Once bustling with activity, UCLA’s football practice field nearly has emptied on a warm morning. Heat glimmers off the artificial turf. The only sound is the squish of sneakers on that turf as Bryce McDonald jogs around the perimeter with a friend, savoring every step.
Each one is a small victory, a reminder that he’s here. He’s alive. He’s doing something he enjoys. He has a purpose as the Bruins’ chief of staff.
The next day, sitting outside the Wasserman Football Center, McDonald glances at the footlong scar on his left leg. It’s a reminder of that dark day in Iraq. Of his unknown fate while hanging upside down inside an overturned Humvee amid a haze of dirt and blood.
Seventeen years later, every moment is a gift. Each morning, as soon as the retired U.S. Marine Corps captain sees Ken Niumatalolo, his old boss at the Naval Academy who recently joined UCLA’s staff, the men embrace. They take turns saying how much they love each other.
McDonald’s presence is a reminder that life goes on no matter what happens on fall Saturdays. The Bruins lost a football game? Well, there’s a lot more anyone can lose.
Sitting on the edge of a brick planter, McDonald is asked how he feels after his morning run. The 43-year-old looks back at that scar, a smile creasing his face.
“Doing great, doing great,” he says, appearing as fit as players two decades younger. “It’s tough to beat football in Westwood. Great kids, great coaching staff. A healthy mind, a healthy body, right? Just try to keep on that path.”
Being a military man does not make McDonald an outlier on UCLA’s staff.
Graduate assistant Anthony Goliver rose to Marine captain. Nutrition intern Ricky Gutierrez is a medic in the Army National Guard. Operations and player development assistant Mike Poppa was a Navy SEAL based out of Coronado. Niumatalolo and safeties coach Brian Norwood once coached at Navy, where Niumatalolo was part of the commissioning of thousands of servicemen.
All share a deep appreciation for a boss known for his admiration of the military down to the precision of his practices.
“He believes in that mission, veterans’ opportunities,” McDonald said of Bruins coach Chip Kelly, “and not a lot of people do that because their résumés look a little different than regular people’s.”
When he coached at Oregon, Kelly quietly attended the funerals of soldiers who lived as far as an hour away. He invited soldiers to attend the Ducks’ spring games and asked his players to write them emails of appreciation.
Along with other college coaches, Kelly participated in a USO tour of Germany, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq, visiting U.S. warships and coaching flag football. He flew home with the bodies of slain soldiers being transported to Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day.
After Kelly became an NFL coach in Philadelphia and heard that a Midshipman had died, he drove to Annapolis to deliver an Eagles jersey with the player’s name on it to the team. He also invited members of Navy’s staff to visit the Eagles’ facility.
“Chip’s got a great affection for our country and those who have served,” said Niumatalolo, the winningest coach in Navy history who is now the Bruins’ director of leadership.
That was part of what drew Kelly to McDonald six years ago, when the coach invited him to join his original UCLA staff. As he got to know McDonald, Kelly realized that all the qualities that made him a decorated Marine also could serve the Bruins in enhancing their operation. He’s done that in a variety of ways, helping to manage different departments, conducting class checks and continually problem-solving.
“He does so many projects and takes so many things off my plate that allow me to focus and concentrate on coaching football,” Kelly said. “He really, truly understands leadership, so he wears a lot of different administrative hats here, coordinates a lot of different things and he’s really invaluable, to be honest with you, in terms of what he does for this program.”
There are people whose military service feels like a birthright and then there is McDonald.
His grandparents served in the armed forces. So did his parents. All his brothers and uncles.
World War II, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq — at least one member of the family served in every conflict. Before McDonald’s father died from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, he told his 17-year-old son that he didn’t have to serve. Bryce never wavered, naturally gravitating toward the family calling.
When the Naval Academy recruited him to play football, a path materialized. It was no Saturday stroll. The Midshipmen won only eight games in the rugged fullback’s four seasons. His junior year, the nation was rocked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We knew it would impact our lives in a significant way in the future, you just don’t know how,” McDonald said. “But it gets the wheels turning really quickly and you know once you get that diploma, things are going to happen.”
