Following In His Father's Footsteps
By Chris Brooklier
The first time T.J. McDonald put on the pads and hit someone, they cried. His dad, former NFL safety Tim McDonald, would get mad at T.J. for being too rough, but after T.J. was being praised for the hit he made as an 11-year-old, he knew his son loved the sport.
McDonald - now a junior at USC - was born into football, right in the prime of his dad's 13-year NFL career. He thought his father was Superman, and until the age of six he thought everyone's dad played in the NFL.
Born and raised in Fresno, Calif., McDonald went to each home game when his dad played for the San Francisco 49ers and had the unique opportunity to spend time with Hall of Famers like Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Experiences like those made McDonald "fall in love with the game, it became a part of me from there. It wasn't just a game it was part of my life."
However, football wasn't McDonald's first love. After going through 13 surgeries during his NFL career, father Tim was hesitant to let his two sons play football. So growing up, McDonald played baseball, and eventually got drafted out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays. McDonald declined the offer.
"I had to make a decision and I didn't think it was worth it. It wasn't worth [giving up] my scholarship or my education," McDonald said. "My dad always said without an education you have nothing, so from an early age I always finished my schoolwork before going out to play."
McDonald took that mindset to heart, becoming student-athlete of the year as a senior at Edison High School, where his dad was his coach.
"You can imagine going to practice having your dad as your coach. There was no slacking off," McDonald said. "He prepared me to play at the next level. The defenses and schemes we were running were far advanced and I think I had an edge over a lot of players when I entered college."
It didn't start that way, however. McDonald was on the smaller side as a kid growing up, until he suddenly blossomed into a bigger body who had the same speed he had as a little one.
"He's a big fella," father Tim McDonald said. "The strange thing about it, growing up he was always a smaller kid and would always say 'Dad, I'm never going to grow.' And then overnight from his freshman year to his sophomore year in high school he grew four inches. It just happened overnight. It took him a little while to grow into his body, but once he got there his junior and senior year in high school you could see he was going to become something special."
McDonald, now 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, played every game his freshman season at USC as a backup safety and on special teams. The guidance he received from his father and the hard work he put in during practice and in the offseason lifted him into the starting free safety role as a sophomore. All he did as a first-year starter was record a team-high 89 tackles and develop into the quarterback of the defense.
"If there's a word to describe T.J., it's relentless. He's relentless in the film room, he's relentless on the football field," Tim McDonald said. "Those are the things we've always talked about, being relentless. When you watch him play, when you watch him cap guys off running routes on the football field and finish plays, when he watches film and calls me asking questions and picking my brain here and there, it's all about that relentless attitude. He has always taken that to heart."
USC was always McDonald's dream school since his parents put a USC outfit on him when he was a toddler. McDonald went to the same high school and college as his father, and he hasn't shied away from the comparisons that go along with following the footsteps of a superstar dad.
"There's pressure following in his footsteps with him being such a great player, but I chose this path," McDonald said. "I wanted to go to Edison. I wanted to go to USC. I chose to be where he was at. I could have gone elsewhere but I wanted to be here and fill his shoes."
So far so good. His dad was a prep All-American at Edison. T.J. earned the same distinction. His dad was a three-year starter and communications major at USC. T.J. is in his second season as a starter and is a communications major. His dad was a two-time All-American at USC and T.J. is blossoming into one of the most talented defensive players in the country. Being an All-American is one of his personal goals.
"You need to have that mindset because to be the best you have to think you're the best," he said.
When asked what his favorite moment in his football has been, McDonald responded: "My first start in the Coliseum against Virginia. Seeing yourself on the big screen when they introduce the starters and the whole crowd, that was a great feeling. That's when I knew it was real, it was time. My career really jump-started."
McDonald showed he was a player to be reckoned with in that game by having an interception in the end zone on the first possession and racking up a career-high 14 tackles. It's been much more of the same ever since.
"He possesses the things a safety has to have," said Tim McDonald, a six-time NFL Pro Bowler. "He's got size, he's got speed, he knows how to play and he's smart. He's got all the attributes. It's just a matter of getting experience in playing. One of the biggest attributes he has, to go along with is his natural ability, is his will to be good, his will to be special."
As McDonald continues to develop into one of the top safeties in the country and grow into his leadership role, he may be faced with a decision similar to the one he made back in high school with the Toronto Blue Jays - to turn pro or not.
No matter how it turns out, his degree in communications won't be far behind.
"It doesn't get better than here," McDonald said. "I came here to get a great education and play at a great school."
He's doing both, just like his father did 26 years earlier.
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