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Big Stage Anxiety? Just Breathe! A D1 College Quarterback Story

It was a hot and humid evening in Austin, Texas as 100,000 Longhorn fans filed into Texas Memorial Stadium to watch their hometown University of Texas football team start the 2013 season. Most everyone there anticipated a blowout over the lightly regarded visiting Aggies from New Mexico State. 

The Aggies starting quarterback on that evening was Andrew McDonald. Andrew’s dad, Paul McDonald is a former USC All American and NFL quarterback so calling signals was literally in Andrew’s DNA. This game against the mighty Longhorns was his first start as a D1 college quarterback. 

Andrew took a circuitous route to this moment. As a high school player, he dreamed of playing in the Pac-10 and he originally walked on at Arizona. Andrew possessed great confidence, something he acquired through the sheer grit of overcoming many obstacles in his life. Let’s start with his birthday — July 31st. That wouldn’t be a big deal except for the fact that it was the cutoff date for youth sports leagues and he was invariably playing catch-up as the youngest player on every team. Always the underdog.

Andrew also had to overcome some injuries in high school and as a college freshman. His injuries and lack of opportunities to get beyond the Arizona scout team began to frustrate Andrew and when self-doubt started to creep in, he made some poor decisions. It soon became clear that Andrew had begun to lose his way and the Pac-10 wasn’t the right fit. Andrew had to find another dream, so he left Arizona and moved back home. It was very difficult to realize this thing he dreamed of his entire life had slipped from his grasp and was not happening. 

Unfortunately, Andrew began to lose the spirit that made him so special and so Paul encouraged him to go away together for some soul searching. During that weekend, Paul guided Andrew to rediscover what was important to him, what was blocking him, who he wanted to be, and why he was here. Paul also helped Andrew with some breathing techniques that can help manage anxiety. The simple act of initiating a deep breath slowly through the nose, holding it for a moment, before slowly releasing it through the mouth can relax us no matter how seemingly dire the situation we are facing. 

Andrew was determined to get back on track. If he couldn’t play in the Pac-10, it didn’t mean he couldn’t still play quarterback for a D1 college.  Andrew’s path back to D1 started at Santa Ana Community College, where he killed it, earning him a scholarship to play quarterback at New Mexico State. 

This brings us back to the sweltering day in Austin. 

Andrew jogged onto the field to take his first snap as the starter for a D-1 school. His dream had arrived, complete with the roar of 100,000 fans. What a moment! But, let’s be real, this was a road game. Those Texas fans were roaring for the defense to smother him! 

What was the first thing Andrew did? He took a breath. 

Although the heavily favored Longhorns won the game, Andrew had a stellar performance, completing his first 19 pass attempts, including one TD in the first half. After the final seconds ticked off the clock the first person to come over and shake Andrew’s hand was Texas head coach, Mack Brown. He said, “You played a great game, young man!” High praise from one of the legends of college football. 

Life will throw you challenges. There will be times when those moments threaten to get the best of you, causing stress, and forcing you to underperform. Breathe! They call it choking for a reason so don’t forget the simple, yet powerful act of taking a deep breath!

This story is an excerpt from Thru the Tunnel, a book by GameChange co-founders Paul McDonald and Jack Baric.

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