BERKELEY – Cal rugby assistant coach Mike MacDonald, a five-time All-American between 2000-04 and four-time national champion at California and the most-capped USA player of all time, officially announced his retirement as a player on Monday.
"It's the right time to focus on the future," said the 33-year-old MacDonald, who has settled back in the Bay Area with wife, Mairin, and is in his second year on the Bears staff with head coach Jack Clark and coach Tom Billups.
"'Big Mac' is truly a singular figure in the history of American rugby," Clark said. "He's consistently demonstrated unwavering sportsmanship and loyalty to team and country. His retirement closes out a generation of our most distinguished internationals. We can only say thanks."
MacDonald's rugby career began in the Lamorinda program, where he led the team to a Northern California championship game in 1999 in a curtain-raiser for a full international. Little did he know that a year later he'd be the one wearing an Eagle on his chest.
Heavily criticized in his early Eagle days because of his youth and inexperience - some thought more savvy props should be on the USA team - MacDonald nonetheless answered critics with an unmatched ability to get around the field, produce back-like ball skills, and succeed in all aspects of the game. By his own admission, early in his career he needed to be a better scrummager. By the end of his playing time he leading the Eagles in that aspect of play.
MacDonald’'s return to Strawberry Canyon as an assistant in 2012 brought him back to the campus where he carved out a remarkable record of achievement as a student-athlete and launched a national-team campaign that blossomed into a prominent professional career.
In addition to his All-America honors and the national titles to which he contributed, MacDonald finished his collegiate career as the Most Valuable Player of the 2004 national championships and was named one of the Cal's top male athletes that year.
Raised in El Cerrito, Calif., MacDonald attended Miramonte High School, where he excelled in football and wrestling, and played for the Lamorinda Youth Rugby Club under a future Cal Athletic Hall of Famer, former Rugby Bears captain and head coach Ned Anderson.
"What was immediately evident about him was his extraordinary athleticism," said Anderson. "By the time he was a high school senior he was doing things on a rugby field that you never thought possible from a six-foot, 280-pound person. It was evident that if he stuck with rugby in the right situation he would accomplish big things."
MacDonald was admitted to the University in the fall of 1999 and played football that season for Cal as an offensive guard, following the footsteps of his father, Bruce MacDonald (Class of 1968), who was a three-year letter-winner in football before becoming a freshman football coach under Cal head coach Ray Willsey. MacDonald's mother, Maureen, had a 43-year career at the University and was Director of Human Resources and Benefits in the Office of the President.
After a successful first year of rugby with the Bears, Big Mac shelved his football career to focus on its forefather on the rugby pitch, where Big Mac was a game changer.
"The combination of his God-given abilities and the environment of the Cal rugby program allowed Mac to reach his full potential," continued Anderson. "One thing that stood out to me watching Mac play rugby was that it always looked like he was really enjoying himself."
At the time of his first international appearance for the Eagles, in the summer of 2000 against Fiji, MacDonald was a rising sophomore at Cal. Twelve years later he made his 67th full international appearance against Italy on June 23, 2012. Along the way he played in three Rugby World Cups (2003, 2007, and 2011) and broke Luke Gross's old caps record of 62 during the World CUp in New Zealand, where he also earned Man of the Match honors in the USA's victory over Russia. He was previously the Man of the Match against Tonga at the 2007 RWC, and against Scotland A in the 2007 Churchill Cup.
The Berkeley-born MacDonald played 30 of his matches as an for coach Billups, the national team coach from 2001-06 whose memories of Big Mac range from "crawling the last few meters to get over the tryline against the Springboks in Houston (2001) to what has to be the best overall test performance by an Eagle prop against Ireland on September 11th (RWC 2011). It will likely be some time before we see another American international like him."
Billups was also on staff at Cal during MacDonald's collegiate career, where, he said, "Michael distinguished himself very early on as quiet but determined competitor. In a program that has historically always had many very good players, he stands out as one of the special ones."
MacDonald played with many fellow Bears while representing his country and many more who will be remembered among the greats in the history of the U.S. National Team. "I’m certain those men, along with hundreds of former collegiate, All-American, international and professional teammates, join me in saying, 'Well done, Mac, well done,'" Billups added.
