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Browns OL Andrew McDonald's love for football undaunted by cancer, journey across NFL

Andrew McDonald didn't have time to worry. It all happened so fast.

McDonald arrived in Carolina last year looking for a fresh start. After two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, he never saw the field as a full-time member of the practice squad. Undrafted out of Indiana, McDonald had defied the odds to stick on an NFL roster, but he wanted to defy them even more by making an impact on Sunday's.

Prepared to make a strong first impression at Panthers OTAs, McDonald arrived in May for his physical. He pointed out a bump on one of his testicles to the doctor and thought nothing of it. The doctor, McDonald said, thought little of it, either, but nothing goes ignored in an NFL physical. When OTAs ended, McDonald had it examined with an ultrasound.

"He didn't think it'd be that big of a deal," McDonald said.

Within 24 hours, McDonald was flat on his back on a surgical bed. The bump was a tumor and it had to come out.

Upon further examination, the tumor was tested and confirmed to be cancerous.

"It kind of hit me all at once," McDonald said.

Entering his fourth season at the age of 26, McDonald knows he already can be classified as a journeyman.

He's now with his fifth team in four years, as the Browns claimed him off waivers from the Indianapolis Colts with two weeks remaining in the 2014 season. His only official action came in Weeks 9 of 10 last season with the Seattle Seahawks. He was waived after the second game.

Indianapolis signed him a few weeks later but he never saw the field. When Cleveland picked him up midway through December, McDonald, who was inactive for the final two weeks of the season, had his eyes already set on 2015.

"I knew I wasn't going to get any reps," McDonald said. "You're just trying to develop me to see if I can do this. I went home back to Indiana, enjoyed some time with family and got back here in the spring and started learning the playbook."

Since OTAs, McDonald has primarily played at left tackle behind veteran Joe Thomas, but he's capable of sliding over to the right side or even playing guard. He's been a regular with the first-team offense whenever Thomas takes a day off from practice.

The fit in Cleveland has been a change for the better. He's been with the team for more than nine months, allowing him to forge strong relationships with his teammates and find comfort within the Browns' offensive scheme. He thinks his skill sets suit what the Browns want from their offensive linemen.

"It's nice to actually get a chance to play next to Joel (Bitonio) and the first line," McDonald said. "You can kind of develop chemistry with the guys next to you. Joe's an eight-time Pro Bowler. If I have any questions, which I do pretty frequently, I get his opinion."

Asked if he's currently playing his best football, McDonald didn't hesitate.

"You know," McDonald said, "I do."

McDonald had his mind made up before his blood was checked for any cancer markers. He'd be back on the football field no matter what -- no matter if it meant putting off medication that would inhibit his ability to train.

As his friends and family worried about whether the cancer spread throughout his body, McDonald focused on football, the sport he initially loathed as a child only to grow to love it enough to make it his career. He kept to himself, making a point not to "make a big deal about it."

"I feel like the biggest thing I did to get through that was keep a positive outlook," McDonald said. "I thought to myself no matter what, I'm not going to die from this. I was going to fight it no matter what the outcome was.

"I didn't want to give in to that whole fear type of stuff. I just kind of blocked it out a little bit and stayed focused and kept a positive mindset."

The routine physical ultimately turned into one of the most important moments of McDonald's life. The cancer had been caught before it spread anywhere else in his body.

To this day, McDonald, who stands at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, catches people by surprise when he reveals it's only been 16 months since his scary diagnosis. Still, the months after the surgery were a grind for McDonald, who got back on the field by the start of 2014 training camp but didn't feel at all like himself.

McDonald lost some of his muscle mass during the weeks and months after the procedure. His technique was rusty, and the defensive linemen he faced took full advantage during a grueling few weeks of camp.

"I felt like I was relearning everything," McDonald said. "It was pretty frustrating to me just how bad I was doing. I wasn't used to getting beat like that."

McDonald said he felt back to his normal self by the middle of the preseason, but was once again placed on the practice squad. The Seahawks signed him shortly after Week 1.

Browns coach Mike Pettine said he was "quietly optimistic" about McDonald at the start of training camp. And with the Browns eyeing their third preseason game Saturday at Tampa Bay, McDonald remains in the conversation for one of the final spots in the offensive line room.

"Other than scout team, we didn't get a chance to do much with him, but he at least showed show flashes then," Pettine said, referencing the months McDonald spent with the team before training camp. "He's had a really good offseason here and bought into the program, and we're hopeful he can be in the discussion."

McDonald missed the first preseason game because of a concussion, but was back on the field against the Bills. The time away from the field wasn't ideal, but McDonald maintains he's playing at as high of a level now than he has throughout his NFL career.

He's already shown once he can bounce back quickly from unexpected adversity.

"You obviously want to improve with each season coming on, every practice," McDonald said. "I just go out there and just obviously try to do my best. It's been working out pretty well for me."

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