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Where passion and talent run deep

Posted Jan 29, 2014

If you want to know how deep the passion is and, it just so happens, how deep the last five Bengals drafts have been, check out the heart of Seahawks defensive tackle Clinton McDonald.


Clinton McDonald as a Bengals rookie in 2009.

NEW YORK — If you need a Bengaldom fix in the middle of Super Bowl week and some warmth in this frigid polar vortex winter of Philip Rivers and Ronnie Brown and Donald Butler's hijacking of Giovani Bernard's touchdown, you only have to make one stop.

If you want to know how deep the passion is and, it just so happens, how deep the last five Bengals drafts have been, check out the heart of Seahawks defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. You can find him on this Wednesday, four days away from the biggest game of his life on the biggest stage in the world, doing what he always does.

Patiently waiting.

It will be recalled that when McDonald was a Bengals rookie in 2009, he was on the practice squad. But that didn't stop him from showing up at Paul Brown Stadium to greet the bus back from each road trip he didn't make. Day or night. It didn't matter. Even the dead of dawn arrivals.

"I felt like I was part of the victory or a loss," McDonald said. "Either I did something during the week to do enough to aid in the win, or I didn't do enough and we lost. I took that upon myself to show my support. I might just be on the practice squad, I might not be playing on Sunday, but I'm part of the team."

He certainly is part of the NFC champions. Try 5.5 sacks. That put McDonald among the biggest names when it comes to NFC interior defenders. The only tackles with more sacks were Jason Hatcher of Dallas (11), Gerald McCoy of Tampa Bay (nine), and Nick Fairley of Detroit (six). And McDonald had as many sacks as the notorious Ndamukong Suh of the Lions, the second pick in the draft.

McDonald, one of three Bengals draft picks in the seventh round of 2009, has become one of Mike Zimmer's niche players even though he had to go across the country to find it. Zimmer, the former Bengals defensive coordinator, was full up on the defensive line when McDonald began to emerge late in his second season.

But Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn wasn't. Even after he cut McDonald in preseason. He went back and got McDonald the Friday before the first Seattle-San Francisco blood feud in the second week of the season, and he delivered one of the hits on quarterback Colin Kaepernick in eight snaps during Seattle's 29-3 shutdown. He's been playing ever since.

"Clint cut his weight in training camp from 305, 307 to 290 and he's really provided an inside pass rush for us," Quinn said. "You know how hard it is to find defensive tackles that can rush. That's one of the things he has. He's like a lot of guys on this team. You try to identify your role and do as well as you can. I think he's one of the biggest examples of that that we have. He can provide pass rush as nickel tackle."

But McDonald has been doing a little more than that lately in the Seattle front rotation for the NFL's No. 1 defense. It seems his snaps have been split between base and nickel with a slight nod to the passing downs. In the NFC title game against the Niners, McDonald played more than half the snaps and came up with an early bone-jarring, tone-setting tackle of running back Frank Gore in San Francisco's all-important running game.

"I remember that play," Quinn said with a smile, perhaps recalling that the enormously-talented Gore could gain just 14 yards on 11 carries. "He split a double team."

The least surprised people are the personnel men and coaches who drafted McDonald and then worked with him in Cincinnati. When the Bengals traded McDonald to Seattle on the eve of the 2011 season, they were in trouble in the secondary and deep up front. They had just lost starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph to free agency, cornerback Adam Jones was staring at starting the season on PUP with his herniated neck disk from the previous year, and third corner Morgan Trent was trying to come back from an injured knee.

Even though McDonald didn't come off the practice squad until halfway through his second season, he flashed enough in the final eight games and the ensuing preseason that the Seahawks were interested when the Bengals shopped a guy that was running out of room because of the talent in front of him in the form of future Pro Bowler Geno Atkins, de facto defensive captain Domata Peko, proven run-stuffer Pat Sims and swingman Jon Fanene.

So the move was made on Aug. 29, 2011. McDonald for Kelly Jennings, a former first-round cornerback. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis hated to do it. He saw McDonald waiting in the locker room on those returns. The ultimate team player. But the move also made sense.

“If he is what we expect, he has a chance to play 500-600 snaps, if not more,” Lewis said when it happened. “It gives us more depth at a vital, vital spot in the NFL. It’s a point where a guy (McDonald) may or may not have been on the (game day active list) to a guy (Jennings) that probably will be.”

It was literally a big deal, just Cincinnati's second player-for-player trade in the past 21 years. McDonald remembers where he was when Lewis broke the news to him: in defensive line coach Jay Hayes's meeting room.

"The trade was shocking to me; I was depressed at first," McDonald said. "Not knowing what's going on. It was kind of out of the blue. But now I see the opportunity Marvin blessed me with every day. Marvin was always honest with me. He was right about when I was going to play in Cincinnati. He saw the opportunity I was going to get in Seattle, hoping to be on the field a little more, get more experience. I really appreciate Marvin."

McDonald has gone on record saying it was the Bengals defensive line, led by Peko, Atkins, Fanene and Robert Geathers that formed his hardcore, blue-collar view of the pros."They taught me the game," is what he says. And Peko, Atkins and Michael Johnson are just a few of the guys that have reached out with congratulatory texts the past 10 days or so. As you might expect, McDonald doggedly stays in touch and still coaches at Johnson's annual youth camp in Selma, Ala.

It was Johnson that reached out when McDonald was cut back in August. So did the Patriots, but they didn't sign him after working him out and a couple of other teams called McDonald's agent but it was just his faith. He has the same answer about his resilience when asked about how he gets his sacks.

"It's the grace of God that carries me through everything," McDonald said. "I fight the whole way through and He's been carrying me. Even when I haven't been fighting He's still been carrying me."

If it sounds like McDonald has the touch of a poet in him, he does. His mother writes poetry and he's a fan of the works of Langston Hughes.

"But lately I've gone back and been reading the Bible," said McDonald, who has been listening to a radio app that breaks down The Bible in various stops called "The Bible Bus." "Right now I'm on Philippians 4."

So he's got a pretty good grip on what's whirring about him this week.

"It's been crazy with all the interviews," he said. "But you have to realize the media is exploiting it for the publicity and there is still a game to be played on Sunday. You can't play pattycake on the offensive or defensive line. It's a hard-nosed game and they'll try to exploit your weakness."

It may be The Big Game. And that's why Quinn likes having McDonald there.

"He plays," Quinn said, "like he's got something to prove."

But for McDonald—cut and traded and a seventh-round pick—every game is The Big Game.

"I don't think I'm that good of a player," McDonald said. "But I'm working hard to get where I need to go."

The bus is here Sunday. But a world of people is waiting on him now.

   

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