They say that you don’t want a football team full of choir boys, and perhaps that’s true. But that doesn’t mean the occasional choir boy can’t get nasty once he gets between the white lines, and that seems to be a description that fits Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald, the Rice graduate who turns into the ‘Vanimal’ when he is on the field.
Despite his thoughtful, soft-spoken demeanor that you might hear in interviews, he’s not afraid to run somebody over and but a hurting on him in the spirit of furthering his team’s interests, something that he said, via Teresa Varley, comes to him “instinctually is how I like to look at it”.
“On game day I am a different guy”, he went on. “Off the field, even in practice, but on game day, in the moment, the game starts it’s almost instinctually I yearn for the contact, the challenge of trying to be brought down”.
I think it would be fair to say that Heath Miller was very much the same way. Miller was also incredibly soft-spoken and kind off the field. If you met him on the street and talked to him, you might not ever guess he was a football player by his demeanor.
But try to find a clip of him going down after first contact after a reception in which he has some room to move. It might take you a while. He was no Jesse James. It would almost always take the second tackler, if not the third or fourth, to finally bring him down.
And McDonald showed, in an even more physical way, that he has that same personality, matched with physical ability, to impose his will as an offensive pass-catcher when he has the ball in his hands, something that the Steelers have lacked from the tight end position since Miller retired.
“The physical element of football brings so much energy to me. It’s the game within the game”, the ‘Vanimal’ said. “I like the nickname because I think of animals in nature trying to survive to better their circumstances, better their situation. A lot of time it takes making hard decisions, it takes doing the nitty gritty things that are beyond comprehension physically”.
He talked about growing to like the Vanimal in him, even taking to making grunting or growling noises on the sidelines, almost to get himself into character. And it’s something the team as a whole has embraced, as he said that his teammates ask him to do it.
We saw as early as Week Three just how much he can impact not just the offense, but the whole team, with a single play. Just look at Cameron Heyward’s reaction to him trucking Chris Conte with a highlight-reel stiff-arm amid a 75-yard touchdown reception run after the catch.
“I find myself starting to just like going back to ‘Vanimal’”, McDonald said. The team likes it, too, and they will need him to unleash the beast even more this season as he takes on a more prominent role in the offense.