"Mike MacDonald is one of the greatest prop forwards to ever put on a Cal and Eagles jersey," said Kort Schubert, the 2002 Cal Athlete of the Year who was a member of five consecutive national championship teams during his career at Cal as a flanker and back row player. Schubert's own international debut came four matches prior MacDonald's and his final, 49th, national team match was on the pitch in 2009 with his former college teammate. Schubert also played professionally with the Cardiff Blues in Wales from 2004-06 "His unique combination of size, strength and athleticism is unmatched and extremely rare in world rugby. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to play many matches with Mike at Cal and for the National Team. Mike embodies everything that Cal's program stands for and the current team is lucky to have him on staff. Big Mac will surely be missed."
Former Cal All-American Matt Sherman, who has also assisted on the Bears, All-American and national team coaching staffs after his international playing career from 2003-05, and is now the head coach at Stanford, called it "a privilege to play both collegiate and international rugby with Big Mac. He seemed to consistently have impactful moments for our teams. Perhaps more memorable is the spirit Big Mac brought to the game. While he was a fierce competitor, he also had fun and enjoyed the moment, and that spirit was infectious."
Jacob Waasdorp, who played football (1997-01) and rugby (2002) with MacDonald at Cal, then joined him on the U.S. National Team for 15 tests from 2002-06 after a stint in the NFL, emphasized why so many teammates remember him fondly: "From his big smile to his open-field play, he's a great friend, rugby player and gentleman. Props that aspire to play at the highest level must all take note of Mike's career and accolades."
His opposition admired him as well. "Mike was always a big presence on the field during our 'World Cup' games, too big of a presence," said Spence McTavish, the former Canadian international, former head coach and current general manager of the University of British Columbia rugby team, and a member of the BC Hall of Fame. "I'm sure Jack was sorry to see Mike graduate while we at UBC were simply overjoyed. A superb athlete on the field and true gentlemen off the field."
After finishing his collegiate run at Cal, MacDonald played for San Francisco Golden Gate before going overseas where he carved out successful professional career. He started with the Worcester Warriors, before spending six seasons with Leeds Carnegie, where in 2008 he received the twin honors of being voted Players Player of the Year and Supporters Player of the Year. He was named captain of the Leeds professional side for the following season, all significant honors for an American player overseas.
"I learned from some of the best," said MacDonald of his teammates and coaches. "But most of all, the biggest thanks go to my family and friends. Their unwavering support from start to finish has been the biggest part of my success."
"Mike MacDonald's career can be considered nothing short of a great success," said back-rower Louis Stanfill, a former Cal captain and All-American who has also played professionally in Italy and has 39 USA caps. "From his collegiate to his professional and international careers, he set milestones that no other American had achieved. To stay with a single club professionally as he did with Leeds Carnegie speaks volumes about the type of player and man that Mac is. I am very proud to call him a friend and a teammate. He exemplified what it was to be a Golden Bear, from his quality of play to his leadership. Mac had it all."
As he works with the Blue and Gold forwards at training sessions on Witter Rugby Field and patrols the sidelines as a member of the Cal coaching staff, the next generation of potential USA internationals and professional players is getting first-hand knowledge from the most resilient player in national team history and a true Golden Bear.
"Mike has the potential to be a tremendous coach," said Clark. "He has so much experience to share, it will only be about gaining some time on the job as a coach. We are fortunate to have him back on campus in a coaching capacity."
As an Eagle, MacDonald had many highlights, including leading the USA to their first Rugby World Cup victory in 16 years in 2003, and scoring the USA's surprisingly close 2001 match with South Africa. He is one of only two players for the USA to play in two victorious Rugby World Cup games (Japan in 2003, Russia in 2011). The other is recently-retired Paul Emerick.
He scored six tries for the USA, a record for a USA prop and in fact only one USA forward, Todd Clever (11) has more.
Fans will also remember his strong performance against Italy in the 2011 Rugby World Cup when the USA scrum was under enormous pressure from the Italian pack, as well as the man with the whistle. Defending a scrum at their own five meter, MacDonald led a charge to wheel the scrum and earn a turnover. As the whistle went, MacDonald looked at the Italian front row and gave a little eyebrow-lift and shrug, showing once again how, criticism, pressure, or not, he could handle it all.