College playing career
McDonald was a halfback and quarterback for the Ohio State University football team from 1935 to 1937. In his senior year he was a team co-captain, and was named as an All-America selection. McDonald’s most memorable play that year was only worth one point. He was kicking a point after touchdown against Northwestern and the ball was blocked. The holder, Mike Kabealo, grabbed the ball, pitched it back to McDonald. McDonald ran the ball around the right side for the point. The final score was 7–0.
McDonald was inducted into the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame in 1986.
Professional playing career
McDonald was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles as the second pick in the 1938 NFL Draft, but never played for that team. He played two seasons with the Detroit Lions, picking up a career total of 80 yards.
McDonald was an assistant football coach at the University of Tennessee under head coach Bowden Wyatt from 1955 to 1962. He succeeded Wyatt as head coach in 1963, but stayed at that position for only one year. McDonald remained at Tennessee as an assistant athletic director.
McDonald’s son, James McDonald, Jr., was a starting defensive end for the Volunteers in 1967.
Head coaching record