When his roommate's life came to a sudden end three years ago, Thomas McDonald was left wondering what was next.
McDonald had everything going for him, it seemed. He had enjoyed much success at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California, was the team MVP and two-time all-conference after rushing for over 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons. He was rated as a three-star prospect and the No. 1 junior college running back in the nation by 247Sports, with a commitment to play for Utah the next season.
"My roommate was shot and murdered mid-semester," McDonald recalled. "He was from the rough part of San Diego and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was usually with him, but that day I was at practice.
"I spent the rest of the semester sleeping on a friend's couch, wondering what was ahead for me. It scared me, and it was sad losing my friend.
"It forced me to go back to Florida, and I just started working and kept working."
McDonald, 24, is from Palm Beach, Florida, where he earned the nickname Touchdown Tommy at Palm Beach Central High School. He lettered all four years in football, played basketball and ran track for two years. He set school records for career rushing yards and touchdowns, and was a finalist for Florida Player of the Year with current NFL players Lamar Jackson and Travis Rudolph.
McDonald just couldn't shake what happened and the tough turn his life had taken. Among the things he wondered about being gone were his days of playing football.
"Of course it crossed my mind that I needed to start saving money and go on with my life, but I just wanted to play again. I couldn't shake that desire, and coach Tate (Whitten) came along at the perfect time."
Whitten offered faith in McDonald, a belief that he still had something to offer a college football team, one that is competing for a national championship.
"Thomas has a drive and determination unlike anything that I have seen to work and grind his way to get to be able to play again," Whitten said. "He is one of the hardest-working [players] that I have ever met and is a pleasure to be around."
So McDonald made the move to Stephenville, but he continued to work hard away from football while he waited for his chance to play again.
McDonald took a job as a custodian in the Stephenville Independent School District. He had previously held positions such as security, warehouse worker and working for the United Parcel Service.
"I worked five different jobs for three years, and once I moved to Stephenville I went right back to work," he said. "It was a long process, but I'm definitely happy now."
McDonald scored a touchdown in his first game as a Texan, solidifying his return.
"It was a rush through my body," he said. "I said if I ever scored again the first thing I was going to do was thank the Lord, and I'm going to continue to do that.
"I've been playing since I was 6 years old. Every day I'm so happy to be back at practice, to go to meetings and watch film."
And with one more season remaining as a Texan, he will fulfill his dream of playing NCAA Division I football. The Texans are moving up to that level next season.
"The whole time I was sitting out I dreamed of going DI, and now with Tarleton it's going to happen," he said. "It's like it was meant to be."
McDonald said what he's learned most about his journey back is to “Stay humble and don't take anything for granted. It really taught me patience. I try to put myself around good people always. God taught me some great lessons.”