Andre McDonald thought he had finally put his life back together last summer. After getting suspended by the Gophers football team for marijuana use last winter, he went through rehab and was back at practice, looking like a standout receiver again.
“I felt great,” McDonald said Monday. “I thought I was going to have a great season. I was doing really well, and then all the pressure just kind of got to me, and I just kind of relapsed.”
McDonald spiraled into even heavier drug use and drew a second suspension, lasting the entire 2013 season.
The 2014 season will be different. McDonald said he has been clean for three months and is ready for a fresh start — at Wisconsin-River Falls.
The Hopkins High School graduate plans to play football and basketball next season at the NCAA Division III school 35 miles east of the Twin Cities while studying to become an elementary schoolteacher. He will start class Monday.
McDonald, who first told his plans to the Minnesota Daily, is the third prominent member of the Gophers’ 2012 recruiting class to announce he was leaving in the past week.
Fellow wide receiver Jamel Harbison is transferring to Mars Hill University, a Division II school closer to his home in Charlotte, N.C. And quarterback Philip Nelson said he is transferring in hopes of finding a more pass-heavy offense.
In 2012, another Gophers receiver, A.J. Barker, quit the team and sharply criticized coach Jerry Kill upon his exit. McDonald said he has no hard feelings toward Kill or his staff.
“They tried to help me a lot,” McDonald said. “They are all good guys. There’s not one of them that I have anything negative to say about. They always let you know they were there, but we’re kids. We don’t utilize that option.”
In a statement, Kill said, “I wish Andre nothing but the best and am happy for him that he is going to continue his academic and athletic career.”
At UW-River Falls, McDonald plans to room with Cory Clark, a sophomore linebacker from Minneapolis Washburn.
“He’s like a brother to me,” McDonald said. “He has my best interests in mind, and I trust him with my life. I have some friends that go to [Wisconsin-]Stout, and some friends that go to Bethel and Augsburg, and they’re like, ‘Why won’t you take a look here?’ … It’s not about the best program. It’s about where people are going to look after me and take care of me. At River Falls, I feel like I have Cory all the time.”
McDonald, 20, has spent much of his life searching for stability. His parents were so detached from him while he was in high school, he wound up moving in with a legal guardian, Jenny Blomgren. She helped him focus enough academically to become a Division I athlete.
McDonald said his turbulent upbringing “kind of fuels the fire behind everything I do. It motivates me to want to do something with myself every day.”
The 6-2, 205-pound McDonald was heavily recruited and switched his commitment from Minnesota to Vanderbilt before turning back to the Gophers. He played eight games as a true freshman, making 10 receptions for 121 yards in 2012. Before the Gophers’ bowl game, however, he was suspended for marijuana use.
McDonald then dropped out of school and went through the Hazelden treatment center near Center City, Minn. Next, he enrolled in the Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge in Minneapolis.
“I really, really tried,” McDonald said. “It was something that was important to me. But I went from that program back into the same environment.”
That same environment led to heavier drugs last fall, McDonald said, declining to elaborate. In his recovery he moved to Miami for a month with a friend named Charles Jacque. McDonald took a temporary job at Macy’s and did lots of soul searching.
“I just tried to change, get myself in a new environment, around new people and [Jacque], who’s just a very positive person in my life,” he said. “I got to learn some new habits from my mentors.”
McDonald said he hasn’t given up hope of reaching the NFL, but he is determined to get his education degree. He’s been through rough times, but he hopes he can use his story to motivate his future students.
“That’s pretty important to me,” he said.