Evin Demirel: Jacksonville’s Clinton McDonald Gets Super Bowl Shot

Clinton McDonald

Visit Evin's Author PageThe last time a Jacksonville High alumus made the Super Bowl, he was playing on the defensive line of one of greatest defenses in NFL history. That would be Hall of Famer Dan Hampton, a star on the Chicago Bears’ 1985 title-winning juggernaut. In this Sunday’s Super Bowl we’ll again see a Jacksonville product go to war in the trenches for an elite defense. This would be Seattle defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who is having the best season in his young career.

McDonald has so far notched 5.5 sacks – third on the team – along with 35 tackles and an interception. Over the course of second half of the season, the 27-year-old has developed into Seattle’s best pass-rushing tackle. The 298-pounder’s ability to collapse the pocket on third downs will play a crucial role in Seattle’s bid to knock off Denver’ and its record-shattering offense. While more outspoken Seahawks like Richard Sherman grab the headlines with their histrionics, McDonald quietly toils in the background, the same “Yes sir, no sir” kind of guy he was as a 6-2 240-pound linebacker a decade ago, said Jerry Wilson, one of his former coaches.

McDonald’s soft-spoken, bible verse quoting style sharply contrasts with Sherman’s personality, but he doesn’t mind. “We don’t take offense to it if he gets a little spotlight or something like that. Because all and all, we work as a team, we work as a unit,” he told Yahoo! Sports Radio. “You know, this is a rare opportunity to be around guys like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Michael Bennett, Christopher Clemons, Chris Maragos. It’s an amazing opportunity to be around and play with guys of that caliber.”

“It’s just a blessing to be here,” he said. Indeed. Just five months ago, his career appeared to be on life support.

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Heading into the NFL regular season’s opening week, Larry McDonald believed his son’s football future was secure. Clinton McDonald had for the most part come off the bench in his previous three seasons, but it looked like he had established himself as a quality rotation player in Seattle’s nickel formation. By the end of 2012, McDonald hadn’t yet recorded a sack but did finish the season with 25 tackles. Seattle re-signed him to a one-year contract last spring. And in the 2013 preseason McDonald was playing well – or so he thought.

Then, on August 31, the Seahawks cut him. The move was a surprise. “He was very disappointed,” Larry McDonald recalled. In hindsight, it wasn’t a good sign Seattle had selected two defensive linemen in the 2013 draft. But still, Clinton didn’t think his team of two years would sever ties so suddenly.

He didn’t wallow. Instead, McDonald flew back to Jacksonville with a mission. In past summers, he had come back and volunteered as a coach for his alma mater, but this time he only had one objective. “He called me and said ‘I don’t want anybody to know that I’m here … I’m here to work out and run,’” recalled Jerry Wilson, now Jacksonville’s athletic director. Wilson daily opened the doors of his high school every morning at 8 a.m. to let McDonald lift weights and run for a couple hours in the athletic complex or outside on the field. Nearby, McDonald’s youngest brother attended class. Courtland McDonald, a junior, plays football and baseball for Jacksonville.

Clinton McDonald eventually shed almost 20 pounds. He wanted to be ready for a team which could call him any day. Then, one Thursday evening in mid September, he got a call from both New England and Seattle, Larry McDonald said. McDonald chose familiar climes. By 6 a.m. the next morning, he was on a plane headed back to his old teammates. The cut and re-signing has cost him money (the tactic saved the Seahawks about $600,000) but at least he had his job and another chance. In Seattle, Clemons pulled McDonald aside, he recalled in the Seattle Times. Clemons told him: “This is the time where you don’t hold anything back. Right now you’re playing for your life.”

The message had been more than received.

The rest is history-in-the-making. 

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As a flight engineer instructor at Little Rock Air Force Base, Larry McDonald works hard to make sure people stay above the ground. All four of his sons, though, have honed the ability to bring people down. Each of his four sons has played linebacker at least the high school level, including Clint, the third of six children.

Sports, along with school and a spiritual life centered at St. Peter’s Rock Baptist Church, has always been a major part of the McDonald home. McDaniel also played basketball and threw shot put, but his forte was football. As a junior, in 2003, he  racked up 93 tackles, including 54 unassisted. As a senior, he had 74 tackles, 54 assists, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions (returning 1 for a touchdown). He even occasionally used his 4.8 speed at tailback for a Red Devils program that made the playoffs three straight seasons during his career. But, despite being named the AAAAA-East’s outstanding lineman, McDonald was far from a marquee name.

