KAMLOOPS — Brandon McDonald knew he would have to come north of the border for the first time in his life to continue playing professional football.
The phone had stopped ringing with NFL offers after six years in the league, forcing the defensive back to sit out the entire 2013 campaign.
Now the 28-year-old is trying to transition to the CFL at the BC Lions’ training camp in unfamiliar surroundings both on and off the field.
“The closest I’d ever been to Canada was when I was in Detroit for two years and that was across the border,” McDonald said this week. ”That was about it.”
The Collins, Miss., native was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL Draft and played 80 games with four different teams over his career, registering 216 tackles and nine interceptions.
His best season came in 2008 with Browns when he started 15 games and snagged five interceptions for a Cleveland team that finished a dismal 3-13. McDonald would spend one more season with the club before getting picked up on waivers by the Arizona Cardinals and then the Detroit Lions, where he had his brush with Canada.
McDonald then signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and played 11 games in 2012, but that off-season the NFL opportunities dried up and he started working as a life insurance and investment representative.
“I was still always training. I never stopped training,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that if I did get that call that I was going to be ready. I continued to train, continued to work out and run to make sure I was in shape.”
While he didn’t get any interest from NFL teams, the CFL took notice.
“I got a little buzz from a few teams in Canada,” said McDonald. ”I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to come over here or not.”
The University of Memphis product is having to learn on the fly while getting used to the shorter play clock, bigger field and deeper end zones of the Canadian game.
“It’s still football at the end of the day,” said McDonald. “Just being around a group of guys who love to play the game and guys who are willing to lend a helping hand, it’s been a good experience.”
Teammates and coaches both said McDonald has been a quick study.
“He grasps concepts pretty fast. He’ll ask us questions and things like that but after that he can apply it to the field,” said Lions defensive back Ryan Phillips. “I think he has a great chance to be a part of our defence.”
“It’s one thing to tell a guy something, but it’s another thing to actually apply it to the field, so the best is yet to come for him.”
Defensive coordinator Mark Washington added that he thinks McDonald has all the tools to succeed with the Lions and in the CFL.
“He’s understanding the game – that’s the biggest thing. From an athletic, skill point of view he has it all,” said Washington.
“It’s been a transition. The biggest thing is you have to explain him the game. This is new to him. You go through the different rules and how things are done.”
“He has to understand those differences but then once the ball is snapped and once the receiver and the offence and defence are moving, it’s football.”
There are close to 90 players at the camp being held on the campus of Thompson Rivers University, but McDonald has stood out to his head coach.
“I want a tough, physical team that’s got confidence and walks around with that swag and doesn’t take crap from anybody,” said Mike Benevides. “That’s the kind of player he is.”
The Lions have slotted McDonald in at the weakside safety position for now, a move meant to help him transition from the NFL to a game where receivers can move a lot more freely before the snap of the ball.
“Some of the technique you can use in the slot in the NFL, it’s not really as effective over here. It’s a learning curve,” he said. “You have to be a lot more patient. It’s a lot more technical. You have to be a technician out here, you can’t really just do you own thing. You’ve got to make sure you’re reading your keys and you’re in the right spots.”
“When a guy’s running at you full speed and you’re just sitting there waiting on him it’s kind of hard if you don’t get your hands up.”
With limited options and a desire to keep playing, McDonald’s fire for the game has taken him to a new country, a new team, and hopefully for him, a new chapter in his career.
“At the end of the day I knew I still wanted to play football and I still can play it at a high level,” said McDonald. “I’m going to keep playing until I’m not able to anymore.”