Friday, March 30, 2012

SPORTS >> McDonald a model player, hometown hero

Leader sports editor

He’s a man of character and high integrity. His NFL scouting report calls him a “great locker room guy” because of the positive influence he has on teammates. To the lay person, he’s monstrous in stature (though small for his position in the NFL), but even more monstrous than his size is his integrity.

Jacksonville’s own Clinton McDonald, son of Larry and Bonnie McDonald, is truly one of the NFL’s good guys. Everyone knows about the reputation of integrity that Tim Tebow has earned as the NFL’s ultimate good guy. Hardly anyone, even the most ardent NFL fans, know about McDonald, but coaches and teammates he’s gotten to know have known another man of similar attributes.

While the quarterback Tebow has created another firestorm by signing with the Jets, one of the NFL’s highest high-profile teams, McDonald toils away in relative obscurity, playing a low-profile position for a small market team tucked away in the often ignored Pacific northwest. But like Tebow, he’s making a difference in ways that aren’t reflected on the gridiron.

McDonald is an interior defensive lineman who just finished his third year in the National Football League and his first with the Seattle Seahawks.

When the team does community outreach, as NFL teams are known to do, especially through their partnership with United Way, McDonald is there. When almost any opportunity arises to give back for what he calls a “blessed life,” McDonald is there. There is currently footage online on the Seahawks Insiders’ website of McDonald filling grocery bags for Seattle’s less fortunate last Thanksgiving.

McDonald has been home the past few weeks during the offseason, and has spent a good portion of that time doing volunteer work. He’s currently at his alma mater, the University of Memphis, training, but a week ago he held a football camp for the Augusta Peewee league. A friend of his sister’s Margie Mosby, asked him for the favor and he couldn’t say yes fast enough.

“God’s blessed me with this ability, great parents, a great family,” McDonald said. “I feel like any chance I have to give back, I need to do it.”

He was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the seventh round in 2009 and spent his first year on the practice squad. He made the team his second year and was coming into his own in preseason games his third year. He was the toast of the town after getting eight tackles in a game and leading the team in tackles that preseason. That’s why it was such a shock to him when he was traded to Seattle before the start of the regular season.

“I had been playing my best ever,” McDonald told The Leader last Friday. “When coach said he wanted to talk to me, I never thought I was being traded.”

Bengals’ coach Marvin Lewis told McDonald that other teams had noticed his play also. Seattle called interested in McDonald, and had something to offer the Bengals needed, a cornerback. Cincinnati was deep on the defensive line and thin in the defensive backfield. It all came together as one of McDonald’s biggest lessons on the business side of professional sports.

Still, what the Seahawks were willing to give up for him told him he was valued at his new home. Kelley Jennings, a first-round pick by Seattle in the 2006 draft, was an every-day starter and had just been offered a $1.8 million contract by the Seahawks to keep him off the free-agent market. Then McDonald started showing out in preseason games for Cincinnati, while preseason games for Seattle began to show a glaring weakness on the defensive line. So the Seahawks offered up their former first-round pick for the seventh rounder in southern Ohio.

After playing in eight total games and getting four total tackles in his two seasons at Cincinnati, McDonald played in 15 games last season, started one and recorded 35 tackles.

He had a college career that prepared him for slow progress and taught him that hard work will pay off in the long run. How he got there is an incredible story in itself, and one that shows that even before he became the man of such high character and integrity that he is today, the seeds had been planted in the home.

It’s ironic to give his close-knit, large family home life so much credit for his signing decision as a high school senior, because his decision caused a lot of stress in his home that year.

McDonald was a star linebacker in high school. At 240 pounds, he was a beat in the middle of the Red Devil defense. He was also the biggest head turner at the 2005 Arkansas High School All Star game that included fellow NFLers Darren McFadden and Carlisle’s Mitch Petrus.

But the offers weren’t flowing in from the big schools. For the longest, Memphis University was the largest school to extend an official offer. Arkansas State also wanted McDonald and he even verbally committed to ASU, but soon recanted.

The night before signing day, McDonald chose then Division 1-AA Mississippi Valley State, where his older brother Cleyton had been playing for two years. That decision, McDonald says, was based largely on his father’s wishes. He called Memphis that night to tell them the news.

“My dad had that loyalty to them because they were the ones who signed my brother,” McDonald said. “I really wanted to honor my father’s wishes, but he also said it’s my decision.”

About a week before signing day, the University of Arkansas came through with an offer after being wishy washy throughout the recruiting process. A press conference had been arranged days before. Media, students and teammates packed the JHS library and still McDonald didn’t know which team he was going to sign with.

