Andre McDonald vividly remembers the day it began to sink in that Minnesota, and the Gophers football team, might be the best home for him. How could he forget? It was the day he told Jerry Kill that he planned to play somewhere else.
The Hopkins wide receiver, considered by many to be the best raw football talent in the state, committed to Kill 16 months before he graduated high school. But four months later, he called back to say he preferred Vanderbilt.
"It was hard. I didn't know what to say. I don't like disappointing people," McDonald said. And how did Kill and his staff react? "They stayed in contact, kept calling, not to say, 'Oh, we've got to have you back,' but just to talk," he said. "They told me ... that no matter where I went, they just wanted me to be a good person, a young man and a student first, and a football player later."
Eight months later, McDonald signed a letter of intent not with the Commodores but with the Gophers -- and is one of the jewels of Kill's 2012 recruiting class.
"Give the kid credit," said Kill's offensive coordinator, Matt Limegrover. "When it came down to it, it was simple. This is his home."
McDonald can be forgiven for needing some time to figure that out. See, it's not the first time he has had to search for a home.
Jenny Blomgren was a single mother at 28 back in 2009, working two jobs -- as a mortgage broker and owner of a cleaning service -- to support herself and her son Tyrell, then 11. One night, the mother of one of Tyrell's basketball teammates invited her out to dinner, but Blomgren didn't have a babysitter. That's OK, the friend said; I know a great kid who can watch them both.
The sitter was McDonald, and he connected with Tyrell immediately. Blomgren hired him a couple more times, then noticed McDonald, despite being four years older, was there every weekend, playing hoops, throwing the football, and staying for dinner. And one Friday night, Blomgren received a phone call from the teenager, who was clearly upset.
"He said his mom had kicked him out of the house, and he asked if he could stay at our house," Blomgren said. "I said OK, that's fine, but I need to talk to your mom. ... She said she didn't care. So he came to the house. And he never left."
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Blomgren never meant to unofficially adopt a second son, and feared she wasn't ready to parent a teenager. But she quickly realized she didn't have much choice; McDonald needed her. He needed support, discipline and love.
"I never got any of that at home," said McDonald, who lived with his mom and stepfather. "I had a mom that had her own troubles, too much to pay attention to me."
McDonald said he still experiences a strong, instinctive response to being yelled at, a product of being constantly berated. He also dealt with other forms of abuse, he said -- including simple neglect.
Blomgren cared. She just wasn't sure what she was getting into. As it became clear her house guest's stay would last longer than a few days, Blomgren discovered McDonald's troubled home life had manifested itself in several ways. He is unusually serious for a teenager, and not especially comfortable teasing and being teased by friends. He is also particularly eager to please, which made recruiting a burden because saying "no" to a coach was excruciating.
"Sometimes in recruiting, you almost have to be rude, because some of these recruiters are pretty pushy," Hopkins football coach John DenHartog said. "And being rude, that's just not Andre."
Being a good student wasn't Andre either, at the time. One year into high school, McDonald's grade-point average was below 1.0, he was already falling several credits behind a graduation track. Though McDonald was one of the most athletically gifted freshmen in the metro area, his future was far from certain.
Soon after McDonald moved into her house, Blomgren went to DenHartog for advice. "The first thing he said to me was, 'Andre has the potential to go all the way,'" Blomgren said, meaning graduate, play college football, even earn a scholarship, " 'but he's never going to make it.' "
Blomgren insisted upon changes. "I said, 'All right, if you're going to stay here, we're going to make sure you graduate. I don't care about football, but we're going to make you a good student,'" said Blomgren, who drove both boys to and from their schools every day. By his junior year, McDonald was bringing home report cards with nothing but A's and B's.
And he was still bringing them to Blomgren's house, an informal arrangement that essentially became permanent eight months after he left home, when McDonald's mother called him to say she was moving to Atlanta that afternoon. When he texted that information to Blomgren, she became frantic, because she had no legal standing as the teenager's guardian. The next day, officials at Hopkins arranged a conference call, with counselors and teachers gathered as witnesses, in which McDonald's mother verbally gave her consent for Blomgren to make decisions regarding his schooling, health care and other situations.
Just like that, Blomgren's two-person family was a trio.
"That's when I realized, well, I guess I'm keeping him. But by that point, I loved him like he was my own child. He's Tyrell's brother, in my eyes," Blomgren said.
"I'm really happy with how things are," said McDonald, whose mother and biological father are both in the Twin Cities now but remain on the fringes of his life. "This is what I've always wanted -- someone to be there when I do good things and correct me when I don't. It's nice to have somebody who cares."
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Actually, plenty of people care when you can play football like McDonald.
He is tall and fast, and DenHartog says he is unusually nimble. Though few defensive backs could cover him downfield, the Royals frequently ran a jailbreak screen play for their all-state wideout, allowing him to pick his way upfield behind a phalanx of blockers. "A 6-3 kid, that's not a kid you typically throw a screen pass to," DenHartog said, "but he's got scat-guy moves."
McDonald scored 39 touchdowns during his Hopkins career, and recruiters flocked; every school in the Big Ten, and several more around the country, at least contacted McDonald -- which isn't as much fun as it sounds. "It wasn't what I expected at all, actually," McDonald said. "It was a lot of stress. I thought I could handle it myself, but I really couldn't."
Some recruiters, too, backed away over concerns about McDonald's overall grades -- and the perception that he showboated too much after big plays.
When Kill hired Limegrover a few days after being hired himself, the coordinator sat down to evaluate tapes of potential local recruits. McDonald's was the first one he watched.
"I just loved him on film. He's got the potential to be special," Limegrover said of McDonald, who could play as a true freshman for the Gophers, a team in need of playmaking wide receivers. "But as we dug into his story, what was neat was, Andre was a kid who at first just slid by doing the bare minimum. But at some point, a light bulb went on and finally he realized -- and Jenny had a lot to do with this -- that he was going to squander it all if he doesn't get himself turned around."
Kill was impressed that, rather than decline to run a 40-yard dash for coaches, as highly rated recruits sometimes do, McDonald ran it repeatedly, "just trying to beat his time." McDonald was impressed with Kill and his staff, too, and said yes right away. But then he visited Iowa and then Vanderbilt, and wanted to commit to both. Finally, he chose Vandy, deciding that he felt comfortable in Nashville. But when his primary recruiter, Chris Beatty, accepted a job at Illinois, McDonald backed away.
As he reconsidered, he realized the Gophers staff had never given up on him. Blomgren and DenHartog allowed McDonald to make up his own mind but quietly hoped he would choose Minnesota. "He needs structure in his life. He needs to be held accountable. Look at what a big difference it's made in his life already -- I don't think I've ever seen a kid come this far, and I've been teaching for 21 years," DenHartog said. "Coach Kill and his coaches, they're exactly what he needs."
It took a while, but McDonald eventually reached the same conclusion. A week before National Signing Day, the Hopkins star told Kill he was coming to Minnesota, and made a promise to himself: "I don't want to fumble the ball, not one time," he said.
He feels like he didn't fumble his most important decision.
"I didn't always have a stable support system. It's something I crave. I need it," he said. "I'll get it with Coach Kill."
That's Kill's thinking, too. "Jenny's done a tremendous job with Andre. She's passing him to us, and now we go to work to help the young man be successful," Kill said. "You know, football has saved a lot of people's lives."