INDIANAPOLIS -- There was a time when Gayle Joseph did not understand football. She grew up in a house full of sisters, had two kids of her own -- daughters, of course -- and did not know an O-line from a hemline. A tiny, 5-foot-tall PR exec who raised her daughters alone, Joseph had no clue who Aaron Rodgers was up until last year. She's embarrassed to say that.
But two weekends ago, in the final seconds of the AFC Championship Game, Joseph was a mess. She paced around the television, talking to herself, wishing the damn game would just end. And when Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff's 32-yard field goal attempt hooked miserably left, sending the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl, Joseph was so happy and relieved that she cried.
She cried for her son.
Nick McDonald lives in a first-floor apartment with a broken intercom, so he welcomes guests through a sliding patio door. He has not spent much time decorating this place in Mansfield, Mass., about 10 minutes from Gillette Stadium. McDonald hasn't been here long enough.
He'd just moved into a house in Green Bay late last summer when he got a call that he wasn't expecting. The Packers, with whom he won a Super Bowl last season, brought him in to say they were cutting him. Within 24 hours, he was stuffing a duffel bag full of socks, underwear and a couple of pairs of pants. Before he could even say goodbye to his teammates, the second-year offensive lineman was off to New England. Five months later, he'll play for his second Super Bowl ring when the Patriots face the New York Giants on Sunday night.
There is a stoicism about McDonald that is uncommon for most 24-year-olds. McDonald knows what it's like to be without a home. When he was 14 years old, his mother died of cancer. His father, still devastated after many months -- "I mean, it was the love of his life," McDonald said -- holed up in his room and eventually left town. So it was Nick and his three siblings, alone in their house in Sterling Heights, Mich., relying on themselves and the occasional kindness from strangers.
Their electricity and heat were disconnected; their house, eventually, had an eviction notice on the door. His brothers and sister had to scatter to different places, and McDonald bounced around a couple of homes. Gayle Joseph saw some of this because her daughter, Meghan, was dating McDonald. And at night, when Joseph thought about it, she would lie in bed and cry.
Maternal instinct took over. She knew it sounded crazy, asking the teenage boyfriend of her daughter to come live with them. What mother with a sane mind, she thought, would do that? But Joseph kept coming back to the same thing: He needs a mom, and he needs a home.
So McDonald moved into a fold-out couch in Joseph's basement and stayed there, even after he broke up with Meghan. He stayed for a few years. He became part of the family.
Just after 1 o'clock on Friday morning, Joseph's Cadillac CTS pulled into a hotel on the outskirts of Indianapolis -- McDonald jokingly told her not to buy the Cadillac because it was an old lady's car -- and Joseph checked into the place where the players' parents are staying during Super Bowl weekend.
She is so proud of Nick. He is persistent and sweet and always makes time to call her and ask about work, ask about how things are going back in Michigan. He appreciates everything that has come to him. Tickets for Sunday are like gold, especially for a young, undrafted lineman, but McDonald did not hesitate to give one to Joseph.
"She's like a mother figure to me," he said. "Basically, she's like my parent. What kid wouldn't bring their parents to the Super Bowl?"
Irene McDonald was a hard-working nurse on the graveyard shift. She slept during the day. Little Nick had football and basketball practices at night, so they rarely saw each other. But Nick made time for his mom. He'd stay up late, way past his bedtime, and make coffee for her while she got ready for work. He ironed her uniform, kissed her goodbye and watched until she headed off down the street.
"I was definitely a mama's boy," McDonald said. "We were extremely close."
It was Irene's nature to do everything for her kids and very little for herself. That's why she rarely went to the doctor, and her colon cancer spread to her liver. It is still hard for McDonald, to this day, to think about how she might be alive if only she'd thought about herself.
"There were many times when I remember breaking down and literally swearing up in the air," he said. "It was so bad, not understanding why, thinking that something's going to happen and she was going to be OK just because of all this praying we were doing.
"At times I struggle with my faith. But I believe she's up there and watching, for sure."
He gets his work ethic, and tenacity, from Irene. She lasted eight months after her diagnosis, and when she died, the family fell apart. They were kids, dealing with a double-wallop of losing two parents. (McDonald's older brother was 18). Eventually, they did what teenagers do when they're unsupervised. They had parties and drank alcohol. One day, they had an eviction notice on the door.
