Second-year WR Darnell McDonald is convinced that extra work will put him over the top in 2000
Darnell McDonald leapt out of the plane at 14,000 feet and let the earth rush up at him for a full 60 seconds before pulling the chute. A few minutes later he coasted to a light landing on his toes, not quite at the drop zone, but nonetheless a successful sky-diver for the first time.
Of course, 'successful' in sky-diving terms pretty much applies to anyone who lives to tell the tale, so perhaps we should use the word 'accomplished'. That's what McDonald, who enjoyed the experience immensely and has a video of his jump to relive it, hopes to become after another half-dozen outings. He came to the sport rather suddenly and thinks he could be a natural.
"Woke up one morning, felt a little crazy," said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year wide receiver. "One of my buddies named Alex – he's a chiropractor – said 'Let's go jump out of a plane.' We went down to Zephyrhills and I did it…jumped out at 14,000 feet. I dropped for 60 seconds straight before I pulled the chute. It was a thrill. I loved it."
Now, that's not an activity that people generally decide to do on the spur of the moment, but when your vocation commonly puts you in the path of a berserk, 260-pound headhunter, you learn to face danger with a shrug. In fact, McDonald thinks his weekend experience might have been even more adrenaline-inducing than his usual Sunday activities in the fall. "Free-fall for 9,000 feet…it's a lot scarier than going across the middle and getting hit by a linebacker," he said.
"I'm just hoping that training camp comes around a little sooner than usual before I kill myself doing one of these crazy things," McDonald added.
In case Darnell's mom is reading, that's not as bad as it sounds; he lists his other main leisure activities as bowling and video games. McDonald visited home near the end of May and saw his family, but probably didn't mention any plans to jump out of a plane. What they did discuss was McDonald's chances with the Buccaneers this season, his second after a moderately successful rookie campaign. It was the only vacation McDonald plans to take before training camp; instead, he'll remain in town and try to outwork the competition in an effort to expand his role. He knows the enormity of the challenge ahead of him, but it is confident enough to have already lined up plane tickets for his mother for the fall.
"I'm very much looking forward to camp," said McDonald, "for the simple fact that I didn't play very much last year and I'm thinking this year will be my opportunity to show the world that I can play ball at this level.
"There are a whole lot of good receivers here (with the Buccaneers), and I'm worried. That's why I'm here working extra hard. As long as I do what I'm supposed to do, hopefully I can still be on the roster and help the team win the Super Bowl."
Training camp opens on July 23 for the Buccaneers, and McDonald, who has drawn praise during the 2000 offseason for his upward development, wants to use it as a springboard to increased play. After being selected in the seventh round in the 1999 draft, McDonald had a fine pre-season as a rookie, catching 10 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, that score coming in the final seconds of a 16-13 win at Washington and allowing the Bucs to finish off an undefeated exhibition slate. He wants to do even more this August. "I did well last pre-season when I got in the games," said the 6-3, 199-pound wideout, "but I think I need to prove it one more time and then maybe they'll rely on me a little more."
Despite that impressive size and plus ratings in the hands and route-running categories, McDonald fell to the seventh round due to his speed numbers, which were not overwhelming by NFL standards. Nevertheless, he made the Bucs' active roster and managed to work his way into nine games and make nine receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown. His size gave the Bucs something they craved at the receiver position, but his inexperience and speed kept him from becoming a more important factor in the passing game. Those are areas McDonald claims he can improve on in his second season while trying to better all areas of his game.
"I figure that, however good my hands are, however good my routes are, there is somebody out there that has better hands and better routes," he said. "So, basically, I'm trying my best to work on all aspects. The one weakness I did have is that I wasn't as fast as some of the other receivers, but that kind of makes me work a little bit harder on the squats and things like that. So, basically, I'm working on all aspects of my game, but mainly speed."
And his inexperience is now shared to some extent by the rest of the receiving corps, which is learning the new offense being installed by Les Steckel. "It's a struggle at first to learn it," said McDonald of Steckel's attack, which replaces the one Tampa Bay had operated under for the previous four seasons, "but after you learn it, you realize that it's a good offense and you can make it work. It's good enough to win a Super Bowl. We do a lot of nit-picking routes, short stuff, then you go deep. What I like about our new offensive coordinator is that he's not afraid to go deep."
And McDonald is not afraid to go deep into the summer to work on his game. When the Bucs' four weeks of voluntary summer workouts concluded on June 8, many of the team's 80-plus players scattered to the four winds to seek a last bit of relaxation before the rigors of training camp. Still, there are a handful of Buccaneers in the team's weight room every day, and McDonald is a regular among them.
"Any day that I can have to better myself more than other players on other teams, I have to do it," said McDonald, who needed just two years at Kansas State to catch 96 passes and score 15 touchdowns. "If I have to stay here extra weeks and not take a vacation, I'll do it. It's my job. I call it a year-around job, and that's what I have to do to get better.
"Every time I go out there, I see that I've improved a little bit. That's all I'm that I'm looking for, a little bit of improvement every time I go out there. That's the whole objective of the offseason: to get better, better than you were last year. When I go out there and practice hard and do the things I'm supposed to be doing, it shows."
McDonald has drawn praise from the coaching staff this offseason, but so have several other members of the team's suddenly deep receiving corps. And lest we forget, Pro Bowl WR Keyshawn Johnson is now on town to anchor that unit and provide a big target for QB Shaun King. McDonald is not actively seeking praise at this point in the year, anyway; he believes the true test will come during the pre-season.
"Really, (the coaches) are not going to say anything to discourage you right now, but they've said a few good things: I'm looking better, hands look good, routes are looking pretty good. But it won't really show-and-tell until you play against another team."
So, for McDonald, training camp will be a moment of truth, much like the one he faced last weekend as his plummeting body reached 5,000 feet above terra firma, the altitude at which he was to pull his chute and slow his first sky dive. His chute deployed perfectly at the moment, providing him not only safe passage to the ground but the first of what he hopes is a string of exhilarating weekends in 2000.