Anthony: When did you first realize
you were interested in football?
I was probably ten or eleven, and played for my school. I had a natural ability -- that I guess I took for granted -- but
enjoyed the game tremendously.
Were you a lineman the majority of your career?
Yes, but I played defense a lot more as a kid. I was All-State defensive tackle as a senior in high school. I didn’t
move in to an offensive position until my sophomore year at Rice.
Sounds like you were built like a lineman from the beginning...
I was probably around 6’2" and 245 pounds as a senior in high school. That doesn’t sound like much nowadays,
but back then it was rare to see a 300 pound kid, even in pro ball.
How did you wind up going to Rice?
There was an alumni from Rice by the name of Matt Gorges, who played for Rice in the sixties, and owned a business in South
Texas. He was still close to several of the coaches at Rice, and told them I was a kid they needed to look at. The newspaper
guys were also writing about me, and back then, it was the newspapers that nominated the Texas All-State teams. Rice was interested,
and offered me a full scholarship. I jumped all over it.
played with many great players at Rice. Darryl Grant went on to play for the Redskins, and I’ve recently gotten back
in touch with him. Michael Downs played for the Cowboys. We had some good players at Rice, but just didn’t have very
good coaches. (Laughs)
The Oilers were interested in you after graduation, and you attended their camp in 1983?
Donny: Yes, and it was actually a very interesting time. Several guys in the Oilers
camp wound up playing for the Gamblers. Scott Boucher, Bryan Dausin, Billy Kidd and myself went straight from the Oilers camp
to the Gamblers tryouts, and all made the team. They had two rookie offensive linemen in the Oilers camp that were high draft
picks with pretty significant signing bonuses -- Harvey Salem and Bruce Matthews. A team typically won’t keep too many
rookies for the offensive line, so we all knew there was a slim chance that any of us would make the team. We really went
there for the experience, and I wouldn’t change any part of it.
What was your first contact with the Gamblers?
It was probably through Gene Burrough, who was the team’s General Manager. I was actually interested in playing for
the San Antonio Gunslingers, because my high school football coach, Tommy Roberts, coached for the team. The Gamblers had
my territorial rights because of the college I attended, which was the way it worked in the USFL. And because I was a rookie,
San Antonio wasn’t going to put together a trade for me -- but I think it worked out best for me, because San Antonio
went belly-up financially a lot sooner than Houston did.
Were you already living in the Houston area?
Yes. I was still going to school at Rice, because I had left there during the second semester of my senior year to play professionally.
Thankfully, the staff at the university was kind enough to allow me to also come back after my time with the Gamblers.
Anthony: Did you feel you had a pretty good chance of making
the team during training camp with the Gamblers?
Those of us who had attended the Oilers camp kind of had a leg up, because we were in great physical shape for both hitting
and running. Several of us also stayed in town and had workouts in the training facility’s weight room during the off
season. I was a very strong kid, and one of the strength tests the team used was to put about 225 pounds on a bench press
and see how many reps you could do. Some guys couldn’t lift it six or eight times, but coach Bob Young told me to stop
after about thirty reps. Bob also put us through an off season weight training program, and I was close to him during that
time. He took me under his wing and helped me quite a bit, both in the weight room and the teaching of how to play the position.
I was lucky in that regard.
I didn’t believe I was a
"shoe-in" during the preseason, but when week one arrived I was definitely the starter at right guard. I was injured
in the first game and was out the next four games of the season. I started every game when I was healthy, but unfortunately
hurt my knee early and often during the 1984 season. In retrospect, I wish I would have taken a little more care of myself
so I could have played a second year. When you’re told that you’re needed, you always jump through hoops to please
the coaching staff, and I pushed myself as hard as I could. But I got the opportunity to play when many others didn’t,
and I’m very thankful for that.
The Gamblers’ 1984 season was a magical one for Houston football fans, because the Oilers had been struggling for about
three years at that point.
exciting thing about playing back then was that those of us who had spent time with the Oilers knew the kind of team they
had. We knew the Gamblers could compete with the Oilers, and the Gamblers even tried to set up an exhibition game against
them. The NFL at that point had nothing to gain from the idea, but boy, that would have been some exciting football.
The Gamblers definitely brought a lot of excitement to the city, and it was really fun
to be a part of it. I was recently in touch with a curator for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he mentioned how Jim Kelly
often speaks of the unique environment the team offered, and how exciting and special it was to be a part of that team. I
agree that it was a very unique team environment, no doubt.
I’ll bet you and your teammates had fun around the town some evenings...
Donny: The local restaurants and bars were always giving invitations to the team, so
we did that quite a bit. It was sometimes a little too much, and we probably took advantage of some of those places.
Anthony: So it was your left knee
that was injured, and it never got back to a hundred percent?
Unfortunately, the surgeries back then weren’t as advanced as the ones today. They were still trying things that were
new at the time, and they put an artificial ligament through my knee, made by the 3M company, that isn’t used anymore.
There’s the patellar tendon, that runs down the front of the knee, that was used to replace another tendon. It didn’t
hold very well. I just never got the stability and strength back in my knee that was needed to withstand the pressure of another
300 pound guy running at me at full speed.
On the plus side, I’d guess you’re doing well today after having retired so early from the sport.
Donny: I can’t imagine the aches and pains of guys who
played longer than me. From the time you begin playing in school, you just accumulate them over all those seasons. As far
as knees are concerned, artificial turf is probably the worst thing to have happened to football. But everyone wants speed,
and the artificial turf provides that.
What happened after you left the Gamblers?
I tried to make a football comeback for a couple of years, and did some teaching and coaching in my home town of Port Isabel,
Texas. I didn’t really enjoy coaching, so once I realized my knee would never be healthy enough for me to play, I decided
to get in to sales. I’ve sold packaging equipment and supplies, and now I sell automation equipment for production manufacturing.
Anthony: Do you still see any of the
guys these days?
Donny: Tony Fitzpatrick
lives a couple of miles from me. I hadn’t seen Scott Boucher in probably twenty years, and we got together recently
-- he was my roommate with the Gamblers. I know that Ricky Sanders still lives in Houston, but I’ve had a hard time
tracking him down. He’s a really great guy that I’d love to see again.
Anthony: Tell us a little about your family.
Donny: I’ve been married to my wife for seventeen years, and this October tenth
will be our eighteenth anniversary. I have one daughter, Natalie, who will be sixteen in November. She plays year-round volleyball,
so we do a lot of traveling. Natalie actually goes to school with a couple of Tony Fitzpatrick’s kids.
Anthony: Well, you’re a very pleasant person to speak with,
and it seems like you’re content with the curves life threw your way. I do think it’s a shame that your career
was cut short because of the knee injury, and congratulations on your nomination for the Rio Grande Valley Hall of Fame. I’m
sure you’ve got memories and friends in your life because of all the hard work.
Donny: The relationships you form with the guys on your team are hard to explain to
someone who’s never been a part of one. The team environment you’re a part of creates relationships that go on
throughout your entire life. People wonder how I can remember the "team" feeling so vividly, and it’s because
you can’t replicate or replace that feeling doing anything else. When my playing days were over, I missed being in the
spotlight... The roar of the crowd... People thought I was crazy, but I missed hitting people -- not hitting like
a punch, but more of the overall physical contact. The contact was almost like a drug; it was intoxicating. It might sound
crazy, but that’s the kind of mindset it takes to play and compete as a professional. You’ve gotta be a little
bit crazy. (Laughs)