Greatest Athlete #7: A love of punting carried Rick Donnelly into NFL

08/11/2011 7:57 AM |

As a running joke, Mitch Wolman and some of his close friends who grew up in Miller Place will test their knowledge of one another with trivia.

GEORGE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES PHOTO | Miller Place graduate Rick Donnelly was a two-time All-Pro punter in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.

GEORGE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES PHOTO | Miller Place graduate Rick Donnelly was a two-time All-Pro punter in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.

A recent question came up about their friend Rick Donnelly: Which team from the United States Football League drafted him?

The answer: The San Antonio Gunslingers in 1985, in the 14th round, 192nd overall.

It would take a close friend to effortlessly roll that fact off the tongue. Donnelly never did play for the Gunslingers in the now defunct league that operated in the shadow of a much more notable one from 1983-87.

No, Donnelly had his sights set much higher.

He eschewed the invitation to San Antonio and instead packed his bags for New England.

A tryout with the NFL’s Patriots awaited.

Years after his career as a professional football player ended, Rick Donnelly, now 49, could still be spotted in the parks or schools around his Wyoming home with a bag of footballs. He wouldn’t need a receiver to throw to or a blocker to run behind. He’d simply punt. Just as he did as a kid back on Long Island decades earlier, a serene setting like a basketball player swishing baskets in the driveway as the sun sets on a summer night.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve loved to punt and any chance I get, I do it,” Donnelly told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in 2006.

Punter may not be the most glamorous position on the football field, but Donnelly found his calling in it at an early age and he went on to become a two-time All-Pro in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. He grew up playing the more prestigious quarterback position throughout his youth, but it was always the play on fourth down, when a defeated group of offensive players lowered their heads and shrugged off to the sideline that kept Donnelly most interested.

You would almost half-expect him to intentionally miss a receiver on third down just to get the chance to punt.

Even when he watches NFL games now, he mostly looks forward to a team punting. The hard hits? Electrifying runs? Deep sideline passes? That’s not his style.

Donnelly grew up in the same neighborhood as Buddy Read, an outstanding athlete in his own right at Miller Place High School. Read, who now teaches and coaches at Mount Sinai, was three years older than Donnelly. With a strong leg of his own ­— Read was an All-County soccer player in 1976 — he would face off against Donnelly in punting contests out in front of their houses. The street featured plenty of tree branches that made precision all the more vital.

“We had our own game and we had our own rules,” Read said. “We would literally play for a few hours at a time uninterrupted just going at it. And it was fun. There wasn’t anything better than that.”

Read played football in junior high and was the team’s punter, but never continued with the sport, instead focusing more on tennis and basketball.

Donnelly never had great interest in watching sports as a kid, but he found he was awfully good at playing them. He came up in the Miller Place district during the infancy of the school and football program. In 1973 the school featured a junior high and junior varsity team for the first time. The following season began the varsity program with a night game at Bishop-McGann Mercy.

At the same time in the junior high, Rick Donnelly and his friend Mitch Wolman were getting their first crack at playing organized football together as seventh-graders. Wolman, who teaches at Mount Sinai now, came up playing center and linebacker. He’d develop a close friendship with Donnelly, whose hands he’d snap the ball into time after time over the years.

“There was a whole group of us that went through the system together,” Wolman said.

By the time Donnelly began playing any real organized football with coaches, he had already developed his punting skills.

1989 Topps Trading Card

“Before he was involved in any real organized football he would spend hours in the street kicking the ball from one end to the other, back and forth, back and forth,” Wolman said. “By the time he started in seventh grade with us, it was obvious he was a real, real good athlete. Great hand-eye coordination. He could kick the hell out of the ball.”

Donnelly came up in the program behind a superb quarterback by the name of Jim Margraff, who graduated in 1978 when Donnelly was a sophomore. Margraff went on to quarterback at Johns Hopkins University, where he still holds the school record for career touchdown passes (50) and pass attempts (1,126). His 6,669 career passing yards is second in Hopkins history, having just been broken last season by Hewitt Tomlin. Margraff has spent 21 years coaching the Hopkins football team, leading the program to its most successful stretch in its history.

