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Patriots’ McDonald front and center

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 6, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - Her name is tattooed on his chest, near his heart.

Nick McDonald grows quiet when he is asked about his mother, Irene, who died of liver cancer when he was 14. She was just 44. He was just a freshman in high school in Michigan when he lost his mother just eight months after her diagnosis.

The experience shaped him into the person he is today.

“It was terrible but I think it’s made me who I am and you can’t take life for granted, you can’t take anything for granted - that’s why I can’t take this opportunity for granted,’’ McDonald said yesterday.

But what McDonald didn’t say is that he hasn’t lost one parent, but two: his father basically abandoned him and his three siblings less than a year after Irene died, moving to Louisiana and leaving them to fend for themselves.

When they were evicted from the family home, McDonald and his older siblings, both over 18, were on their own, while Nick and younger brother Chris were separated, taken in by family friends, McDonald told a newspaper in Michigan during his senior season at Division 2 Grand Valley State.

The opportunity McDonald speaks of is playing for the Patriots. He was promoted off the practice squad just 24 hours before Sunday’s game with the Colts and started at center, the first regular-season minutes of his young NFL career.

His girlfriend and friends were in the stands at Gillette Stadium. But the initial plan was for McDonald to be taking the game in with them.

“They were kind of shocked,’’ to learn he would be starting and not sitting next to them, McDonald said with a chuckle. “They were all pretty excited about what happened. They had no idea till they came up [to New England], which was kind of cool. I got to tell them that.’’

With the perspective of someone who has experienced what he has at just 24 years old, McDonald admitted to butterflies before the game.

“You just have to look at it like, you know, it’s not war, you’re not building rockets, it’s football,’’ he said. “It’s a kids’ game, you just have to have fun with it.’’

He earned kudos from quarterback Tom Brady, right guard Brian Waters, and coach Bill Belichick.

“I thought he did a real good job for not having many reps with the first group and just really getting them [last] week,’’ Belichick said. “He hadn’t had a lot of exchanges with Tom, or just Logan [Mankins] or Brian, working next to them with combination blocks and things like that. I thought he did a real good job.’’

McDonald has been fortunate to be with two successful teams: He was signed as a rookie free agent by the Packers, and made the 53-man roster out of training camp last year. Though he was a day-of-game inactive every game, including the playoffs, he earned a Super Bowl ring and learned quite a bit from his time there.

“It helps when you have guys on the O-line who have been around for a while and see how they play and obviously a guy like Aaron Rodgers, he’s going to help you and it was great to see a good team go that far and be a part of that, which definitely helps,’’ he said.

“People don’t think of the fact that everybody is part of a win. I mean, in practice, getting guys ready, I was on the roster but I was going against the starting defense every single day, and I think everybody deserved [a ring], even the practice-squad guy.’’

When McDonald didn’t make the Green Bay roster this season - he was among the final cuts - he quickly was scooped up by New England and went from working with Rodgers at times to working with Brady.

“They’re both amazing quarterbacks, they work extremely hard,’’ McDonald said. “Very passionate guys, great, they love their team, they love their teammates. These guys are winners, that’s just naturally what they are and they work very hard.’’

McDonald got his chance Sunday because Ryan Wendell suffered a calf injury that day. McDonald is the fourth center the Patriots have used this season. Dan Koppen was injured in Week 1 and Dan Connolly was injured against the Eagles just more than a week ago.

Belichick wouldn’t say if McDonald will continue to play once Connolly and Wendell get healthy.

“I’ve just got to keep working hard,’’ McDonald said. “In the weight room, film study, know what I’m doing and just be prepared.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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