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Paths Of McDonald, Zombo Cross Again


Back on the night of April 24, following the completion of the third and final day of the NFL Draft, hopeful prospect Nick McDonald had just received the news from his agent that the Green Bay Packers were offering him a free-agent contract.

So McDonald and his girlfriend headed down the road to the local mall to pick up some hats and shirts with that famous 'G' logo.

While shopping, McDonald was mostly paying attention to his phone, returning text messages from friends and well-wishers, but he and his girlfriend did notice a couple of other guys stocking up on Packers gear as well. Naturally, they wondered what was up, and one of the other visitors, whom they didn't recognize, said his brother had just been signed by Green Bay.

"Really?" McDonald asked. "Who's your brother?"

"Frank Zombo," came the reply.

McDonald just about dropped his phone. Then he grabbed it, found Zombo's number, and called him right away.

"Hey Frank, you get picked up by a team? ... Green Bay, huh. ... Well, I guess we're going there together."

And with that, culminating in a plane ride together five days later for the Packers' rookie orientation, the athletic lives of McDonald and Zombo had crossed once again, this time in by far the most significant way.

You see, the two natives of Sterling Heights, Mich., go back. Way back. Growing up in one of the largest suburbs of Detroit, McDonald was the star athlete in his part of town, Zombo in his. Little League baseball, youth basketball, of course football, ... you name it. Without knowing one another personally, they knew of each other from the beginning.

They attended crosstown-rival high schools. McDonald's Henry Ford High sits just a few miles from Zombo's Adlai Stevenson High, and the two schools actually shared a home field for games, at Stevenson, with opposing nicknames and logos painted in the two end zones.

When they signed their letters of intent to accept college scholarship offers to different Michigan schools - McDonald to Division II Grand Valley State in Allendale, and Zombo to Division I Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant - their separate pictures were in the same newspaper on the same day.

Then just this spring, in the days leading up to the NFL Draft, the two bumped into each other at a pre-draft workout for the Detroit Lions. They caught up on some old times, wished each other luck in the workout, and exchanged phone numbers.

But who could have guessed McDonald would be dialing that number in a suburban Detroit mall during a chance encounter with Zombo's brother, having learned both players were offered contracts to join the Packers a mere hours, if not minutes, apart?

"When my brother saw another family at the store buying a whole bunch of Green Bay stuff," Zombo said, "he was like, 'Either these people are really big Zombo fans, or ...'

"It is pretty crazy."

Even crazier when the two think back to the fall of 2004, their senior year of high school, when Ford and Stevenson met in the annual rivalry game. At the time, McDonald was playing tight end and Zombo was a defensive end, so they knocked heads plenty for those four quarters, and six years after staring through facemasks across the line of scrimmage at one another their lockers are a mere few feet apart in the Packers' auxiliary locker room.

But back to that game for a minute. With Ford the "home" team, the underdog Falcons chalked up a big upset win that got them above .500 and into the state playoffs.

"I'm pretty sure they were undefeated at the time, and we ended up beating them," McDonald said. "We never beat Stevenson. We'd always get our (rear ends) kicked. My junior year we lost like 38-0, they just killed us. But we came out and beat them, I think it was 17-14, and our fans rushed the field. That's the biggest high school game I'll remember."

Zombo remembers it too, of course. Stevenson went on to reach the state championship game before the Titans lost again, but that loss to Ford, whose logo Zombo and his mates had to look at every day, not only in one end zone of their field but on the press box too, never sat well.

"They had always kind of been like our little brother, but they actually beat us that year," Zombo said. "We were the better team. We just looked past them that game I guess."

Now the goal for both players is not to get overlooked as they try to take the long road from non-drafted free agent to a final NFL roster spot.

Both are making transitions to new positions. For Zombo, he's switching from defensive end to outside linebacker in Green Bay's 3-4 scheme, and the new responsibilities are challenging to be sure.

"Being a defensive end and only rushing the passer and stopping the run to now having to convert and dropping into coverage, it's a lot different from college," said Zombo, whose 6-foot-3, 254-pound build is nearly ideal for the position. "I feel like I'm pretty decent with pass rushing, but it's just the coverage part I'm really going to have to work on. And getting the plays down in the playbook."

{sportsad300}Once this month's OTAs and mini-camp are done, Zombo plans to return to Central Michigan and try to get some work in during his former teammates' 7-on-7 drills to focus specifically on those coverage skills.

McDonald (6-4, 316) plans to use the time off to build some strength as he switches back to guard (the position he played as a junior at Grand Valley State before moving to tackle as a senior) and also learns to play center for the first time.

"Center is a different world on the O-line," he said. "You have to be in sync with the quarterback, and that's my biggest thing right now. You have to identify (defenders) here, and if guys move you have to re-identify, and the whole time you're listening to the snap count, listening for calls.

"It's pretty new but I fell in love with it pretty quick. I'm hoping over the summer and the rest of OTAs I'll get the hang of it quicker. I just need more reps."

Regardless of what happens from here, McDonald and Zombo already have a pretty good story to tell. They'd both love for the next chapter to be longer than one summer together in green and gold, but they'll know soon enough.

"They say less than 1 percent of kids playing football growing up go to the NFL, and you've got two kids from the same town, same team," Zombo said. "What are the odds, you know?"

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