“I had three letters (NCAA letters of intent) sitting there in front of me,” McDonald said. “First thing I did was pushed Arkansas aside. I knew I wasn’t going to go there. Falling back onto what he’d always had faith in, McDonald stood up behind the table to address the crowd and told the Biblical story of the prodigal son. He’d used the story as motivation for the night before’s decision to sign with MSVU, honoring his father. At the press conference, with his father seated to his left, he recalled the part of the father accepting the son though he didn’t always make the decisions he felt was right. Then announced he was going to become a Memphis Tiger.

The announcement was not met with immediate approval from dad, but Larry McDonald supported his son nonetheless.

College proved more challenging than he expected in several areas, athletics being one of them.

He signed with and reported to the Memphis University as a 240-pound linebacker. After a week, the Tigers moved him to defensive end, where 240 pounds is small for Division I college ball. After putting on 10 pounds and working his way into the starting rotation by season’s end, he was finally coming around to liking the outside of the line. Then just three weeks into his sophomore season, defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn was fired and head coach Tommy West took over that responsibility. He changed the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and asked McDonald to move inside to nose guard.

“I was 250 pounds,” McDonald said. “We had Tennessee coming up our next game. I was outweighed by at least 50 pounds by everybody blocking me. I’d never taken on a double team before. All of a sudden I’m supposed to be that guy to take on the double teams and anchor everything. That was a tough transition. I really started thinking about giving up and transferring somewhere else. That was the first time I really learned what it feels like to get pushed around. I didn’t like it.”

He called home to say he thought he wanted to transfer. This time his mother, who is always working behind the scenes, (she’s the one that called MU the morning of signing day and told them to send the LOI despite the news from the night before) was at the forefront on this one.

“She said ‘you’re right, they told you one thing and have you doing something else.’”McDonald said. She said ‘It’s your decision. But you’ve never quit anything before. I think it would be a mistake.’”

He took his mom’s advice and made ‘getting pushed around’ just another challenge to overcome. He also drew, and still draws, inspiration from his brother Cleyton. The oldest brother and second oldest of six McDonald children, didn’t get the NFL body and strength of his younger brother, but does have the same mental toughness and courage, and displayed it his senior year in high school. He suffered what should have been a career-ending knee injury his junior season. But worked so diligently in rehab that he not only played, but stood out enough his senior year to earn a college scholarship as a linebacker despite also being undersized.

“A lot of people think I’m the one my family looks up to,” Clinton said. “That’s not really true. I really look up to my brother. Seeing everything he went through and seeing how hard he worked and how he carries himself and the integrity he has. I’ve always looked up to him.”

The Memphis head coach wasn’t pleased with the change early on, but McDonald kept working.

“Coach kept saying ‘You guys are not getting it. You’re not getting my vision,’” McDonald said. “It was very hard for a long time. I was already the strongest guy on the team, but I had to work even harder to get bigger and stronger to play where he wanted me.”

West’s vision proved prescient. McDonald, despite his too-small stature, had found his best position and became an-NFL-level talent. But football wasn’t the only challenge he faced in college, but like football, he faced them head on.

McDonald got his first lessons on the difficulty of relationships. His then strong and now unwavering faith was also assaulted.

“I took this class called sociology and anthropology,” McDonald said. “And it really made me start to wonder why I think what I’ve always believed is true. I read the Bible more and I realized what I believe didn’t start with me either. It’s been around a long time and I knew from my parents and my family and my own experience that this (the Bible) won’t let you down.”

So ingrained is the Bible in McDonald’s brain, any general conversation is likely to unlock a scripture in his mind. So much joy does he get from the scriptures, he’ll always share it with a huge smile.

At 25, McDonald now finds peace and rest in his faith.

Later this year, he’ll report to NFL training camp for the fourth time. Under the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, the minimum salary for players with three years of service will be a hefty raise from what McDonald made last year. But he enters training camp without a contract. His career is up in the air, but he knows he’s playing his best ball ever and he’s confident he’ll sign. Even if he doesn’t, his faith and his rock-solid family foundation give him comfort that things will be ok. So does the degree he earned last year during the NFL lockout. He left college a semester early and 16 hours short of his degree to begin training for the NFL. True to form as someone who never leaves anything unfinished, he went back for the spring semester last year and finished.

“I may have a 15-year career or I may not, but I know I have tremendous support with my family, and I know I can accept whatever God has for me.”