Tuesday, July 27, 2010

SPORTS>>TRAINING CAMP Former Red Devil hopes to be on the field

Leader sports editor

They used to call it the “Taxi Squad.”

Defensive lineman Clinton McDonald would rather be on the team plane.

The Cincinnati Bengals and most of the rest of the NFL begin training camp today and McDonald, of Jacksonville, is hoping to make it off the Bengals’ practice squad, where he spent last season, and on to the active roster.

“Being practice squad and knowing I have a chance to play, that makes you feel like you’ve got to work harder,” said McDonald, who played college ball at Memphis and was drafted by the Bengals in the spring of 2009.

The “Taxi Squad” is a group of reserves who can join the active roster at short notice but do not travel with the team or dress out on game days. The term comes from the 1940s Cleveland Browns and coach Paul Brown, who kept a group of non-roster players whose salaries were paid by team owner Mickey McBride’s taxi company.

Things are plusher in the modern NFL.
McDonald, reporting to camp in Georgetown, Ky., today, gets to enjoy the Bengals’ modern facilities, training and dressing alongside the active players. But each Sunday last year he missed out on the thing he came to do — play ball.

“It makes you feel like, when you watch it on TV it’s like ‘Man I wish I was there. I want to be there on the field I want to dress,’

” McDonald said. “Even on the sideline at a home game you feel like ‘Man I want to be out there with the guys.’ ”

The Bengals took McDonald, an all-state linebacker at Jacksonville, in the seventh round of the draft, 249th overall, after he amassed 135 tackles and 11.5 career sacks as a defensive tackle at Memphis.

McDonald is still close to his alma mater Jacksonville, where he last played as a senior in 2004, and recently visited with the Red Devils to provide encouragement after his former defensive coach, Rick Russell, returned from North Pulaski to take over the program.

“I’m basically the example that it can happen to anybody,” McDonald said.

McDonald went almost immediately to the Bengals’ rookie/free agent mini-camp in Cincinnati after he was drafted.

“You think to yourself, ‘I’m here so it’s not a time to play around,’” McDonald said. “‘They’ve got me up here for a reason. It’s not a time to rest, it’s not a time to take anything for granted; learn all you can learn and show these guys why they’ve got you up here.’ ”

Though a late-round pick, McDonald, 6-2, 290 pounds, held his own in Bengals training camp and just missed making the cut.

Each team can keep up to eight players on the practice squad, outside the 53-man active roster. A practice-squad player earns $5,200 a week, works out with the team and cannot be on the practice squad if he has played nine regular season games or been on an active roster the entire year.

That last part sounds good to McDonald, who with hall of famer Dan Hampton is only Jacksonville’s second NFL draft pick. Red Devils Robert Thomas, Adrian Wilson and Chet Winters signed free-agent deals.

“Going on the same team as future hall of famers and looking at their locker rooms coming in. At first you’re in awe,” McDonald said. “But then again, something clicks in your mind telling you they came from a town just like you came from, they went to college just like you came from.

“And they’re here too and they’re making it, so there’s no reason not for you to make it.”

McDonald’s “welcome to the NFL” moments came during last year’s preseason, in the tunnels of the Super Dome in New Orleans, home of the Super Bowl champion Saints, and at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., home of the perennially contending New England Patriots.

“There’s no bands playing, there’s no booster club or anything like that,” McDonald said. “But seeing all the fans and all the support these people have for these teams, that’s when you feel like you’re in a professional setting.”

So far McDonald’s NFL career has consisted of butting heads with teammates and simulating opponents for the betterment of the Bengals’ active players.

“You are contributing. You’re making somebody better,” McDonald said.

McDonald said established stars like Carson Palmer, defensive lineman Tank Johnson and quirky receiver Chad Johnson — currently playing under the name Chad Ochocinco — have been welcoming and there is no divide between the standouts and the hopefuls like McDonald.

Now if McDonald can just join those guys on game days.

“Me just being me and growing up the way I grew up, I was thankful for God to still be there and have a job at the same time,” McDonald said of his practice-squad status. “I was kind of in awe and kind of disappointed I hadn’t just actually made the 53 and I wasn’t playing yet.”