Fifty years after his senior season, former Lehigh football quarterback Kim McQuilken, ‘74, still remembers running out of the locker room through the tunnel onto the field at Taylor Stadium, feeling the thousands of fans cheering above.
He described the feeling as intimate and personal. The vibrations of the crowd banged against the tunnel walls each time he and his teammates took the field.
McQuilken led Lehigh to a 20-13-1 record and threw for nearly 7,000 career yards across three seasons before heading to the NFL and eventually becoming an executive vice president at Cartoon Network.
As a senior at William Allen High School in Allentown in 1970, McQuilken was hesitant to play college football close to home.
Lehigh was McQuilken’s only offer out of high school, even after taking a post-grad year at a preparatory school in Virginia. Regardless of this, he had reservations about committing to Lehigh’s program.
McQuilken said he was concerned Lehigh had not had a winning season in 10 years before his arrival, and he found an issue with how Lehigh’s offense was heavily focused on running the ball at the time.
The head coach at the time Fred Dunlap, sat down with McQuilken to plead his case that the offensive system would incorporate more passing if he came to Lehigh. Eventually, McQuilken obliged and Dunlap upheld his promise.
“We became a balanced attack,” McQuilken said. “That small (college) environment allowed me time to grow up and eventually thrive.”
Lehigh won the Lambert Cup in 1973, a trophy given to the best Division II football team on the East Coast, with McQuilken as the starting quarterback. The team also progressed to the Division II national quarterfinal that same year.
Lehigh’s current athletic director, Joe Sterrett, ‘76, was one of McQuilken’s backup quarterbacks for part of the 1973 season.
Sterrett said McQuilken played a large role in helping him adjust to the team.
“It was learning an entirely new system,” Sterrett said. “(McQuilken) was a mentor about playing the position at the college level and what it takes.”
After his junior year, McQuilken entered the NFL draft. His professional career began when he was selected in the third round of the 1974 draft by the Atlanta Falcons.
He threw four career touchdowns and 29 career interceptions during his time on the professional field. His 17.9 career passer rating is the second lowest of any quarterback who has thrown more than 200 passes.
While McQuilken described his career statistics as “pretty ugly,” he defended his record by saying critics focus too much on statistics and not on the situations quarterbacks were placed in or the specific decades they played in.
During McQuilken’s career in Atlanta, the team’s combined record was 18-38. The team also had five head coaches and four offensive coordinators during that span.
“This league does not tolerate mediocrity,” McQuilken said. “You can’t hang around for seven or eight years if you’re bad.”
Afterward, McQuilken slotted himself in as a backup for three more seasons with the Washington Commanders, who were called the Washington Redskins at the time. After his NFL retirement in 1980, he returned for a season in the United States Football League in 1983 with the Washington Generals.
While working as a color commentator following retirement, McQuilken, who studied marketing at Lehigh, leveraged his connections with now-defunct media conglomerate Turner Broadcasting to secure a job working in marketing for their various brands.
Eventually, McQuilken rose through the ranks to become the executive vice president of sales and marketing at Turner-owned Cartoon Network.
When advertisers wanted to use Scooby-Doo in a product or advertisement, McQuilken said they had to go through his team first.
“It was fulfilling because I came in and hardly knew anything about the media business and the intellectual property rights business,” McQuilken said. “And we had the largest animation library in the world.”
McQuilken said he oversaw 130 different employees and over $500 million in revenue for Cartoon Network at the height of his career.
McQuilken always made a point to prioritize hiring former high school and college athletes due to their leadership qualities. He found it fulfilling to take young people into his company and be able to develop them.
One of McQuilken’s former football-playing employees at Cartoon Network was former sales manager Ken Shapiro. Shapiro played quarterback in high school and is also the father of current Lehigh senior quarterback Hank Shapiro.
“(McQuilken) was really able to relate well to all aspects of teamwork,” Ken Shapiro said. “It comes from the sports side that he was able to build a great team within Cartoon Network and Turner.”
McQuilken eventually retired from his position at Cartoon Network in 2011 to try something new and eventually found work in the transportation logistics industry. Today, he works as a business consultant and also runs quarterbackconnection.com, a site that analyzes the performance of professional and collegiate quarterbacks.
McQuilken believes his versatility in the business world and ability to reinvent himself across various fields comes down to the lessons he has learned on the football field.
He analogized working in teams across various businesses to dealing with teammates as a quarterback. Looking at his teammates, he knew that each person needed to be motivated in different ways.
“I think I have an innate ability to size people up very quickly and identify their strengths and weaknesses,” McQuilken said. “While I didn’t have a background in the (television marketing) business, my ability to read people and know who I can partner with and know who to stay away from…really benefited me.”