Jim McMahon finished third in the 1981 Heisman Trophy balloting and fifth in 1980. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
reprinted from BYU Today magazine, 1981
Cowboys and Indians is a game most men played as boys, but few have daily reminders of their childhood antics like BYU’s Jim McMahon.
In the summer of 1965, the same year Jim Plunkett was beginning play in the San Jose prep football leagues, the New Jersey-born McMahon, who had moved to California, was undoing a gun holster that was tightly knotted around his leg. His dad, Jim Sr., was at work, and Jim Jr.,’s mother, Roberta, was busy preparing dinner.
Six-year-old Jim went unnoticed as he took a fork from the kitchen to undo the knot. He slipped and gouged his eye with the fork prongs.
“Two of the fork’s prongs went all the way in,” said Jim Jr. “I went back in the kitchen to put the fork away and then went back to the front room and water kept pouring out of my eye.”
Just before midnight, Jim Sr. took Jimmy to the hospital where Dr. Ted Ulandy, an eye surgeon determined an operation was necessary. About seven o’clock the next morning the operation began. The injured cornea was stitched, but the pupil would not dilate from its egg shape and has since remained sensitive to light.
“I had a patch over my eye for a few days and it itched real bad because of the stitches,” said Jim Jr. “They had to tie my hands down at night so I wouldn’t scratch it.”
McMahon’s eyesight in the injured eye is about 20-60, and he must wear tinted glasses off the football field, but can’t wear a contact lens.
“You could have fooled me,” says Ted Tollner, BYU’s new quarterback coach who scouted the Cougars several times last season while coaching at San Diego State.
“The way Jim was playing—by the way he avoids pressure—I would have thought he had eyes behind his head.”
McMahon and BYU beat San Diego State, 35-11, last year.
Jim Jr. entered competitive football at the age of nine when he tried out for the Police Athletic League. His dad and Jack Overstreet coached a new team in the league. Kids weren’t known to pass much in the PAL, so a lot of people were shocked when Jimmy threw 20 touchdowns his first year and one threw the ball 50 yards.
“Jim was never a showoff,” says Overstreet, whose son Jackie was a year behind Jim. Jackie now quarterbacks for San Jose State. “I’ve watched Jim on television since he has been playing for BYU, and he looks just like he did when he was nine years old—only now he is just a bigger kid doing it.”
Although Jim’s dad did work out with his son, the senior McMahon says “Jim was born with his football talent, it comes from above. Ever since e started playing, Jim seemed to have football sense—to know when to throw, run or scramble to find receivers.”
The McMahon family lived across the street from John Germaine, football coach and athletic director at Andrew Hill High in San Jose.
“Jim always conducted himself with poise. He knew what he wanted to do,” said Germaine. “When Jim played for us he was an alert ball player. Often times he would have an idea for a play he thought might work.”
Not only was Jim the first sophomore to start at quarterback at Andrew Hill in more than 27 years, he was one of its rare three-sport stars.
“I think he could have been a college baseball and basketball player, too,” said Rick Alves, who coached Jim in all three sports as a freshman in high school.
The McMahon’s lived in California from 1961 through 1975 and then moved to Roy, Utah.
Prior to the Utah move, McMahon’s principal at Andrew Hill, William Bare, was involved in counseling Jim Jr. about the family’s move from California.
“Jim didn’t want to move at first,” says Bare. “He was better than average as a student and was well respected by his peers. We were all looking forward to a tremendous rivalry with Jim facing Rich Campbell (Green Bay Packer draft via the University of California-Berkeley).”
Campbell and McMahon had been quarterbacks on opposing teams in the league during their freshman and sophomore years.
Earlier, Principal Bare had counseled another quarterback, Jim Plunkett, at Overfelt High School in 1965 and 1965. Bare did not get to watch Plunkett or McMahon during their junior and senior years in high school because their families moved.
“I felt Jim was as good as any quarterback I had seen,” said Bare. “He compared with Plunkett as a freshman and a sophomore.”
When Jim moved to Utah for the 1975 season he earned a “Hollywood style” nickname from his teammates because he always wore his dark glasses off the field due to his eye condition.
Jim could throw almost a perfect spiral, but Coach Ernest Jacklin had a veteran quarterback returning to run his wishbone attack. Jim started out as a third-string quarterback and was quickly promoted to first string, but he sprained his ankle.
A couple games into Jim’s junior year, Roy High was behind Weber High, 13-0, with four minutes left in the game, according to Coach Jacklin.
“I was about ready to send Jim back in the game, but he said his timing was off and suggested I put in Rick Stonehocker,” said Jacklin. “We won 21-13, and Jim actually picked me up off the ground in celebration. Team victory meant more to Jim than his personal success.”
The next year Roy High switched from the wishbone to the pass because of Jim’s talent.
Since selecting BYU over schools like Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Stanford and Cal-Berkeley, Mahon has set 32 NCAA records and tied two others. (McMahon went on to set 75 NCAA records [37 total offense, 38 passing].)