It was probably the best thing to happen to McDonald. His father found places to stay for Nick and his younger brother, Chris, but Nick's home didn't pan out. That's when Joseph intervened. McDonald didn't put up any sort of a fight. He'd been hanging out there quite frequently, and yearned for some kind of stability.
At his new home, he had lunch money and a warm bed. He got his driver's license. He finally felt like a normal teenager. His second week at the house, McDonald asked if they could host a spaghetti dinner for his basketball team. The only time Joseph watched sports was when Meghan was cheerleading. But Joseph had the team over, and learned what a layup and a left tackle were, because she knew how much it meant to Nick.
He'd wanted to play in the NFL, even before he really knew what that meant. Irene had made him a little scrapbook when he was in first grade. It was full of questions. One of them was, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
NFL FOOTBALL PLAYER, McDonald wrote.
The words leveled McDonald like a pancake block. He was flunking out of college at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., and had just gotten busted for alcohol. His offensive line coach called him in for a talk.
Maybe McDonald had too much sadness in his life. Maybe all that drive Irene put in him wasn't enough. The coach sat him down, and told McDonald that this was his last chance.
"He said, 'We're about to kick you off this team,'" McDonald recalled. "He said, 'You could do something great, and you're blowing it. And what are you going to go back to? This is it. You need to get your crap together.'"
McDonald did. He worked harder. The kid who came to Grand Valley small and raw became all-conference. He won a Division II national championship. In his final college game, a loss to Northwest Missouri State in the championship, he stood on the podium and thanked Joseph for everything she did.
She wasn't expecting it. Parents don't need thank-yous, she said.
McDonald's road was about to get even tougher, because he wasn't invited to the NFL combine and subsequently spent three days without getting a phone call during the NFL draft. The Packers called in the frenzied hours after the draft, and after a summer in Green Bay, he earned a spot on the team. The Green Bay Press Gazette called McDonald one of the biggest surprises to survive the final cut.
The Packers liked his versatility. He played guard and center in the preseason. Green Bay's front office has helped build its team around guys like McDonald, overlooked players with solid work ethics who fill in holes. But the NFL lockout cut the 2011 offseason short, and McDonald didn't make the most of his chances. He admittedly had a bad game in the final preseason contest, but had no idea it was so bad that he'd have to turn in his playbook.
The Packers told him they hoped he'd stick around and play on their practice squad, something McDonald's agent, Joe Linta, thought wasn't in his client's best interest. He was going the wrong way. Linta made some calls, and New England was interested.
"Once you hear this kid's story, you're like, 'Oh my god,'" Linta said. "You would think he grew up with Ward and June Cleaver. He was so well-mannered. He never wore his past on his sleeve. He was the kind of guy you really wanted to work hard for and wanted to help him with his dream."
In October, Seattle called and wanted to activate him. McDonald was "two seconds away" from leaving, according to Linta, but he convinced him to stay. A few weeks later, Patriots center Dan Connolly was injured, and McDonald was pressed into action. He was activated Dec. 3 and started in the Dec. 4 game against the Indianapolis Colts, and has played in four games.
"He's been great," Connolly said. "We were lucky to get him. He was on the practice squad, but I think everybody knew he was a good player. The coaches saw that in him, too. He was able to step right in and we didn't miss a beat. I think it's a tribute to his hard work and really knowing the system and learning it quickly and being ready to go."
It was the Monday night after the big AFC Championship win against the Ravens, and McDonald was watching "Jeopardy!" at his apartment while his dog -- a behemoth, 8-month-old Bernese Mountain dog -- crashed against a bedroom door.
McDonald got Mack when he was in Green Bay. He's a hunting dog, he'll get even bigger, and McDonald plans to train him in the offseason when things finally slow down. He sat on his couch, near the old bag he packed his belongings in five months ago, and wondered if things will ever slow down.
"I never thought any of this was possible," he said. "It's crazy."
His brothers will be in Indianapolis on Sunday, and they'll be the only ones who truly know how crazy all of this has been. It was heart-wrenching when they had to separate. But they were never far away from each other.
Joseph picked up McDonald's brothers on Thursday night, and they all rode together, across Michigan, to the Super Bowl. Should the Patriots win, they will go on the field and find Nick and celebrate. Just like all of the other families.
Well, not like all the other families. Meghan eventually got married, had a daughter, and needed a godfather. She asked McDonald. It didn't seem strange. It almost seemed perfect.
"We aren't blood family," Joseph said, "but we love him just as much."