TIM MCDONALD HOPED HIS SON T.J. WOULD REMAIN A FOOTBALL SPECTATOR. THE LITTLE boy had to fight to stay awake in the stands while Daddy prowled the secondary for the NFL's Cardinals and 49ers. While memorabilia celebrating Tim was prevalent in their Fresno home—he was a two-time All-America safety at USC, a six-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion with the 1994 Niners—Tim was convinced that by belaboring the dozen surgeries he underwent in his gridiron career he had scared his boy straight into baseball. But young T.J. would not be dissuaded by his father's insinuations. When T.J. was in fifth grade, Tim got a call from one of his teachers reporting that he had sneaked onto the football team by forging his old man's autograph.
"He eventually accepted that I wanted to play," recalls T.J., now an All-America safety himself, "but he said if I was going to play, I was going to have to start the right way."
T.J. could have his pads, but Tim was getting a whistle. He blew it often—along with his stack—while coaching T.J. in Pop Warner and in high school; on Tim's Edison High varsity squad, T.J. emerged as a six-position star, shining brightest at safety. "There was no way I couldn't be hard on him," Tim says.
The exception was lunchtime, when T.J. ducked into Dad's office to watch film. The brown-bag-and-bull sessions made Tim's defensive system, replete with college-style zone coverages, much easier to swallow. "He's never been the type to say, 'You played a great game,' " T.J. says. "But my senior season I was like, Man, this dude made me the player that I am."
That player is one who lines up his targets and pile drives through them with the full force of his 6' 3", 205-pound frame. A standout varsity first baseman and centerfielder at Edison (.418 average as a senior), he quit baseball even though the Blue Jays selected him in the 30th round of the 2009 draft, and he devoted his athletic future to football. He visited USC once and signed a week later. "There was no recruitment process," T.J. says, but there was an adjustment period. He labored to apply his dad's AP-level lessons in defense against more sophisticated college offenses. A sprained ankle suffered during spring ball further limited him to five games in his freshman year.
Postseason surgery restored the spring in T.J.'s step, but his swagger remained lost. So Tim, back on campus to finish his communications degree, showed T.J. the way again. After class Tim would rush to the Trojans' practice field. After getting home to Fresno, Tim would watch practice film with T.J. over Skype. After some mousing around, it finally clicked. "I realized that I had to get back to what I know, and that's being a physical player," says T.J., who was so tough on his teammates during spring ball in 2010 that coach Lane Kiffin told him to ease up. In three seasons (two as a starter), T.J. has had 163 tackles, including a team-best 89 in '10, but also committed his share of personal fouls. None were worse than the leveling blow he put on Stanford's Chris Owusu last October, a turning point in a 56--48 triple-overtime Trojans defeat that earned T.J. a half-game suspension from the Pac-12.
T.J. has made wrapping up and going down with the ballcarrier a point of emphasis this season—which he was thisclose to bypassing to be a potential first-round selection in the NFL draft. "We had so much going that I couldn't cut the story short," he says. So he'll keep tracking his father's footsteps in Troy, leaving his own indelible mark in its place.