But it is also one that has shown people can rise from the depths and bring hope to others who may think they have no hope at all.
The glitz and glamour that comes with being a player in the National Football League can mask the real nature of a person who’s been fortunate enough to make it to this level in professional sports. With every player there is a story – one that can show him to be just an average person who could have grown up in anyone’s neighborhood, or one that can show he’s always been destined for success.
Others can have still another story to tell. And sometimes it is not one that may ring of great memories or be something they care to boast about.
For Nick McDonald, an undrafted free agent offensive guard for the Green Bay Packers, life has been a tumultuous journey of despair. But it is also one that has shown people can rise from the depths and bring hope to others who may think they have no hope at all.
On Friday, Dec. 10, McDonald spoke to an auditorium of Green Bay residents at Neville Public Museum to share his story of a difficult childhood. His appearance was fitting as the museum was opening its newest exhibit, ‘Images of Hope,’ a display with eight stories of real people struggling in the Brown County area. It is the museum’s hope that the exhibit will bring awareness and engage the community in the effort to eliminate poverty.
As McDonald shared his story, the tears that fell from so many members of his audience reminded McDonald how far he has come in life.
After the passing of his mother when he was 14, McDonald’s father deserted the family, leaving his four children to fend for themselves.
For six months, the four siblings lived on their own before they were evicted from their three-bedroom ranch home in Detroit. And for any teenager, a house with no adult supervision is an invitation for chaos.
From all-night partying, to drugs and alcohol, McDonald and his siblings were thrown into a world they were not prepared for.
“We needed guidance, we needed supervision,” McDonald said. “There was alcohol, there were drugs, and no adult supervision, and it was a party house. I will admit it, I got caught up in the drinking at a young age and it should never have been that way.”
To this day, McDonald doesn’t understand why it took so long for someone to jump in and bring the ‘party’ to an end.
“The neighbors had to know,” he said. “But we never had social services call up on us. I think they just kind of ignored it. The church on our street would help us out sometimes but we were pretty much lost. We were supposed to be getting money from my mom, through social security checks, but my dad was taking them without our knowledge.”
As happy memories from earlier years began to fade, and were taken over by lifestyles that could have led to disaster, McDonald knew something had to change.
“I just wish I had some kind of stability,” he said. “Whether it was money or a home, or somewhere to go every night and feel safe. But if my family could have stayed together, that would have been the most important thing for me.”
After six months of living on their own, the four siblings were evicted and went their separate ways. The two older siblings -- who were both out of high school -- bounced around on their own, while McDonald’s youngest brother was taken in by a family down the street.
McDonald tried living with his grandmother for awhile, but eventually was moving from one friend’s couch to another. With a destructive path ahead of him, McDonald was offered the stability he knew he needed.
“After things didn’t work out with my grandma, my girlfriend’s mother, Gail Joseph, came to me and said, ‘Pack your bags, you’re coming with me,’ and she ended up taking me in. Of course she was iffy about it at first because I was dating her daughter, but she said she had to put that aside because she knew I needed help, and a mother.”
McDonald was given his own room in the basement, his own car, and a new family, which was just the stability he knew he needed. And even after he and his girlfriend ended their relationship, he was still a part of the family and allowed to stay there.
“It was a little hard at first, and awkward to say the least,” McDonald said. “But eventually, it worked out and we got even closer. In fact I am the godfather of her child. They are my family.”
As McDonald continued to share his story with Friday’s audience, it became evident that he wasn’t afraid to answer any of their questions. He laid out his entire story to show just how far he has come, and hopes his story can bring help to others.
“I definitely had my struggles and did my fair share of wrong doings. I mean, I had my first drink when I was 15. I was drinking whatever I could get my hands on. We all were. That was just our way to cope. It wasn’t until I got out of that house and situation that everything started to change.”
Had Gail never taken him in, or had the ambition to play sports never set in, McDonald doesn’t know where he would be today.
“Throughout high school, my coach was probably my biggest mentor. He was always pushing me and telling me that getting a scholarship (football) was my only way out. So I kept all my concentration on sports, that’s all I did.”
His focus on sports proved effective as he went on to play in 44 games with 29 starts during his career at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich. After starting all 15 games for Grand Valley as a senior, he was named the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year.
Before he knew it, the Packers were calling his name. And McDonald was not alone on his trek to Green Bay, as his childhood friend, Frank Zombo, joined him on the Packers’ roster.
McDonald’s troubled past is something, believe it or not, he has grown to appreciate.
“Now that I am in a position to tell my story, I hope I can inspire somebody,” he said. “I’m not embarrassed about my past. I’m almost glad it happened to me because I think it has made me a better man. I look at all the sacrifices I went through and now I don’t take many things for granted. If I can go through life and teach my children and help as many as I can, then that’s worth it.”
While McDonald’s story made an impression upon the audience, the museum’s exhibit also struck a chord with attendees.
In a photo presentation also on display there, another picture of the homeless adds to the story.
Jennifer Diercks, a photographer from De Pere, said she was thrilled to have her photo essay on the subject displayed. She also said how she was touched by McDonald’s story.
“It’s good for kids to have a role model like Nick,” Dierks said. “And a lot of the Packers on the team now have a touching story and have used that to be strong role models.”
One Green Bay resident who knows the plight of the homeless all too well is Dawn LaPointe. She is a victim of being without a home, and was at the presentation to listen to McDonald. She is pictured in the Neville display, showing her conditions while living in a hotel room provided by an area shelter.
“I was put in a housing program through the innovated housing solutions, ‘Leaving Homelessness Behind,’ LaPointe said. “I was given a referral to that program while being in a shelter. They paid for my son and me to live in a hotel for awhile. My housing director was given a camera and she asked me if she could take some pictures of me living in my hotel room. A couple of months later I was told my pictures were chosen for this exhibit.”
‘Images of Hope’ is a joint effort of the Neville Museum and Seeds of Hope, a community initiative that aims to eliminate poverty by building awareness of the causes and conditions of poverty in Brown County by educating the community about the impact and complexity of poverty and by facilitating collaborative action.