Tucker: From cheers to beers, the Donahue boys are winning their battle with the bottle
CHEYENNE – I was Mitch Donahue in my backyard when I was kid.
I used to level the neighborhood kids, just like he did to quarterbacks around the Western Athletic Conference. My jersey number in baseball was 49. When Donahue signed with the Broncos in 1993, 10-year-old me couldn’t have been more excited.
My favorite college player is playing for my favorite pro team. This can’t be happening.
On Super Bowl Sunday, I found myself sitting on a couch across from the man himself inside his Billings living room. He still looked like the guy in Laramie. Blonde hair and a big smile. That’s how I always remembered him.
Selfishly, I wanted to meet him. I also knew Pokes fans wouldn’t mind hearing what he was up to these days.
Then came the surprise.
Donahue is an alcoholic.
I had read that he had entered AA while researching his son, Dylan Donahue, but I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten. That’s when he made me realize how tough it was to transition from the professional football life to the average working Joe.
I’ve seen this story play out before.
While covering Michigan State, I found former No. 2 overall draft pick, Charles Rogers, working at the equivalent of a chop shop in Fort Myers, Florida. He was hiding from the shame of coming back home to Michigan. He once had a $14-plus million signing bonus. He was playing for the Lions, his home-state team. Then, two broken collarbones and a drug addiction later, here he is. The father of eight, living on the rough side of town. Not a dollar to his name, begging me to buy him a pizza.
YOU CAN FIND THAT STORY HERE: Finding Charles Rogers
Former MSU running back, TJ Duckett, wasn’t ashamed to come back to East Lansing, but the way his star faded so quickly left him drunk on a park bench outside Spartan Stadium with a gun in his hand. He was going to end it all. He had no idea how to cope with the reality of a normal existence.
YOU CAN FIND THAT STORY HERE: How TJ Duckett fought depression and found life after football
Then there was Tony Mandarich. You know, the guy on the April 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated. He was dubbed “The Incredible Bulk.” Standing shirtless on a beach in Southern California, Mandarich was on full display for the nation. Even though he went in the same draft as future NFL Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders, he was the one on the cover of the biggest sports magazine on the planet.
They called him “the best offensive line prospect ever.”
He couldn’t live up to those expectations. Drugs and alcohol had him in the unemployment line after just four miserable years with the Green Bay Packers.
YOU CAN FIND THAT STORY HERE: Tony Mandarich, 23 years sober, still can't escape 'incredible bust' moniker
Rogers is ashamed.
Duckett couldn’t handle normalcy.
Mandarich didn’t meet expectations.
Donahue had a little bit of all three issues.
To make matters worse, he was coming home to Billings, a place that has not produced many NFL players. There is barely 100,000 people there. Back in 1995, even less. Donahue was very much the town’s poster boy. Everyone was pulling for him. So was the entire state of Montana. You can add Wyoming to the list, too.
Plus, his biggest supporter, his father, William Donahue, had recently died of a heart attack.
YOU CAN FIND THAT STORY HERE: 'I needed to be sober for him'
Donahue discussed how difficult is was to come home and have former supporters see him working on roofs all over town. He was supposed to be making millions. He was supposed to be in the same locker room with guys like John Elway, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice.
That, he said, is why he consumed a case of beer nearly every night. He couldn’t handle the stares. He couldn’t watch football for the better part of a decade. He missed his father.
To make matters worse, his son started following in his footsteps.
Dylan Donahue ended up being a star college linebacker. He was breaking sack records. He was set to get drafted.
Then, it happened. Dylan Donahue was drafted in the fourth round by the Jets. He was the crazy linebacker with the long hair and arms filled with tattoos. He became a fan favorite almost immediately. But trouble followed.
Donahue said he had been drinking since high school. The fact that his dad drank to excess, he said, made it easier to justify. The hardcore drinking followed him into the league. After he was drafted, he picked up his first DUI. His second came in New York when he hit a passenger bus going the wrong way down a tunnel.
Dylan Donahue found himself back in Billings, standing high up on a roof with his father. He would go to Billings West High School and help his former team run through drills. He was the latest Billings player to fade out. Injuries derailed his father’s dreams. Dylan did this to himself.
“It made me realize that I don’t want to be on a roof,” Dylan Donahue explained.
To see and hear both men so vulnerable was a surprise to me. They have both been humbled, though Mitch is doing great in the business world and Dylan got a second chance at football in the Alliance of American Football League. He’s hoping an NFL GM calls soon.
Mitch Donahue is more like the grinning kid again. Though he has plenty of battle scars from 20-plus years of hard manual labor, he feels great. Reece Monaco, the sideline reporter for Wyoming football and play-by-play man for Cowgirl basketball, went to high school with Donahue.
He talked about how likeable he is. How the town rallied around him.
“The coaches called him ‘pup,’” Monaco said. “He was like a big puppy lab that was just all over the place and didn’t really know how fast or strong he was.”
Monaco spilled another secret Donahue left out during our conversation. He was a break dancer in high school. “He went by ‘Doc Pop,’” Monaco said.
Maybe Donahue isn’t a “pup” or “Doc Pop” anymore, but he is that guy with the positive outlook. That, he said, is all because of his faith, which helped lead him to sobriety. Faith is working the same magic in his son’s life.
The both admitted their battles are ongoing, but now, the father-son duo is winning the prize fight. They are at a nine-count, praying for the TKO.
So are we.
I don’t know how these former players can be helped. I don’t think anything can replace the rush of an NFL game, 80,000 people screaming down on you. That seems to be the hardest part to cope with for these guys. The money is nice. Really nice in some cases. The fame is cool, too. To a degree.
But nothing seems to replace that feeling of emptiness when the roar of the crowd dies. These guys are all competitors. That’s how they got this far.
For the Donahue boys, God replaced the cheers and beers.
Let’s hope more former players find a constructive way to fulfill that void.