Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

SPORTS >> Clinton’s big day

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

With only 256 slots available for would-be NFL draftees, things can get a little harrowing come late Sunday afternoon of draft weekend.

Clinton McDonald, former All-State linebacker for Jacksonville High School, can tell you all about it. The All-Conference USA First Team defensive tackle for the Memphis Tigers this past season, shot up the draft prospect charts after a sterling showing at a pro-day camp last week. This, after dishearteningly and surprisingly not receiving an invitation to the all-important NFL combine in February.

The 6-2, 283-pound son of Larry and Bonnie McDonald of Jacksonville, re-opened scouts’ eyes with his 36 reps (in the 225-pound bench press), his 38-inch vertical leap and his average of 4.83 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the Memphis pro day camp. He was suddenly projected as a sixth-, fifth or even fourth-round prospect heading into last weekend.

It was no surprise and of little concern to McDonald or his parents when his name was not announced on Saturday, when only the first two rounds are concluded.

But as Sunday dragged past noon and the fifth round came and went, then the sixth round, tension began to mount.

“It was very much frustrating,” said Larry McDonald. “It got to where I was getting tired of seeing all those other people’s names coming up and them talking about them doing this or that.

“We tried to handle it as calmly as we could.”

By early Sunday evening, time was beginning to run out. The Seattle Seahawks, in need of defensive line help, selected 247th … and took defensive end Nick Reed of Oregon. The Seahawks had consecutive picks but took Cameron Morrah, a tight end out of California, as the 248th pick of the 2009 draft.

Then, Clinton finally heard his name. The Cincinnati Bengals, picking 40th in the final round – 249th overall – selected Clinton McDonald, who became only the second Red Devil to be drafted into the NFL. Arkansas Razorback Dan Hampton was the first when he was taken by the Chicago Bears as a fourth overall pick in the 1979 draft.

Three other Red Devils —Robert Thomas, Adrian Wilson and Chet Winters — made it to the NFL as free agents.

Bonnie said all that waiting on Sunday just fed her son’s fierce pride and hunger.

“It basically drove Clinton’s momentum back up,” she said. “He felt he was better than a lot of the guys who were drafted before him. That just makes him have more to go out there and prove.

“When I talked to him (Monday), he said he had been at the gym all evening long just getting prepared.”

IRON SHARPENS IRON

That pride which led to the work ethic all his coaches rave about was forged in the grassy area outside of the McDonald’s home off Wright Loop Road in east Jacksonville. Bonnie said Clinton and his older brother Cleyton would play football against the older junior high boys after school.

“They’d come home with torn shirts and bloody noses,” she remembers. “Those two were always competing against each other.”

Cleyton, who is 15 months older than Clinton, went on to play at Mississippi Valley State, and Bonnie said the elder brother inspired him, even if they were battling each other much of the time.

“It’s like the old scripture says, ‘Iron sharpens iron,’” Bonnie said. “Those two going up against each other all the time made them both sharper.”

Cleyton, 23, and Clinton, 22, are the two oldest boys in the McDonald clan. Caleb, 15, currently plays for the Jacksonville 9th-grade team. Then there is 12-year-old Courtland. The siblings are book-ended, age-wise, by girls — Cleyardis, 29, and Candice, 6.

The first coach who saw something special in Clinton was Bryant Washington in the Parks and Recreation League. He told Bonnie that Clinton, who was then just 12 years old, would play on Sunday one day. Washington was also tipped off to another quality that has served Clinton well ever since — loyalty.

“Back then, the Jaguars were the losingest team in the league,” Bonnie said. “But the kids on that team and some of Clinton’s classmates would come and pick Clinton up and take him to the ball park to play football.

“Larry had promised the coach of the Vikings that Clinton would play on (the Vikings). Clinton said, ‘I’ll play for them if they really want me to, but I just feel like these other guys (from the Jaguars) had been loyal to me and were coming and getting me and the other coach didn’t come and get me, so I feel like my loyalty ought to remain here with the Jaguars.’”

Clinton stuck with the Jaguars, who ended up beating the Vikings that year.

That same loyalty — and the demand for it — played a part in Clinton’s choice to become a Tiger. He had a lot of options open to him, including, his father said, Nebraska, Rice, North Carolina, Duke, Vanderbilt, Arkansas State and Arkansas. The Razorbacks, though, decided back in the fall of 2004 — Clinton’s senior year at Jacksonville — to go the junior college route in their linebacker recruiting and, suddenly, they stopped contacting Clinton.

Meanwhile, according to Larry McDonald, Mississippi Valley State had just assumed that Clinton would come there since his older brother was already on the team. Clinton orally committed to Arkansas State, but immediately regretted it, his father said. In the meantime, earlier scholarship offers began going to other players and Clinton’s options began to dwindle.

