ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Michigan star quarterback J.J. McCarthy sits on the field, cross-legged with his back against a padded goalpost, hands clasped in his lap and eyes closed. Two hours before kickoff, it is time to meditate.
This week in particular — amid a sign-stealing saga that has dogged the third-ranked Wolverines and a matchup with archrival and second-ranked Ohio State coming up on Saturday — McCarthy said his routine helps tremendously.
“Keeping things focused on the present moment and what I can control,” McCarthy explained. "Taking it day by day, and making sure that I keep up with the discipline of my meditation. It's a great centering piece for me. A lot of guys around the program do it, too, and it does a lot for them as well.”
McCarthy will lead the Wolverines (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) into the home game against the Buckeyes (11-0, 8-0) with the victors earning a spot in the conference championship game and all but locking up a bid to the College Football Playoff.
Since he was kid, McCarthy has always led the way.
He grew up 15 miles west of Chicago with parents who raised him to be respectful and emphatic along with his older and younger sisters. It kept him humble, setting him for a string of positive encounters with friends and strangers.
“When he was 4 and I went to pick him up from day care one day, he was on the playground saying, `Hey guys, if we do this together, we can do it,' and it was the coolest thing to see and hear as a parent," Megan McCarthy recalled. “J.J. has always been the kid that people gravitated to with his innate kindness. It's just part of who he is. There's no denying it.
“As he's gotten older, I'm so proud that he's understanding the power he has to normalize the importance of mental health.”
McCarthy was introduced to mindfulness at Nazareth Academy in his hometown of La Grange Park, Illinois, where he won a state title in three trips to the championship game. He spent his senior season in 2020 at IMG Academy in Florida, where he often was in his room without much interaction due to pandemic restrictions.
“I was going through my first depression,” McCarthy said. “I was obsessed with trying to find ways to improve my mental health and improve my overall well-being. Meditation was one of the biggest things that kept popping up. So, I was like, ’Let’s give this a try.'”
It is now part of his daily routine. McCarthy said he spends 20 to 30 minutes meditating each morning, He does it for 10 to 15 minutes on game days after the bus arrives at the stadium and before he warms up with teammates.
Once he settles in under the goal post, McCarthy does breath work, which includes holding his nose and closing his month. He also takes in deep breaths, expanding his lungs with air and exhaling through his nose.
Most people leave him alone, walking through the end zone in front of him or well behind the goal post. A Purdue assistant coach, though, interrupted McCarthy's practice before Michigan's last home game by tapping him on the shoulder, shaking his hand and saying a few words.
“I think he was trying to get in my head,” McCarthy said after that game.
It didn't work.
McCarthy was 24 of 37 for a season-high 335 yards in the 41-13 win over the Boilermakers. Since then, with coach Jim Harbaugh suspended and an undisclosed injury hobbling him, the Wolverines' passing game has largely been grounded in two road wins.
He didn't throw a pass in the second half of a victory over then-No. 9 Penn State after connecting on 7 of 8 attempts in the first half for 60 yards. In a seven-point win against Maryland, he was 12 of 23 for 141 yards with an interception.
“Last week was a little bit rough, but I’m doing fantastic right now," McCarthy insisted. “Treatment has been great, and yeah, we’ll be ready to go.”
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