From the intense pain radiating from his left leg, Mike McDonald knew that he had suffered a serious injury. But he had no idea how bad it really was.
As he lay on the turf clutching his leg, McDonald peered through the face mask of his football helmet to get a better look at the damage. He wasn't prepared for what he saw.
"The pain wasn't really that bad until I actually looked down at my leg, and my foot was facing way to the left when it should have been straight," said McDonald, a Burbank High graduate, who also played at Glendale Community College. "When I went to pull my leg up, from the shin down it was just dangling there. It kind of shocked me a little bit."
The injury occurred less than a year ago when McDonald, 24, was the starting quarterback at Southern Oregon University, a National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics school in Ashland, Ore. The Raiders were playing their fourth game of the season, a home opener Sept. 25, 2010 against Menlo College.
McDonald, who entered the game ranked fifth in the NAIA in passing yards, had piloted Southern Oregon to a 2-1 record to start the season.
However, on the second series of the game, McDonald threw an interception and tried to run down the defender who had just snagged his attempt. He was attempting to tackle the ballcarrier when a teammate was blocked backward into McDonald, crushing his leg.
"I broke my tibia and fibula, just snapped both of them in half," McDonald said. "The bones were cut right through. …It was so bad that I was rushed into surgery in about two hours."
The injury ended his season and, to make matters worse, doctors told him it would be unlikely that he would ever be able to recover enough to play football again.
He finished his season with 877 yards passing, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions on 62 completions in 116 attempts.
But for someone who has football in his blood — his dad, Mike, played at USC and for more than a decade in the NFL and his brother Anthony is at the University of Notre Dame — and for someone who has fought hard to continue playing the sport, he wasn't about to let the injury derail him.
"I just made the decision to try and come back," he said. "The doctors told me that even if I was able to make it back, it would take me at least a year to two years to recover."
McDonald embarked on months of painful and arduous physical therapy sessions in an attempt to be healthy enough to play his senior season. The quarterback recovered enough to join the team for spring practice, but the probability of McDonald earning his starting position back was minuscule.
Realizing that McDonald would likely never see the field again as a starter, Southern Oregon Coach Craig Howard brought in a slew of players in hopes of filling the vacant quarterback slot.
"Starting fall practice we had eight quarterbacks, and Mike was probably ranked No. 7," Howard said. "We talked about him sitting this year out and maybe Mike just being a student-coach and maybe try coming back the following year. It just didn't look good. We just didn't think we was going to be ready"
Once fall practices started, McDonald showed a borderline miraculous improvement.
"He continued to improve and he continued to get healthier," Howard said. "He just had a fantastic fall camp. He has great leadership skills and the players rally around him. He just has that 'it' factor and he runs the show as the field general."
McDonald completed his improbable comeback when he was named the starter for the Raiders' season-opener Saturday when Southern Oregon took on host Montana Tech. He took the field with screws in his leg and a titanium rod that runs from his knee to his ankle.
The sense of accomplishment that McDonald said he feels to be able to fight his way back from the injury is empowering.
"It feels awesome," he said. "To be able to come back and win the starting job after an injury like that is pretty amazing. I'm just happy to have the opportunity to play again, and to be able to lead this team again."
John Cicuto is not surprised that McDonald has been able to overcome such a devastating injury. Cicuto was the head coach at Glendale college in 2007 when McDonald was the starting quarterback.
"It just goes to show you what passion he has for the game, and how much he still wants to play," said Cicuto, who stepped down after the 2007 season. "He is a very tough kid. To do what he did to recover, in such a short time, is just incredible. He is just a very special young man."
McDonald has taken a long and eventful journey that has ultimately led him to Southern Oregon.
A highly-touted quarterback out of Burbank High in 2005, McDonald earned a full scholarship to play college football at UNLV.
He put up mammoth numbers in nine games as a senior for the Bulldogs, passing for a school-record 2,442 yards, completing 123 of 207 passes (59%) for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions. For his career, McDonald threw for 5,968 yards and 58 touchdowns — both school records. He also was named the All-Area Football Player of the Year as a senior.
Although McDonald enjoyed more individual success as a senior, he was a major contributor for the 2003 Bulldogs team that had a breakthrough season. Along with going 6-5 that year, the Bulldogs qualified for the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs and defeated cross-town rival Burroughs for the first time in more than a decade.
After redshirting as UNLV's third-string quarterback in 2005, McDonald was switched to linebacker, a move he was not fond of. After seeing little playing time at linebacker as a freshman in 2006, McDonald made the decision to leave UNLV.
In 2007, McDonald landed at Glendale College. He helped the Vaqueros to a 6-4 record (5-2 in the Western State Conference Pacific Division). He completed 89 of 179 passes for 1,322 yards and seven touchdowns.
"He really came in and helped us a great deal," Cicuto said.
As a result of his success with the Vaqueros, he earned a scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. But when things didn't work out, McDonald found himself out of football.
"After Chattanooga, I thought about just going to work and I almost became a cop in L.A.," he said. "I was just coaching the Burbank Vikings and working as a referee. But I told myself that I have to get back to school and I have to get back playing football. That's when I got up to Oregon. It's been a great decision."
With all that he's been through, McDonald is back to playing football, and he is determined to take full advantage of his new-found opportunity.