Even with Margraff’s talent at quarterback, the Panthers struggled in his seasons as the program was still in its early stages.

By the start of his senior season in 1979, Donnelly was officially the starting quarterback, place kicker and punter. The Panthers had yet to win more than two games in any season, but they had gotten much closer the previous year. Four of their losses in 1978 came by six or fewer points.

The ’78 season marked the end of coaching for Roy Reese, the program’s first coach. Sal Passamano, a science teacher, became head coach after serving as the assistant under Reese the previous season.

One thing he knew he didn’t have to worry about was the kicking game with Donnelly. “We saw how he kicked and basically left him alone,” Passamano said. He tells the story of when Donnelly would kick extra points through the goalposts sitting in the north end zone, the balls sometimes ended up in the parking lot, some 60 yards away from where he kicked it.

“Rick was such a devastating kicker as an offensive weapon and a defensive weapon,” Passamano said. “If you got stuck on your 20-yard line, he’d kick the ball down to the other team’s 20.”

His ability to kick field goals gave the Panthers an added threat few teams had. Anything inside 35 yards was basically automatic for Donnelly. He’d set the school record of 44 yards, which was eventually broken when Michael Pollina booted a 46-yarder in 1987.

Wolman and another close friend, Marty Steiger, both said they remember him kicking field goals of over 50 yards. More so than a punter, people viewed Donnelly as an outstanding field goal kicker.

“At one point his senior year he was kicking field goals like crazy,” said Steiger, who also played football, but was better known for wrestling, the sport he played in college.

The Miller Place football team posted a 6-2 record in ’79, tying for the league title.

Three years before Donnelly’s senior season, the Panthers had their first All-County baseball player in Andy Stafford. He ended up going to the University of Wyoming on a baseball scholarship.

UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING ATHLETICS PHOTO | As a senior at Wyoming Donnelly had one of the best seasons kicking in school history.

Don Pranzo, the baseball coach at the time, figured he’d try the connection again when Donnelly began his senior year. He called the coach at Wyoming and told him he had another good ballplayer. Pranzo happened to mention how Donnelly was a kicker and could boot 50-yard field goals.

The coach shot back: At sea level!?

The University of Wyoming in Cheyenne rests more than 6,000 feet above sea level. The thin air allows a ball to glide much farther than at a low elevation.

The baseball coach quickly passed word along to the football coach.

Donnelly was a superb baseball player, leading the Panthers with a 10-1 record to earn All-County honors as a senior. Pranzo said Donnelly couldn’t bend his wrist back enough to create the snapping motion to throw many breaking pitches. So he taught him to throw a knuckle-curve, which he mastered.

“He was unhittable in our league,” said Pranzo, who now coaches badminton at Miller Place.

His baseball career, however, was short lived. His future was in kicking.

The power of his right leg garnered Donnelly interest from powers like Penn State and Syracuse. He opted to head west.

“I just wanted to see the West,” Donnelly told Chris Mortensen of The Atlanta Constitution in 1986. “And that was as far west as I was being offered a scholarship.”

At Wyoming he would be a place kicker and punter, but had to patiently wait his turn behind Jack Weil, who led the NCAA with an average of 45.8 yards per punt. As a senior with his first opportunity to be the full-time starter, he was perfect on extra points, converting all 30 attempts. He became the first kicker in school history with a perfect season. He also set the school record for average punting yards. He totaled 2,990 yards over 63 punts, a 47.5 average. Over his career from 1981-84 he had the highest yards per punt average (45.8) of anyone in Wyoming history. The NCAA record set by fellow long Islander Todd Sauerbrun, who played at Ward Melville before attending West Virginia from 1991-94, is 46.3.

UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING ATHLETICS PHOTO | Rick Donnelly ended up back in Wyoming after his playing days in the NFL ended.

UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING ATHLETICS PHOTO | Rick Donnelly ended up back in Wyoming after his playing days in the NFL ended.

Donnelly posted a superb senior season even after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured disc in his back in Jan. 1983. He had to be red-shirted and missed the entire season.