But one school remained loyal to him: the University of Memphis. It turned out that Randy Fichtner, the offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator for central Arkansas, had kept Clinton’s scholarship available, much to the happy surprise of Clinton. That was the kind of respect and acknowledgment he was looking for. Fichtner also told Clinton that, if he came in prepared, he would see immediate playing time. Arkansas State head coach Steve Roberts pretty much had a policy of redshirting his freshmen.

It was a good choice for Larry and Bonnie, too, who traveled to watch both of their sons play (Cleyton was then a junior at Mississippi Valley State). The trip from Jacksonville to Memphis was much easier and much more direct than the one from Jacksonville to Jonesboro.

A COACH’S DREAM

McDonald ended up getting quite a bit of playing time as a freshman at Memphis, though most of it came on special teams. Still, he was one of only six freshmen Tigers to see action.

As a sophomore, he started 10 games and made 41 stops, including two for loss. He was also credited with half a sack and a fumble recovery. He began to come into his own as a junior, when he was named the Tigers’ Defensive Co-player of the Year and earned Conference USA honorable mention after starting all 13 games and leading the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. That included a team-high four sacks.

Despite suffering an ankle injury that caused him to miss nearly four games his senior season, he was still picked as a First Team All-Conference USA defender, finishing fourth in the league in sacks with seven. Four of those came in one game against Arkansas State.

“He’s the most complete player I’ve ever been around,” said Memphis defensive line coach Brent Pry. “As far as practice, preparation and game, he was just a well-rounded football player with the ultimate commitment. He’s been a great example to our younger d-linemen as far as work ethic.”

His failure to get an invitation to the NFL combine in February can be chalked up to several factors. Clinton had chosen not to get an agent — despite being pursued by four of them — until he finished his college career. Larry thinks Clinton’s high ankle sprain early in 2008 might also have contributed to the non-invite.

And Bonnie points out that the combine held open a lot of slots for juniors this year, bumping seniors who might otherwise have received invitations. That shunning fed Clinton’s determination, Bonnie said, and he worked even harder to make sure his pro-day camp would put him high up on scouts’ radar again, though Clinton’s performance in the Shrine Bowl practices already had those scouts sitting up and taking notice.

“Those numbers that he put up (at the camp) confirmed that he was what he was,” Larry said. “After that camp, the calls really started coming in, from the Seahawks, the Jaguars, the Bills and the Eagles.”

Pry said it’s hard to say just how far McDonald can go in the NFL, only that he thinks the Bengal organization got a steal.

“I know one thing, he’ll make them want to keep him,” Pry said. “If he’d been healthy, this could have been a really special season for him. He was just beginning to flower and reach his potential as a defensive tackle.

“He’s a guy I really enjoyed coaching. He was a coach’s dream.”

‘YOU THE MAN’

Jacksonville athletic director and former head basketball coach Jerry Wilson remembers McDonald as a supremely gifted athlete, and not just in football.

“He came in as a sophomore and stood there flatfooted and dunked the ball,” Wilson recalls. “I told him, ‘You need to play basketball.’ And I think he was all-conference. He was also good in track, but he knew where his future was.”

McDonald played football for Johnny Watson, currently the athletic director at Little Rock Christian Academy, who compares McDonald to Robert Thomas. Thomas went on to become a blocking back for the NFL’s all-time leading rusher Emmit Smith.

Both Thomas and McDonald, Watson said, were big, ran well and loved the weight room.

McDonald, with his size, played nose guard at the junior high level, but Watson said he decided to take advantage of his speed and turn him into a linebacker when he reached high school. With his ability to run and his 240-pound frame, McDonald dominated the 5A, and was named Outstanding Lineman his senior year.

“We knew he was going to be good, but he just got so much better his senior year,” Watson said. “Of course the higher up you go, the faster and more physical the game becomes.

“He put on 50 pounds (at Memphis) but he could still run.”

Both his parents say that Clinton, for all the acclaim and awards, didn’t necessarily receive the notoriety of others around the state his senior year at Jacksonville. Larry tells the story of the Arkansas High School All-Star game in 2005, when Clinton went largely unnoticed. Until, that is, he stood up Darren McFadden on a running play.

“It was kind of like nobody was paying much attention to him and McFadden was just running over everybody,” Larry said with a laugh. “Then McFadden ran into Clinton and McFadden got up and said, ‘Mac, you the man.’”

Few athletes are blessed with McDonald’s gifts, but according to both Watson and Wilson, it isn’t his only blessing. Wilson said the impact of Larry’s and Bonnie’s involvement in their children’s lives is something that can’t be overestimated.

“The really good thing about Clinton is the strong parental support he receives,” Wilson said. “His mom and dad don’t miss a game. That says a lot in this day and age, to get that backing from both parents.”

Watson also credited Clinton’s parents with their son’s success.

“He was all ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir,’” Watson said. “There was no fooling around with Clinton. And I think it was because of his mom and dad. They really supported him.

“I’ve been keeping up with Clinton and I knew he had a chance to make it. This is a great day for him.”