Pat Donnelly, legendary football and lacrosse player at Navy, dies at age 77
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: July 29, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Skip Orr will never forget the time he first met Pat Donnelly. Both high school seniors were on official weekend visits to the Naval Academy during the spring of 1961.
In those days, recruits stayed at the visiting team dormitory on the campus of the Naval Academy. Orr was checking into the dorm and the only other recruit there was Donnelly.
“We introduced ourselves and I asked Pat what positions he played,” Orr recalled.
“Oh, I play a little fullback and a little linebacker,” Donnelly replied.
That was an early hint at the trademark humility of Donnelly, whose prowess on both sides of the ball made him one of the greatest players in Navy football history. The Ohio native was such a superior athlete he picked up lacrosse while at Navy and became an All-American in that sport as well.
“Pat may have been the most tremendous natural athlete I’ve ever seen. He could have played any sport and been highly successful,” said Dennis Wedekind, starting goalie for the Navy lacrosse team from 1963 through 1965.
Donnelly, who ranks alongside Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach as the finest two-sport athletes in Navy history, died July 24 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s. He was 77 years old and died in the presence of family after spending months in isolation due to the coronavirus.
“Pat Donnelly was a great athlete and an even greater person,” Orr said. “If you look at four qualities: Athleticism, intelligence, character and kindness — there was no one better. You then add humility and friendship on top of that.
“There is nothing you can say about Pat Donnelly that people did not like. In fact, it was impossible to not love Pat Donnelly.”
William Patrick Donnelly was a product of Maumee High in his hometown of the same name, valedictorian of the 1961 graduating class and three-sport standout. He earned four varsity letters in baseball and three each in football and basketball. He was All-Conference in all three sports and All-State in football as a senior.
Recruited to the Naval Academy by assistant (later head coach) Rick Forzano, Donnelly was hosted during his official visit by fellow Ohio native Tom Lynch, who was a year older. They would become lifelong friends.
“I knew from the day I met Pat that he was a very unassuming, very gracious individual,” Lynch said. “What a wonderful human being.”
Staubach was rightfully considered the most outstanding football player of an extremely talented 1965 graduating class. After all, the dual-threat quarterback was the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner after amassing 1,892 yards of total offense as a junior. Donnelly, however, cracked the starting lineup before Staubach, earning the fullback job coming out of training camp as a sophomore.
Donnelly played particularly well in a narrow loss to powerful USC on Nov. 17 at the fabled Los Angeles Coliseum. Navy was a heavy underdog but turned the game into a slugfest and had the ball in enemy territory throughout the second half.
It appeared Donnelly scored what would have been the game-winning touchdown late in the contest, but officials ruled he fumbled before doing so and USC escaped with a 13-6 win.
“Pat got hit crossing the goal-line and the ball popped out. In this age of replay review, it would have been a touchdown because he clearly got into the end zone,” Lynch said. “It was the only time all season Pat fumbled, and he was devastated.”
Donnelly was the unquestioned star of the 1963 Army-Navy game, considered one of the classics in the all-time series. The muscular 6-2, 215-pounder scored all three touchdowns as the Midshipmen pulled out a hard-fought 21-15 victory.
That contest, which was delayed a week due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, famously ended with Army at the Navy 2-yard line — unable to get off a final play as time expired.
Hall of Fame coach Wayne Hardin would later tell The Capital how Donnelly gained big yardage throughout the game on the same play. Staubach would fake a pitch to the halfback then hand off to the fullback for a quick-hitter up the middle.
Donnelly, who also played outside linebacker in Navy’s 5-4-2 defensive alignment, was an honorable mention All-American as a senior in 1965. He was selected to play for the College All-Star Squad that squared off against the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and was also invited to the 1965 Hula Bowl.
“On offense, Pat was a very powerful runner and a devastating blocker. On defense, he had great range and could chase down ballcarriers from behind,” Orr recalled. “Pat was quite strong and solidly built. He was very agile with deceptive speed.”
Donnelly was among many football standouts recruited to play lacrosse at Navy by Hall of Fame coach Willis Bilderback. His size, strength and power were best utilized on defense and was thus handed a long stick by “Bildy.”
Donnelly was a three-year starter, earning honorable mention All-American honors as a sophomore in 1963. He blossomed as a senior, being named first team All-American by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association.
It was the heart of Navy’s fabled Decade of Dominance in which it captured eight United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association national championships. Donnelly came Navy’s third straight winner of the prestigious Schmeisser Award as the best defenseman in college lacrosse, following in the footsteps of Michael Coughlin (1963) and James Campbell (1964).
“A number of Pat’s football buddies were playing lacrosse and he liked the game because of its speed and physicality,” said Wedekind, a two-time winner of the C. Markland Kelly Award as the nation’s best goalkeeper.
“As a senior, it became Pat’s job to take on the opponent’s toughest attackman and he really shut them down. He was extremely tough and tenacious and just smothered his man,” Wedekind added. “Pat possessed great field awareness and had a penchant for analyzing offenses. He was always in the right spot and instinctively knew when to back up and when to be more aggressive.”
Wedekind described Donnelly as a “low-key guy with a wry sense of humor” and unusual intelligence. Donnelly graduated 20th in a class of 800-plus and was the first NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship winner in Navy football history. He served as president for the Class of 1965 and also received a Churchill Scholarship to attend Cambridge University in England.
Upon graduation from the academy, Donnelly deployed to Vietnam as part of the United States Navy mobile construction battalion. He did two tours of duty during the Vietnam War then headed to Cambridge for further education.
After returning to the U.S., Donnelly earned a master’s degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served 24 years in the Navy’s civil engineering corps and reached the rank of captain before retiring in 1989.
Close friends said Donnelly was particularly pleased to be stationed at the Naval Academy as Deputy for Management at a time when both his sons were midshipmen. William Patrick Donnelly Jr. played football at Navy and graduated in 1989. Sean Donnelly played lacrosse for the Midshipmen and graduated in 1992.
Mary-Anne “Missy” Donnelly met her husband in between his two tours to Vietnam. She initially went on a blind date with his roommate.
“This man spent the whole night bragging about how he was buddies with Pat Donnelly, who was an All-American in two sports at Navy,” Missy said. “I remember when I first saw Pat, I thought he had a really nice body but seemed a bit dumb. Oh, was I ever wrong about that!”
Pat and Missy Donnelly were married for 54 years and raised three children. After leaving the service, Donnelly worked for Pointe Builders, a company owned by Naval Academy classmate Bob Gosnell. He also served a stint with the Dallas-based Staubach Company owned by his famous football teammate.
“Pat really was the most amazing man — everything that everyone says about him is absolutely true,” Missy Donnelly said. “We had the most wonderful marriage, the most adventurous marriage, everything you could ever want for a marriage. He was just an amazing life partner.”
Donnelly, who spent the latter years of his life living in Bonita, California, will be interred at the Naval Academy Columbarium and his widow said a celebration of life will be held when it is safe to do so. Friends and family hope to establish a scholarship in Donnelly’s name that would be tied to the Naval Academy in some way.