This was driven home during the 2005 Arkansas High School Coaches Association All-Star Game. The game featured the likes of Darren McFadden and Mitch Petrus, two future all-SEC and NFL players, among other players more highly ranked than McDaniel in recruiting circles. McDaniel’s East team lost 28-13 to a West team coached by Gus Malzahn, but his tackling stood out. “Most of the players that were on the team up there at that time were quite awed by the fact that he played the way he did,” Larry McDonald recalled. “They was wondering ‘Where you been? Ain’t nobody ever heard of you. Why haven’t we seen you or why haven’t you been [heavily] recruited?’”

Early on, one leading contender was Mississippi Valley State, where Clinton’s older brother Clayton played. Later, Clinton received numerous scholarship offers – from the likes of Nebraska, Tulsa, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, his father said – but he wanted to stay closer to home. In the week before Signing Day, his choices were down to Memphis and Arkansas State.

There was a lot of local pressure on him to sign with Arkansas State. Larry McDonald recalled seven ASU coaches coming to visit his son at their house at one time. While McDonald did orally commit to ASU, he ultimately signed with Memphis. The top reasons were his friend DeAngelo Williams, a Wynne native, had gone there and played for an offensive coordinator – Randy Fitchner – McDonald really liked. Fitchner was McDonald’s lead recruiter and kept in contact with him more consistently than most of the other recruiters, Larry McDonald recalled.

What about the University of Arkansas? Well, former head coach Houston Nutt and his staff never made a serious play. “The Razorbacks came in at the last minute before signing day,” Larry McDonald said. “They wanted him to walk on and didn’t offer him a scholarship.”

Once at Memphis, the Tigers’ former defensive coordinator decided he didn’t want Clinton at linebacker. They tried him at defensive end, then moved him to tackle. McDonald transformed his body to suit his coaches’ desires, going from 240 pounds after high school to 295 pounds entering his sophomore year. “He worked at it, and that’s why he is where he is now,” Larry McDonald said.

His son became a three-year starter, a two-year captain and first-team Conference USA selection. Although he set numerous team weightlifting records (Larry recalls a 535 pound bench press), he was considered too small to be a starting defensive tackle at the next level. Cincinnati chose him in the seventh round, with the 249th pick, of the 2009 pick. That first season, he would be cut but made the practice squad. In 2010, McDonald didn’t gain a foothold in the league until midway through the season, when he was finally signed to the Bengals’ active roster. He was traded to Seattle in August, 2011.

Two and half years later, he’s preparing for the biggest game of his career, just a couple weeks after Seattle slipped past San Francisco thanks to a game-ending endzone interception. After the game, in the midst of the celebrating and media scrum, McDonald sat alone in his locker scrolling through his phone. Around this time, McDonald sent Jerry Wilson a text message in response to a congratulatory text. It read, in part,”To God be the glory,” Wilson recalled.

Jayson Jenks, a Seattle Times reporter, approached McDonald and asked him what he was thinking about. “Romans 8:28,” he replied, adding: “I’ll take the extra step to read it for you.”

“He pulled out his iPhone and flipped through his Bible on it.”

“‘It says: And we know that all things work together for the good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.’”

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The McDonald family isn’t headed to the bright lights of Times Square for this Super Bowl, which will be played in the New York Giants’ MetLife Stadium. No, instead they’ll gather in front of the TV at their Larry and Bonnie McDonald’s home south of Jacksonville High School. Perhaps McDonald’s fiancee, Alisha Jackson, a nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock, will join her future family there. They will cheer for their low-key relative, playing in the middle of the most brightly lit game of them all.

Clinton McDonald isn’t the superstar fellow Jacksonville native Dan Hampton was. Nor has  anybody confused him with another Seahawk defensive tackle from Arkansas – Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy. But McDonald doesn’t have to be a star. He’s learned to play his own role, on his team, just as well as those Arkansan legends. And now he’s one game away from helping his teammates cement a legacy as one of the Top 10 defenses in league history, against an offense even the ‘85 Bears would have trouble with.

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Clinton McDonald and Alvin Bailey, the Razorbacks’ former All-SEC offensive lineman, and Tarvaris Jackson, a former Hog quarterback, all play for the Seahawks. They also happen to be the only players with an Arkansas ties in this Super Bowl.

 

To what extent does the fact three former players with Arkansas ties influence which side you root for in the Super Bowl?

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Follow Demirel on Twitter or through his Arkansas sports blog.

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