Having lost several teammates as part of U.S. military operations in Fallujah, Iraq, McDonald put in to become part of the Navy’s student body commissioned to the Marine Corps so he could lead soldiers near where his friends had fallen.
Only a few months into his 2006 deployment, one of the platoon’s specially trained dogs signaled it had detected bomb-making materials. It turned out to be a false hit. Everyone nearing exhaustion, McDonald wanted to get the dogs back to the command outpost.
“We turned around and headed back,” McDonald said, “and along the way fate struck its chord.”
On a route known to be littered with improvised explosive devices, every moment in the Humvee was fraught with risk. From his spot in the front passenger seat, McDonald felt the impact before losing consciousness.
“I remember striking,” he said. “I remember waking up upside down.”
The explosion had flipped the 14-ton vehicle. Helpless as he hung upside down, McDonald and his fate were now in the hands of others.
A Marine opened the Humvee door and told a quick joke, a welcome reprieve amid the excruciating pain. McDonald’s left leg was vised between two plates of armored steel. A second Marine was called over to pull on McDonald’s arms and shoulders to help free him.
“It was the steel versus the flesh and the bone,” McDonald said, “and the flesh and bone gave way. It was a very interesting moment, feeling all those bones snap, crackle, pop and flesh tearing.”
Everyone inside the vehicle survived. After his extraction, McDonald was airlifted to a military hospital in Germany as part of a hazy recovery. But he never forgot the name of the first Marine on site to save his life. McDonald thinks about Sgt. Major David A. Huckobey every day.
Each year, on Nov. 27, he calls Huckobey to thank him anew.
The next lifeline came from a familiar voice.
Niumatalolo had known McDonald since the fullback’s senior season in 2002, when Niumatalolo rejoined Navy’s staff as offensive line coach after three years at Nevada Las Vegas. The next season, McDonald stayed on as an eager-to-please graduate assistant.
For the season opener, McDonald asked Niumatalolo what he needed in the press box. The coach responded that he just wanted something to write with. He got a lot more.
“He came up there and it was like I was going to elementary school,” Niumatalolo said. “I mean, he had this big binder with different pens, different colors, highlighters. He just went to the nth degree and so I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
With the horrific leg injury ending his ability to serve overseas, McDonald needed a new direction. Niumatalolo provided it. During a phone call, McDonald agreed to become Navy’s executive administrator and military liaison officer before the 2009 season.
“All of a sudden you have a purpose,” McDonald said. “It changed my life.”
Mercifully, his nine seasons on Navy’s staff were unlike his playing days. The Midshipmen went to eight bowl games, winning five.
Along the way, McDonald and Niumatalolo befriended Kelly, the college and NFL coaches making occasional visits to each other’s practice facilities. When Kelly took the UCLA job before the 2018 season, he brought McDonald to Los Angeles to see if he’d be interested in joining Kelly’s new staff.
Reluctantly, Niumatalolo told his protege to take the job. It would involve a higher salary at a more high-profile program while also allowing McDonald to move closer to family in Los Angeles.
“As much as I didn’t want to lose him because he was my right-hand man there,” Niumatalolo said, “I just told him, ‘You have to go.’ ”
Early this year, McDonald returned the favor, calling Niumatalolo to gauge his interest in joining Kelly’s staff after the end of his 15-year run at Navy. Considering his friendships with several Bruins coaches — not to mention his son Ali’i coming aboard as a graduate assistant — it was an easy decision to come aboard in a newly created role where he buoys players and coaches alike with his natural warmth.
“Chip didn’t have to hire me,” Niumatalolo said. “I mean, Chip doesn’t need me. He’s a football savant, so I’ve just been very appreciative of being here, seeing how he does things the right way.”
Part of that approach involves honoring the past. On the Marine Corps’ Nov. 10 birthday each year, the coaching staff gathers to watch the commandant’s video message before cutting cake with a ceremonial sword.
For McDonald, it’s another chance to celebrate, another small victory for the veteran whose presence is a reminder that every trip to the Rose Bowl should be considered a win.
“He puts things in perspective for all of us, you know,” Kelly said, “that what we’re doing is a game, what we’re doing is probably a luxury and there are people like Bryce who have made sacrifices so that we can live the life that we live here in America.”