TSAWWASSEN — Spend any amount of time playing the timeless board game known as Scrabble, and it doesn’t take long to realize that the blank chips are the best ones in the box because they can represent any letter in the alphabet.
In the world of college football recruiting, where thinking outside the box is a key to spelling future success, the goal is so often to find the kinds of high school players whose potential is represented by the figurative blank chip.
Grant McDonald has been a big name on the B.C. senior varsity high school football scene the past three seasons, yet it’s been his ability to assume any number of on-field personas that has made him a man of a thousand faces.
And so it was somehow fitting that two weeks ago, on NCAA Signing Day, the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder from Tsawwassen discovered just how much he resembled that so-called blank tile, accepting a collegiate assignment which has him morphing into a role he admits he never saw coming.
“I was almost certain that I was going to be playing defence,” said McDonald, who in the fall will assume a full-time offensive identity with the Black Bears at the University of Maine. “They said they saw me as an NFL-type tight end and halfback.”
Credit the coaches at Maine for their re-imagination of the hard-nosed McDonald, a true old-school gridiron spirit who in the spring of his Grade 10 year at South Delta, ingeniously went into his mechanics class at South Delta and built himself a sled which he filled with weights and spent all of that summer pulling across the football field.
Great hands, a powerful churn out of the offensive backfield, a natural willingness to initiate physical contact on both sides of the ball, and a perhaps most of all, an understanding of the game so 360-degrees complete that he got the ultimate compliment over his senior campaign from head coach Ray Moon.
“It got to the stage this season where I just said ‘You call the defence on the field,’” said Moon, who installed McDonald fulltime at the middle linebacker position upon his return from a nagging high-ankle sprain which had kept the senior off the field for five straight weeks early in the season.
“It was pretty much the first time in my career and it was hard to have to sit on the sidelines,” said McDonald, who suffered the injury in Week 2 vs. W.J. Mouat and didn’t get back until the stretch drive of the season where he helped lead South Delta into the Subway Bowl playoffs.
“My parents, my physio, everyone told me that if I didn’t give it time, I might not be back for the entire season,” said McDonald, who still took his reps on offence upon his return but was not able to play with the same edge as he had in previous seasons. “There was even talk of surgery. I couldn’t cut as well as I wanted to and the offence got used to running without me, so I decided that I was going to be more valuable on defence.”
Which brings us back to Maine’s re-imagintion of his future.
“I think he can be that (Rob) Gronkowski-type who can catch, has size and can hit,” says Moon of a player who was pursued by the likes of Buffalo, North Dakota, Harvard and at the last second, Hawaii.
McDonald may not fill out to 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds like Gronk, but a very attainable goal of 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds would bring him up to NFL average specs.
And McDonald knows that the move back to the linebacking core always remains a possibility.
“Things have changed a little for me and I’ve started to catch a lot more balls from my brother Ben,” McDonald says of shagging passes from his talented younger brother, a Sun Devils’ quarterback.
Yet Moon stresses the most essential thing Maine got in McDonald is the character he brings as a natural leader.
“He is the one, who in the offseason, held team meetings,” Moon begins. “He even organized practices when the coaches weren’t available and he helped with weight training. The kids on the team look up to him. They all want to be like Grant. He brings a sense of calm.”
And as that figurative man of a thousand faces, he’s the blank chip that lets you spell it any way you want.
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