When Donnelly graduated from Wyoming with an administration of justice degree in 1985, his chances of getting drafted into the NFL were slim. For starters, teams generally aren’t jumping to draft punters, although by then it wasn’t a foreign idea. In 1973 Ray Guy was the 23rd overall pick by the Oakland Raiders. He still remains the only punter ever taken in the first round (he did also become a third-string quarterback).

But also lowering Donnelly’s stock was the fact he played in Wyoming. Teams attributed his success in college to the high altitude. But as Donnelly would later say, it wasn’t always the easiest kicking conditions.

“What people don’t realize about kicking at Wyoming is the wind and the bad weather you kick in a lot of the time,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “A lot of kickers would come in and look forward to punting in Wyoming. Then they’d see what the wind was doing at that stadium and say, `Oh, no.’”

Donnelly’s first NFL opportunity came in training camp with the Patriots in ’85. He went into camp going up against Rich Camarillo, a young punter who only two years earlier made the Pro Bowl. Teams only keep one punter, so for Donnelly to earn a spot, he needed to unseat Camarillo.

It didn’t happen. The Patriots, content with their All-Pro veteran, released Donnelly midway through training camp.

The Falcons jumped at the chance to pick him up. A similar situation to New England, the Falcons had an established punter in Ralph Giacamarro. Soon after Donnelly came in, the Falcons released Giacamarro.

The move came so quick, many observers were skeptical.

“From the first day we saw this guy, we knew he had the ability,” Falcons’ coach Dan Henning said in The Atlanta Constitution. “He had a great tryout with us. He punted long, he had good hang time and he had eight of 10 kicks inside the 20. And the other guy [Giacamarro] had done a good job for us, but he was in a slump, much like a baseball hitter gets into a slump.”

Donnelly had a strong rookie season, finishing third in the NFL in punting average. He played the first 11 games before a torn ligament in his right knee hastily ended his season.

His rookie campaign had plenty of ups and downs. In a November game against Philadelphia, Donnelly soared a perfect punt where the ball bounced out of bounds at the 1-yard line. It was an astounding 68-yard punt, the second longest of his career. The game was in overtime and it seemed exactly what the Falcons needed to get the ball back for a chance to score.

Donnelly had done his part. But two plays later, the Eagles scored on a 99-yard pass to win the game 23-17.

In 1986 he played all 16 games and finished fourth in the NFL in punting average. He booted the longest punt of his career that year at 71 yards.

“I don’t know how you can put a value on it [field position],” Falcons coach Dan Henning said during the ’86 season. “It’s just a great advantage to force the opposing team to consistently go a long way in an effort to score. That’s the kind of value Rick gives us.”

By 1987 he had his first All-Pro season, finishing tops in the NFL in punting average with a career-best 44 yards per punt. In 1988 he tied the league-lead for most punts, attributable to playing on a 5-11 team. He earned All-Pro honors once again.

It would turn out to be his final season playing for the Falcons.

Before the start of training camp in 1989, he injured his back running a drill. Donnelly, then 27, was described at the time of having “degenerative disc disease,” which causes lower back pain. He tried to fight through it, but in September he had to undergo his second major surgery to his back, this time to fuse two vertebrae. He missed the entire ’89 season.

In 1990 he joined the Seattle Seahawks and played all 16 games. After three games in 1991, his back flared up again. He was placed on injured reserve in late September because of a bulging disc in his back near the vertebra that were fused in his previous surgery. That November he had to undergo a third surgery to his back and his NFL career was over.

Rick Donnelly settled back in Wyoming after his playing career ended with his wife Jackie, whom he met in college, and their three children. He spends a lot of time working with kids in the area who share his same passion for punting, a unique niche in America’s most popular sport.

Donnelly and his old punting buddy, Buddy Read, lost contact in the years during college and beyond. But later on as adults they did reconnect one day with a phone call, where they laughed at some of their memories of kicking around a ball on the street.

“We’ll carry that for the rest of our lives, the fun we had playing a silly game that we made up ourselves,” Read said.

The fact Donnelly made it all the way to the NFL still makes Read shake his head and smile.

“To me he was just a kid down the street,” he said. “If I saw Ricky again I’d kid him like, ‘C’mon! How’d you make it and not me?’”

joew@northshoresun.com