Nov. 2, 2005
By Christina Teller
BERKELEY, Calif. - The football team files up the stadium steps after practice, looking forward to the warmth of the locker room and some rest at the end of the day. But Donnie McCleskey isn't quite done. In fact, he'll probably be on the field for another half hour - at least.
McCleskey sets up coverage situations with teammate and fellow defensive back Harrison Smith, perfecting their timing in pursuit of the ball. But it's not just this evening that McCleskey, a senior rover on the No. 21-ranked Cal Bears football team, is the last one off the field. He does this pretty much every night, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Cal football program seeing what the Chino, Calif., native has had to overcome in the past year: two surgeries, many sleepless nights and unrelenting pain.
"I take pain pretty well, but I was hurting bad," said the 5-10, 190-pound McCleskey. "I remember all last year I couldn't even wear a backpack, especially on my right shoulder. I couldn't sleep on my right shoulder. I practiced maybe a day or so out of the week. Anything you could think of going wrong was going wrong, it felt like."
After debuting as freshman in 2002, McCleskey put on a show his sophomore year. By season's end, he had racked up 102 tackles - breaking Cal's defensive back record for tackles - earning All-Pac-10 and All-America honors. Riding high after the team voted him Most Valuable Defensive Player, McCleskey came face to face with the injury curse during training camp the fall of 2004.
Looking back, McCleskey thinks he might have come back too quickly after the off-season knee surgery he underwent before the 2004 fall training camp. Only a couple of days into camp, he re-injured his right knee. Two days later, McCleskey felt his shoulder blow out after a hit in practice.
"He should have gotten surgery [on his shoulder], but he wanted to play so he could still help the team," said J.D. Williams, who is the coach of the Cal secondary. "The guy was walking out there in a ton of pain. He's just a true team player."
He saw limited playing time throughout the 2004 season and learned to accept a diminished role, playing behind Matt Giordano.
"I've always sacrificed for the sake of the team," McCleskey said. "I just go out there and do the best I can. If it's one play, it's one play. Some people play okay when they're hurting a little bit - anyone can play hurt. But I was trying to play injured."
Without full use of his strength and physical ability, the rover had to learn the nuances of the defense and make smarter decisions. He had to learn where his help was going to come from and when he'd be on his own. He learned to put himself in better situations knowing he wouldn't be able to physically overpower opposing players.
"Being in that situation and being somewhat handicapped to life, I became a better football player and a better person actually," McCleskey said.
In the offseason, he had arthroscopic surgery on his knee and his shoulder operated on, which brought McCleskey to a five-month stretch of rehabbing and regaining the strength in the right side of his body.
"I needed to get certain body parts stronger," McCleskey said. "You lose strength from having surgery. Any little thing I could do, from going to run a little earlier, to studying film all summer ... whatever little thing I could do, I did it."
Not only did McCleskey have to work back into playing shape, he had to regain strength for one of the most demanding positions on the field. Playing rover requires the strong points of both the cornerback and linebacker positions.
"You've got to be able to cover like a corner and hit like a linebacker," Williams said. "The position is physically demanding. On one down he's tackling the running back; the next he's hitting offensive tackles. It takes a special athlete to play that position. He's a special kid."
This season, McCleskey is moving around at full strength and doesn't have to hold back anymore. Before the Oregon game, he ranked second on the team in tackles with 41 (31 solo and 10 assisted). He's recorded four tackles for loss and two sacks. Statistics are important, but the senior defensive back experiences the most satisfaction from just being able to be a part of the Golden Bear football team again.
"When you don't practice, it feels like I'm cheating myself and cheating my team," McCleskey said. "Now I'm getting the chance to practice and laugh and joke out there. I get to play with them more than once a week. It's an amazing thing to get to share that with the team, to not feel excluded from the team.
"Being able to be feel included in the team, there's no better feeling than that."
After McCleskey completes his post-practice routine, he collects his belongings and starts heading for the stairs. His work may be done for the evening, but he knows there's plenty left to do in the coming weeks and months. But if anyone's been watching McCleskey over the past three years, they know that he won't shy away from a little hard work.