Football Is Will McDonald’s Profession – It Also Saved His Life

Iowa State EDGE and soon-to-be NFL’er Will McDonald might be the most interesting man of the 2023 NFL Draft. He’s into martial arts. He skateboards, he surfs, he plays soccer. But football is his path, his future. And it saved his life.

A candid McDonald spoke to reporters during the Senior Bowl media day last week. Surrounded by a throng of reporters at one of the main podiums, McDonald opened up about his journey to get so close to the NFL. A light three-star recruit just outside of Pewaukee Wisconsin, famous for the Watt brothers, the Badgers didn’t show much interest. There were only two offers, Iowa State and New Mexico, and he chose the Cyclones. Slowly increasing his role over five years, he turned into one of the school’s best players. McDonald left as Iowa State’s all-time sack leader with 34.5 of them, tying Texas Tech Aaron Hunt’s all-time Big 12 record.

While it’s easy to rest on his laurels, he acknowledged his game still has room to grow.

“I kind of wanna improve in every aspect of my game,” McDonald told us last Wednesday. “Whether it’s pass rush, coverage drops, there’s always room to improve. I never see myself the exact same so I always want to improve in every aspect to do one percent better.”

In 2021, he finished first in the Big 12 with 11.5 sacks and was named third-team AP All-American. Great seasons come with extra attention and his sack numbers dipped in 2022, totaling with just five, his fewest since his freshman season. Though extra blockers could be frustrating, McDonald embraced it as a compliment.

“It was an honor. If I had two or three guys on me, it was just an honor. It just lets me know that they respected me a lot and it just gave me a better challenge. Rather than getting through one person, now I have to get to two, alright, now I have to get through three. That just makes it better for me. That’s just getting me to perfect my craft and just do what I need to do.”

McDonald is long, a bit wiry, but with the ability to bend the edge well for his frame. A smart pass rusher with multiple ways to win, he gave Tennessee OT Darnell Wright trouble in 1v1. During a Wednesday practice, he beat Wright on consecutive reps, first to the outside and then with an inside spin counter on the following rep.

Football is McDonald’s game, it’s where you’ll see him each Sunday this fall, but it wasn’t his first love. That was basketball, growing up on the court. But football has a special meaning.

“Football, it really saved my life. Football is the best thing I love now.”

Underrecruited in high school, McDonald wasn’t sure what his high school plans were. Until Iowa State’s Matt Campbell came along and uncovered a diamond in the rough.

“Before football, I was planning on going to the Army to try to support my family, do what I needed to do. When Coach Campbell gave me that scholarship, I was able to start a new life, start a new path for myself, create something and be something big. I was able to challenge myself and with that came discipline and poise and just being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. It is just really turning my life around. It just gave me another chance at doing what I love.”

But all those other experiences, those sports he played growing up, help translate to the football field.

“With martial arts, I put the balance and I put the hand work together for balancing…for soccer, I played a little bit of soccer. I just take that and I put it with footwork with football. And then for basketball, I use that for quickness. And so I put all three them together and I just gotta be the best player I can be.”

His motivation goes deeper than just playing a game. Beyond racking up sacks, gaining accolades, getting paid. He plays for his family, for his brother, who passed away in 2021. His memory remains, butterflies tattooed on McDonald’s neck – along with the earring you can see above – to remember him.

“Every time I see a butterfly, it just lets me know that my brother’s present with me,” he told our Ross McCorkle later in the media day session.

Pittsburgh will likely be in the market for EDGE rush help. They have stars and studs at the top in T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. But depth behind is questionable at best. There’s DeMarvin Leal, who could return to a full-time role as an interior defensive lineman. Quincy Roche has made his way back to the roster while Jamir Jones is purely a special teamer. To avoid the fall-off they experienced last year without Watt, they’ll need to add.

Mike Tomlin had his eye on the front seven all week. Offensive line, defensive line, and EDGE rushers like McDonald. Watching OL/DL 1v1 drills mid-week, Tomlin introduced himself.

“He was just giving me like some coaching pointers on what I can fix and what I can do better. He’s real cool. I could tell he wants to get to know his players a little bit more. He wants to bond with them.”

But Tomlin’s interest wasn’t solely in McDonald the player. The benefit of events like the Senior Bowl is the chance to meet these players in-person. There’s endless tape on these players. Knowing the man, looking them in the eye, and getting to know the person that might be part of the team’s organization. So Tomlin, on the field and during interviews, spent time gathering that information, too.

“At first he was just asking me what type of person I was. Outside of here, he was talking a little bit before that. He was just trying to get to know me a little bit more.”

Mike Tomlin got to know Will McDonald did this week. So did the rest of us. He’s a reminder these aren’t just pass rushers, quarterbacks, wide receivers getting ready for the draft. They’re people, each with their own story, and for many like McDonald, using football as an escape, a way out, a way to better his and his families’ life. That’s the dream, one that will come true for him this April.

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