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T.J. McDonald and his dad Tim McDonald, USC safeties present and past, are studies in perseverance

USC FOOTBALL

Tim McDonald, 46, who played 13 years in the NFL, is back on campus to complete his degree. Meanwhile, T.J., who also appears headed for a pro career, vows to complete his coursework before leaving.

April 05, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • USC safety T.J. McDonald is intent on making sure he earns his degree before he embarks on a career in the NFL.
USC safety T.J. McDonald is intent on making sure he earns his degree before…

Like father, like son.

USC safety T.J. McDonald finished a post-practice interview Tuesday before rushing off to class.

Earlier, his father Tim had watched a portion of the Trojans' 7:25 a.m. workout before leaving to do the same.

The elder McDonald, a former Trojans safety who played 13 NFL seasons before retiring in 1999, is back at USC pursuing a degree in communications. The six-time Pro Bowler is scheduled to graduate next month, 25 years after leaving to prepare for the NFL draft.

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"I've been beating my sons upside the head on the importance of school and getting a degree," said Tim, whose younger son, Tevin, plays at UCLA. "I'll be damned if I was going to let T.J. beat me to it."

Tim McDonald, 46, is one of several former players who were taking courses this semester toward completing their USC degrees. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers and Cleveland Browns linebacker Kaluka Maiava have been on campus, and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is working on directed research off campus.

"All these guys promise their mothers they're going to graduate — they realize there is something to completing what you started," said USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, who plans to have Rivers and Tim McDonald address current players. "They might not listen to an old guy like me, but they will if it's a former player who did it. Or, in T.J.'s case, one who's also a player's father."

Like his father, T.J. McDonald is a communications major and appears on course for an NFL career.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior emerged as a prospect last fall in his first season as a starter. Despite being sidelined for the UCLA game because of a shoulder injury, he intercepted three passes and led the Trojans with 89 tackles.

Asked if he planned to turn pro after the upcoming season, the Fresno native demurred.

"I came here to USC to get my degree so I'm going to be here for four years," he said. "My dad is going back to school and getting his degree 20-some years later. I don't know if I'm ready for that, so I want to get it when I'm here."

USC Coach Lane Kiffin is taking a wait-and-see approach. Kiffin has said he anticipates that top players will pursue their pro aspirations after three years.

But he would love for McDonald to remain in the fold for two more seasons.

"He's really taken his game to the next level," Kiffin said.

McDonald is a leader of a defense that has vowed to improve on a subpar 2010. Poor tackling and late-game breakdowns plagued the Trojans during an 8-5 season.

USC shied from live tackling drills in Kiffin's first year out of concern that injuries could further deplete a roster already lacking in depth. But the Trojans are tackling more this spring, a change welcomed by McDonald.

"It's all about getting the feel of taking angles and feeling the speed of the game," he said.

Meanwhile, his father is counting the days before he finally collects his diploma. Last year, the former San Francisco 49er resigned his position as coach at Fresno Edison High to finish coursework for his degree and to watch his sons play.

Tim said he wanted to avoid becoming "a Rodney Dangerfield character," referring to the movie "Back to School," a 1986 comedy about a father who enters college to help his discouraged son.

"I wanted to give T.J. space," he said, laughing. "But then I heard that one day a coach was on him for missing class and he said, 'Oh, that was my dad. You have me confused.'"

So while the father shares with his sons the vast knowledge gained from having played in the NFL, his oldest returns the favor by sharing what he knows about their common area of study.

"I do what I can," T.J. quipped. "I gave him some of my notes."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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