FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Nick McDonald’s path to playing in the NFL has been difficult.
His mother died of cancer when he was 14. Not long after, his father left him and his three siblings.
McDonald went to Grand Valley State, a Division II school. He wasn’t drafted last year and made the Green Bay Packers as a free agent. He was on their roster for all 20 games, including the Super Bowl victory, but was inactive for every one. Then the Packers waived him on Sept. 3 and he was on the New England Patriots’ practice squad from Sept. 16 until last Saturday.
That’s when his fortunes changed.
The next day, he started at center for the Patriots, snapping the ball to Tom Brady and doing a solid job in a 31-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts. McDonald got the opportunity after three other centers were sidelined.
“There’s always nerves,” he said, “but you’ve just got to look at it like it’s not war, you’re not building rockets. It’s football. It’s a kid’s game. You’ve just got to have fun with it.”
McDonald called signals for the offensive line. It helped that he played between two outstanding guards, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. And the Patriots had confidence that he could do the job.
“There is no player here right now that we don’t expect good things out of,” offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said. “Nick has a really good demeanor. He’s a smart guy. He’s a tough guy.”
When the season began, Dan Koppen was in his ninth year as the starting center. But he suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee in the opener and Dan Connolly started the next nine games. Then he was sidelined with a groin injury and Ryan Wendell started the next game. And when he injured his calf, it was McDonald’s turn.
So instead of sitting beside his girlfriend and friends in the Gillette Stadium stands last Sunday, he played for the first time in a regular-season game, making sure the ball ended up securely in the star quarterback’s hands.
“They had no idea until they came up, which was kind of cool,” McDonald said. “I got to tell them that. They were all pretty excited.”
He could get another chance to play Sunday at the Washington Redskins. He could be the backup. Or he could be back on the practice squad.
“We always give everybody an opportunity to compete. The guys that do the best get more opportunities,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I thought (McDonald) did a real good job for not really having many reps with the first group and just really getting them (last) week for the most part. He hadn’t had a lot of exchanges with Tom, or just Logan and Brian, working next to them with combination blocks and things like that.”
McDonald watched it all during Monday’s film review.
“It was nice to be able to see myself out there and see what you’ve got to do to get better,” he said. “I need a lot of improvement, obviously, but overall I think I stepped up and I think I played well.”
In his short career, McDonald has been with two very successful franchises. Even though he never got into a game, practicing and studying with the Packers helped.
“Playing with guys like that, it shows you how you’ve got to be to be a pro athlete, on and off the field,” he said.
It also helps that he’s been with probably the NFL’s top two quarterbacks, Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
“They’re both amazing quarterbacks,” McDonald said. “They work extremely hard, both of them very passionate guys. They love the team. They love their teammates.”
Brady liked the way McDonald played.
“We had a good week of practice,” he said. “He stepped in there, his first game as a Patriot, and did a real good job.”
McDonald has what only four of his teammates won as members of the Patriots, a Super Bowl ring — from the Packers’ championship. Brady, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light and Vince Wilfork are the only holdovers from the New England club that won the title after the 2004 season.
“Everybody is a part of a win, in practice getting guys ready,” McDonald said. “I was going against the starting defense every single day. I think everybody deserved one, even the practice squad guys.”
Now he has a chance to win another ring. The Patriots are 9-3, tied for the best record in the AFC. But he knows that nothing is guaranteed.
His mother’s death “was terrible, but I think it’s made me who I am,” he said. “You can’t take life for granted. You can’t take anything for granted. And that’s why I can’t take this opportunity for granted.”