“Irene” is tattooed in cursive on the left pectoral of Nick McDonald.
The accompanying dates mark the too-short 44-year life of his mother, with the date of her death from cancer marking when McDonald’s life was turned on its ear.
McDonald was just 14 when his mom died. And then, all hell broke loose. Less than a year later, McDonald’s father moved to Louisiana without McDonald and his three siblings.
“After my mom passed, my dad kind of broke down and left us all basically,” McDonald told Packer Report on Saturday. “I kind of bounced around a little bit, with some friends and then I lived with my grandma on my mom’s side for a little bit. A woman named Gayle, who is my ex-girlfriend’s mom — when we were dating in high school, her mom took me in. I lived there even after me and her daughter broke up. I still lived there, she still treated me like a son. Even this week, she drove me to the airport, she’ll pick me up at the airport. Came to all of my college games. She’s very special and I’m very fortunate to have someone like that in my life.”
McDonald signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent after an All-American senior season at Division II runner-up Grand Valley State. If McDonald makes it in Green Bay, maybe Sandra Bullock — who won an Oscar for her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy in the Michael Oher hit, “The Blind Side” — could play the role of Gayle Joseph.
“She’s amazing,” Grand Valley State coach Matt Mitchell said. “She’s been there every step of the way and he’s not even going out with her daughter anymore. She’s just that motherly figure that took Nick in and fell for him and she just stuck with him. It’s people like that that make the world go round. She’s obviously a great example of someone who just cared. She saw a kid in need and took him in and cared for him.”
Starring as a flanked-out tight end for coach Butch Wagner at Henry Ford High School in Sterling Heights, Mich., McDonald — a self-described “gumpy, skinny kid” — caught the eyes of Grand Valley’s coaches, who had built a powerhouse by developing tall, athletic players into big, athletic offensive linemen.
“(Wagner) brought Nick up on a recruiting visit,” recalled former Grand Valley offensive line coach Steve Brockelbank, who is now the athletic director at Ludington (Mich.) High School. “We knew the story before Nick had gotten there. Essentially, Butch wanted a guarantee from us that — he wasn’t so much concerned whether Nick would play or how much he’d play or how he was going to be coached — his real concern was, ‘Will you take him in and really kind of look after him like family.’ Nick came from nothing and had no family. Butch and his girlfriend’s mom were really his only family, if you can call them family. He and his brother (Chris, who just completed his redshirt freshman season as a guard at Michigan State) were split, two older siblings were gone. That was his concern. We made a commitment to Butch and to Nick that we would do more than just coach him as a football player.”
During McDonald’s first season in Allendale, Mich., a happy ending was almost unthinkable. Feeling alone in a strange community while taking a redshirt year, McDonald struggled on and off the field. He skipped classes and earned bad grades. Brockelbank, thinking McDonald had a drinking problem, recalled sending a graduate assistant to peek inside McDonald’s car. He found beer.
OL Nick McDonald
Doug Witte/Grand Valley State
“There were times when I was headed down the wrong path,” McDonald said. “When I got to college my first year, being away, I got in some trouble. Basically, I almost got kicked off the team.”
Brockelbank recalled having several “come to Jesus talks” with McDonald.
“A lot of us coaches and him, I don’t want to call it an intervention but it’s about as close as you’re going to get,” Mitchell said.
The message? The coaches can only do so much. McDonald had the potential to develop into a good football player, but he wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunities. At some point, McDonald had to take responsibility for himself.
“I just told him, ‘What do you want to become and what do you want to make for yourself?” Brockelbank said. “‘Look, you don’t have anything. Some of these kids in the program, if they drop out or they don’t make it or they quit football, they’re going to be all right. Mom and Dad are going to pay for school. Maybe their dad owns a business and they’ll go to work for him. Some of these kids have a lot of options. You don’t have one. Either, you get your (butt) going and start making some good decisions or you’re not going to do anything. You have to decide.’”
Recalled McDonald: “Coach sat me down and said, ‘You’re going nowhere. You want to be just like your dad, and leave and have nothing to do? This is your only opportunity, your only chance.’ That kind of hit me there. It’s time to change.”
Change he did. After becoming a top reserve lineman as a freshman and sophomore, McDonald started all 12 games as a junior, earning second-team all-conference honors. A team leader as a senior, he was a consensus All-America at left tackle. And now, he’s in the NFL.
“I’m more grateful for opportunities like this,” McDonald said. “It was definitely a rough ride at times. It all made me a better person. I live the way I do now based on what happened before. Everything I do in my life, I just think about what happened. I try to give it my all in everything I do.”
McDonald is confident he can make the big jump from Division II to the NFL, and nothing that happened inside the Don Hutson Center last weekend changed his opinion.
“It’s a great honor and it’s definitely a great honor that I’m not going to take for granted,” he said.
Mitchell’s not surprised by that attitude.
“He’s not going to back down from anybody,” Mitchell said. “Part of that may be because his back was against the wall when he was here. He didn’t have anything to go home to.”
If the NFL doesn’t work out, McDonald, who earned his degree in criminal justice, intends to join the Marines. So, whether he makes it in Green Bay or not, McDonald’s story figures to have a happy ending.
“I’m thrilled for the kid,” Brockelbank said. “I think it’s awesome. Even if he doesn’t make it, the kid has a degree and he’s going to be successful. He knows how to put forth great effort, he knows how to obviously work through a ton of adversity and he’s got a college degree. If he makes it in football, that’s outstanding. I think more importantly, he’s a great person, and that to me is more important than what he does for the Green Bay Packers. I know the fans want to see him become a great player. I want to see him become successful for his life. I want to be there at his wedding, I want to run into him when he’s 45 years old and has a family and is doing well. I want to say, ‘That’s a good man.’”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.