The former Woodstock standout didn’t just miss the first three games of the season with a quadricep strain.
He hasn’t played football in more than five years.
After graduating from Woodstock in 2006, McCleskey moved on to play at Murray State. During his freshman season with the Racers, a team in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, he caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown.
But an off-the-field incident when he was home the following summer led to his dismissal from Murray State.
Even McCleskey admits that he assumed his football days were over.
“I had to come back to Woodstock for three years to take care of some personal issues,” he said. “I got a job, and now that I have the opportunity to come back to school, that is my main priority, but I also have the chance to play football again, and so I’m doing that as well.
“Honestly, I really didn’t think this chance would come. It was always in the back of my mind to go back and have a chance to play again. I knew I wanted to go back to school again. I just didn’t think that I would pursue athletics anymore.”
McCleskey said the whole thing actually came about through a connection between his high school coach, Mike O’Brien, and Reinhardt’s Danny Cronic.
“Coach O’Brien is friends with coach Cronic up here, and I guess he put in a word about me,” McCleskey said. “They got in touch with me and asked me if I wanted to come on.”
Cronic said McCleskey’s comeback has been impressive.
“Since coming here, he has a 4.0 grade-point average,” Cronic said. “He’s worked hard this summer to be able to fund it.”
Because Reinhardt is only a short drive from McCleskey’s home in Woodstock, he decided to give it a shot.
Still, it hasn’t been easy.
Not only did he have to work himself back into football-playing shape, but he took on two jobs in order to pay for his education.
“It took me a while to get back into shape, considering that I am 25, but it’s working out so far,” McCleskey said. “Also, since I’m 25, I have bills to pay. Over the summer, I had to work five days a week, on top of taking two courses, in order to be eligible for the fall.”
On Saturday, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound McCleskey completed his long journey back to the field.
He said being five years older than most of his teammates has made for a few laughs, but no one seems to notice the age gap. A few of his teammates have taken to calling him “Pops.”
“It’s a little different, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s an ongoing joke. Everyone is fun-natured over here and, as the time goes on, the age gap isn’t that big of a difference.”
A business administration major, McCleskey hopes to complete his degree in a couple of years. He commutes to campus from Woodstock, which also sets him apart from many of the other Eagles.
“Coming back to school, I don’t take any day for granted,” he said. “I hate to admit this, but I did when I was 19 or 20 years old. As far as academics go, staying on top of that isn’t a challenge. Athletically, it has been a struggle at times, but I came in in January, so I have had nine months to get into the shape where I need to be. Competing collegiately in a physical sport has been a challenge, but I’m where I need to be now.”
Still, McCleskey is trying to improve his blocking and add strength.
Cronic lists the player’s strengths on the field as his hands and his ability to run routes.
“I think he has overcome a lot of odds getting himself back into shape,” Cronic said. “He went through spring practice and really worked hard. We would like for him to get another 15 pounds on him, but he has showed a lot of commitment by being able to do this and being older. I think he appreciates it a bit more being older.”