

McFarland stuck with football, and when spring camp started in 1968, he had worked his way up to the second team in then-assistant coach Tom Osborne’s receiver corps. By the fall, he was named a starter and caught touchdown passes in each of his first three games that season, speared a game-winner at Oklahoma State and went into his final campaign in 1969 as a preseason All-Big Eight selection. Nebraska wrapped the ’69 season at 9-2, and McFarland was named to the AP’s Second Team All-America squad. He was a seventh-round selection of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970 NFL Draft and played five seasons with the Cardinals and one with the Miami Dolphins.

The 69-year-old McFarland’s life is full of the stuff of great stories like this one. It’s a major reason why he’s come to Creighton University to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

“I love the classes and the opportunity to put my words into action, helping to tell stories that are, in some way, influenced by my life but also reaching deeper into fiction,” McFarland said. “Just writing stories for my own benefit is good for me. But being in a classroom and interacting with great students like we have at Creighton — you talk about lifelong learning, that’s it. I’ve found it very fulfilling, very satisfying. And the fact that we have such great professors who have been more than willing to work with me as a nontraditional student, I’ve felt very welcomed.”

McFarland is at Creighton, in part, as a beneficiary of the NFL Players Association’s Players Trust Foundation, which offers scholarships to former players looking to move into new careers after football.

After his own career ended in 1975, McFarland, influenced by his role as a witness in a landmark labor dispute case involving several NFL players, went to law school at Cornell University at his sports agent’s urging. He would later take up a leadership position with the NFLPA’s Former Players committee.

While McFarland has had other callings in his post-playing days, many of them involving the precise craft of the written language — including as an attorney, a Nebraska state legislator and a candidate for governor — he said he has always been attracted to the idea of fiction.

“I can write as a lawyer, but to write fiction you really have to unlearn what you got in law school,” he said. “And that’s OK. You can toss out the short, declarative sentence every now and then and do something else. I’m becoming more acclimated to writing narrative paragraphs.”

If a writer writes what he knows, McFarland said the majority of his Creighton MFA work has correspondingly focused on sports and politics. These are stories he has in spades, including the one through which he initially entered the world.

A native of North Platte, Nebraska, McFarland’s mother went into labor on a Friday night in October when his father happened to be at the local high school football game.

“For a football player to be born between a Friday night and a Saturday, it was foreordained,” he said. “There’s certainly a story to be told there.”