Penn State Football | Letterman Quintus McDonald Graduates

“To come here and graduate 30 years later? It means the world to me.” –Quintus McDonald on earning his Penn State degree. Congrats, Quintus! 🎓

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Quintus McDonald was a five-star football recruit before there were five-star football recruits. Following his senior season of 1984 at Montclair (N.J.) High, he was named USA Today’s Defensive Player of the Year. Intense national coverage of football recruiting was in its infancy — 1984 marked only the third year USA Today named All-American teams — and McDonald’s recruitment featured plenty of drama.

Unable to make up his mind between Penn State and USC, the linebacker did not sign a letter of intent on the first day of the signing period in 1985. It took a week before he finally told the Nittany Lion coaches he’d be coming to Happy Valley, and once he did, Joe Paterno was not about to let him get away. The longtime coach misinterpreted an NCAA rule and showed up at McDonald’s home when Quintus signed the next day. Paterno endured an official NCAA reprimand but McDonald was still allowed to attend Penn State.

But while football made him a national name as a high school student, McDonald was focused on more than just the game. He had his entire life mapped out. Back in Montclair earlier this week to help run a youth sports mentoring camp, McDonald was reached by phone and remembered his decision way back when.LATEST FROM CBS SPORTSSee optimized fantasy football cheat sheetsSportsLine simulated the 2018 NFL season 10,000 times and predicted every player’s true performance.

“It boiled down to Penn State and Southern Cal,” McDonald said. “I knew I wanted to go into communications. My goal was to become a two-time All-American — I’ll just lay it out there — a two-time All-American in college, play in the NFL for 10 years, retire on my own terms and go directly in broadcasting and just analyze football.

“Those were the goals I set,” he added. “But also in that was, you (can only) go into broadcasting after you graduate. So getting that diploma and having that sheepskin was very important from the very beginning.”

And it adds an element of perspective to what happened at the Bryce Jordan Center last Saturday, when McDonald — now 52 years old — walked across the stage and proudly accepted his diploma in telecommunications. His wife, Karen, added pre-graduation photos to Facebook Friday, and as of this writing more than 300 people responded with comments congratulating McDonald. 

His back story is well known by serious Penn State fans — a quarter of a century long battle with addiction that began in high school prevented him from reaching most of his original goals for football and life. He played four seasons at Penn State, including handling a reserve role at linebacker for the 1986 national championship team, but did not become a full-time starter until he was a senior in 1988. He was a sixth-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1989 NFL Draft and was out of the league by 1992.

However, you probably don’t know why it mattered so much for him to get his degree and how difficult it was to accomplish the task.

“It was very important to me to be able to reach that goal that I set for myself more than 30 years ago,” he explained. “I came into State College with several goals written down that I wanted to accomplish. As time moved on … and then all of the things that are so well documented took place in my life — once I came to a place of finding myself in Christ … I was able to get an understanding that there was a goal still available for me. Many of them were long, long gone — decades gone and unavailable. I had to accept those things, which was very difficult and kept me in the wilderness for a long time. That was one of the excuses I used to stay out there.

“But the fact of the matter is I had the opportunity to graduate,” he added. “I started working on this situation back in the winter of 2010.”

That was shortly after he finally beat his addictions. When the idea of going back to school hit him, he quickly encountered a roadblock. 

“There were trials and tribulations and things that needed to be taken care of from a financial perspective — I owed the university money from classes I had taken years ago,” he said. “I thought that those things had been paid off. … But there was still an outstanding balance.”

McDonald married the former Karen Smith in 2013, and she became a driving force for him to finish the degree. The next to last step was doing an internship in 2018. The final step was the most difficult — a course in microeconomics in the recently completed spring semester.

Quintus McDonald and is wife Karen. (Photo: Quintus McDonald)

McDonald has spoken openly about his addictions, in an effort to help other people who may be having similar problems. But these days he is struggling with a different issue. He calls it “my condition.”

