You often hear what a difference a day makes.
For Vance McDonald, it’s been what a difference a year makes.
McDonald was traded to the Steelers just days before the 2017 season started, thrown right into the mix while barely knowing his surroundings, his teammates, let alone the offense.
But as the 2018 season ended, it was a world of difference for McDonald.
“For me personally, what sticks out from the 2018 season, it’s the difference of coming into an established, successful group of guys in the locker room. Shaking that feeling of being the outsider that you have when you first arrive so late,” said McDonald. “The guys welcomed me right away my first year here, but I still felt like I was so new. I only knew what I knew being in San Francisco for five years. Coming in to a place here where everything is unknown, shaking that and being able to enjoy on a whole new level this season versus last. It was a lot of fun. It was different. So much more personable with relationships. Everything takes on a whole new meaning.”
Being around last offseason for voluntary workouts, OTAs, minicamp, and most importantly training camp was just what the doctor ordered for McDonald and was something that to his success on the field this season.
“You can’t give it a value until it happens,” said McDonald. “Jumping in last year nine days before the first game of the season to this year having that whole offseason process, it made a world of difference for sure. I don’t think you can gauge it until it happens.
“The best way to describe it is you move from being a student where you constantly study to now you know it so well you can interpret it, research, you can change and feel comfortable changing. You have a voice in the material that is being presented instead of just trying to study it as much as you can and just retain it for the game.”
There was another thing that McDonald couldn’t give value to until it happened and that was his relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. Spending time working together last offseason, in training camp, and even their proximity to each other in the locker room has paid off. McDonald moved his locker last offseason to an empty one next to Roethlisberger, giving them even just moments here and there to talk and share their take on things.
“We had to put some things in fast forward last year, whether it was chemistry and route running, the level of comfort he had with me in matchups, ball location. There are so many things that go into it,” said McDonald. “It’s amazing how much of that can be solved just being around a guy. That was great for us.
“There were some days we didn’t even speak other than just saying what is up, those types of things. But it was big. I think about how in the NFL so much of that team is eliminated from what you know in college. Just take Ben, he is 15 years in already. You take a rookie this year and that is a huge age difference. Some guys have established families. Some guys are in bachelorhood. We have so many differences. It’s hard to replace the things that come naturally in college. Things like you all just left home for the first time, you are all young, and you are the same age. You are all students. There are natural things you have in common.
“It’s so hard to do that already with an NFL team. But it’s so easy when you have the ability to spend time together. That closeness. The locker. It helps. It always helps.”
While feeling comfortable, building bonds and the like were one of the main things that stood out for McDonald in 2018, there was one other thing that kind of got the attention of many, and McDonald himself.
It was that stiff arm. You remember it, because how could you forget. The one that appeared in every highlight film everywhere and took social media by storm.
Monday Night Football against Tampa Bay. Roethlisberger hit McDonald short, and McDonald gave Bucs safety Chris Conte a stiff arm that was seen and heard throughout the NFL and beyond, as he basically threw him to the ground and took it 75 yards for a touchdown.
“It will for sure be a play I always remember,” said McDonald. “It was such a cool thing to see the progress of how it blew up. And the notoriety that came from my friends and family from back home, to everyone I ever met. It was cool to have that be such a talking point.
“I am humbled by it just because that one moment could be so big in my life. It was just a brief moment, just a flash in my life. But it was cool, really cool.”