Division III 40-in-40

Publish date: Oct 9, 2013

Former safety helping keep the country safe

By Jack Copeland

Denis McDonough
St. John's University, Class of 1992

When journalists write about the White House’s current chief of staff, they often note his work ethic. “Nobody outworks Denis McDonough,” his boss, President Obama, has said.

That commitment to the tasks at hand dates back to when he was a double major in history and Spanish at St. John’s (Minnesota) while starting for three years as strong safety for legendary football coach John Gagliardi. By the end of his playing career, he had recorded 171 tackles and a dozen interceptions. However, his teammates remember the summa cum laude graduate for his intellect more than his athletic talent. In a recent article in the St. John’s alumni magazine by John Rosengren (author of a published biography of baseball star Hank Greenberg), McDonough is credited for the way he anticipated plays and the angles he selected in making tackles.

“He became a great player almost by sheer will,” said teammate Steve O’Toole, who alongside McDonough helped the Johnnies advance to the semifinals of the 1991 Division III Football Championship.

McDonough also became an exemplar of the Division III student-athlete experience, pursuing excellence not only academically and athletically, but involving himself in a wide range of activities, including volunteer community service at a homeless shelter and working with Special Olympics.

He traveled throughout Latin America following graduation from St. John’s and taught high school in Belize, before changing his mind about pursuing a law degree and instead earning a master’s degree in foreign policy at Georgetown (assisted by a $5,000 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship). He served on the Senate staffs of Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Colorado’s Ken Salazar before joining Obama’s Senate staff, ultimately following the president-elect to the White House.

A St. John’s professor remembers McDonough in a history class for his ability to work with classmates on small-group projects, drawing out their contributions in achieving a result. Today, in addition to writing about his work ethic, journalists note the 43-year-old McDonough’s ability to reach across political fences and earn respect – just like he did as a Division III student-athlete.

Nominated by Ryan Klinkner, director of athletics media relations at St. John’s.