“The whole situation is just the fruits of multiple concussions,” he said. “My short-term memory, it’s a thing of the past, almost literally. Some days are better than others.”

But his instructors and counselors at Penn State rallied behind him. He also hired a tutor.

“She was an absolute gem,” he said. “Because of my condition, my attention span is shorter than short. It’s losing focus and all these things. She was just an absolute sweetheart to work with. 

“She could have easily charged me double what she did for working with a person with my condition,” he added with a laugh. “But she was empathetic and worked with me and didn’t break the bank.”

McDonald knows it was not easy for anyone. He is thankful that so many people cared enough to help.

“It was so momentous for me because of the struggles I have from the mental perspective,” he said. “So they were very, very patient with me — considerate and kind and understanding. My hat goes off to them, because they deserve this diploma as much as I do. They put in the extra effort, all of them. It was a total team effort. Without one piece, without one entity — specifically my wife — without that team effort, this never would have come to fruition.

“Not this month, anyway,” he added, laughing again. “Maybe in another 20 years.”

McDonald joked about his wife’s being “so proud and cheesy all over Facebook.” But the reactions to her post and on his own page caught him by surprise.

“I had no inkling that there would be such an outpouring of love and support and adoration if you will for completing that task,” he said. “I knew my teammates — like Tim Manoa, like Steve Smith, Stephen Davis, Dan Morgan, Chris Thorpe, Troy Cromell, Blair Thomas — the list goes on and on of guys that I came through school with — I knew they would be excited about it. I knew it would give them a sense of pride to be able to puff their chest out like, ‘Yeah, Q did it,’ because of the love that we have for one another. So that was pretty much expected.

“But what came from the fans, the people who knew who Quintus McDonald was coming out of Montclair High School and were excited about this young man coming to Penn State, who many were disappointed and heartbroken — not nearly as much as I was — in the four years there, but still rooted and cheered for me and wanted the best for me,” he added. “A lot of that showed up Saturday in the feed from my wife’s post. That really did feel good, I have to tell you. It warmed my heart, without a doubt.”

Another heartwarming aspect is that his mom, Christine McDonald Mims, was able to join in the celebration. He pointed to her as an inspiration for the way she has always persevered in life and for always having his back.

Quintus McDonald with his wife and mom on the way to graduation. (Photo: Quintus McDonald)

“So to be able to write my mother’s e-mail address down on my graduation card to receive a program with my name in it, was huge,” he said. “To see her in the stands, proud to spend days in State College in a very, very happy and good space was beautiful. She is proud, without a doubt.”

An interesting part of this is that McDonald has gotten himself to a point in life where he does not really need a degree. Years ago, he would walk into job interviews, only to see potential employers throw his resume in the trash upon learning he did not graduate. 

Now living in Raleigh, N.C., McDonald is the founder of the non-profit I AM Recycling

One branch of the organization helps former convicts work their way back into society. There are programs in Raleigh and Indianapolis. He said he can relate to the people he helps because he could easily have been in their shoes.

“So many of these returning citizens are returning from a lifestyle that I lived for a couple of decades — literally, about 27 years — in one way, shape or form,” he said. “So for them to try to pull the wool over my eyes, that won’t work. It won’t be easy, anyway.”

Another branch is the Montclair Junior Sports Academy, where instructors leverage athletics to help children develop life and educational skills. McDonald is also in the early stages of writing a book.

But needing the degree was not what the final push was all about.

“It boils down to just being determined to complete the task that was at hand,” McDonald said. “It remained at hand because it was open-ended. There was nothing that said I couldn’t go back to school. So that task remained at hand, even though I began 30 years ago working on it.

“This has allowed me … the opportunity of giving the Penn State fans and dare I say Quintus McDonald fans — people who have been pulling and praying for me over the years — it’s given them something to cheer about. So it does mean a lot.”

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