‘I NEEDED TO BE SOBER FOR HIM’
BILLINGS, Mont. – Mitch Donahue recalls all too well the feeling of disappointment when he returned to his hometown.
His picture was once littered throughout the local newspaper. His name was on the tip of tongues. He was the local boy done good.
Now, those same boastful well-wishers that once touted him in the barbershops, bleachers and watering holes of southern Montana, were now whispering and questioning his return.
I guess he couldn’t cut it.
[video width="1920" height="1080" mp4="//townsquare.media/site/1004/files/2019/06/Donahuevideo.mp4"][/video]
Mitch doesn’t know if those exact words were ever even uttered, but a fragile psyche can play tricks on the mind. In fact, back then, he often asked himself those same questions.
“I was like Billings’ favorite son,” Mitch, now 51, said as he uncomfortably squirmed on a white couch inside his home in the shadow of the Rimrocks. “Now, I’m home – and on the roof.
His calloused hands, surgically repaired ankles and feet and the current ailing back pain serves as a constant reminder of his 22-year career as the owner of Donahue Roofing and Siding.
His first career didn’t cause half the damage to his still-fit 6-foot, 2-inch, 250-pound frame.
Mitch was a small-town football star. Not one that just dominated at Billings West High School under the Friday night lights, either. Mitch took his talents to the University of Wyoming where he etched his name in the history books as one of the best defensive players in the country.
That culminated in him becoming the fourth-round selection of the back-to-back Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers in the 1991 NFL Draft.
Shingling the ridge of a 25-foot snow-covered roof was never on the docket. The sub-zero temperatures of a typical Montana winter day just add another arctic blast of reality.
It’s like a cruel joke. One he never envisioned for himself -- or his son.
Dylan Donahue’s story begins much the same. He starred at Billings West, broke sack records at the University of West Georgia before landing on the New York Jets roster as a fifth-round pick in 2017. He was the first-ever draft pick from his school.
He had that “NFL pedigree.”
Unfortunately, he had another commonality with his father.
“Dylan has had his own struggles with alcohol,” Mitch says in a hushed tone. “He comes by it naturally. Honestly, because I always have, too.”
Mitch never made his issue public. Dylan didn’t have that luxury.
On Feb. 26, 2018, Dylan crashed his Dodge Charger Hellcat into a private passenger bus while going the wrong way down the Lincoln Tunnel, which connects New Jersey and New York City. Four people were hospitalized as a result of the wreck. Dylan, who pleaded guilty to driving under the influence – his second such offense since 2017 – was suspended by the NFL for 14 weeks for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy and was subsequently cut by the Jets.
His name, in 40-plus inch font, was plastered across the New York Post, TMZ and ESPN, among many other news outlets.
He knew he had a call to make.
“When it happened, my mom and dad were the first people I talked to,” Dylan said over the phone from his rental home in Georgia. “I was crying. All it took was a Google of my name and it would show the crash. It made me look like s---. My parents were understanding about the whole thing. That’s when I came out and really told them I have a severe problem with alcohol.”
That was the first thing that came to mind after hanging up that phone call, Mitch explained. In his mind, he was just as much at fault as his son. He made drinking acceptable, he thought.
“No, it’s warranted,” Mitch stoically explained. “I’ve put him, his sister and everybody through a lot of crap,”
Dylan recalled some tough times but was quick to add that he had a great childhood. He remembers the racks of Rolling Rock his dad would consume at night. The increased anxiety and tension in the home.
Mitch said he drank to numb the pain. Not only the agony of the back-breaking work on the roof, but the mental wounds of packing up his car in Atlanta in 1995 and making the long, embarrassing trek back to Billings after his NFL career came to a screeching halt.
“It hurt. It hurt a lot,” he said of leaving the game against his will and returning home. “I couldn’t watch football for, I’d say, 10 years. I stayed away from football.”
It didn’t help that when he arrived home, his biggest supporter wasn’t there.
William Donahue never missed one of Mitch’s games in Laramie. He was always a few rows up behind the bench, headphones on over his UW hat with his head buried in a portable handheld television monitor.
“He was tuned in from all angles,” Mitch joked. “My dad, it didn’t matter where we were at, he’d have to tell people about me playing football. It was embarrassing, but I liked that he was proud of me.”
In the final preseason game in 1994, a tilt in which Mitch blew past All-Pro tackle, Jackie Slater, for three sacks, he got word that he would be a starter in Week 1 of the regular season against San Diego.
All the hard work has paid off, he thought. The injuries and inconsistencies were behind him, he hoped. He finally had a home after being let go by the 49ers.
He was a Denver Broncos linebacker.
Then, a few days later, the phone rang.
“It was a tough deal,” and emotional Mitch explained after hearing the news that his father had died of a heart attack. “He saw me get three sacks against the Falcons one week. Then, he was gone.”
Mitch looked off into the distance.
“There’s a really cool picture of him around here somewhere,” Mitch said, pulling an Icy Hot patch off his lower back. “If I wasn’t in so much pain, I’d find it.”
Mitch had gone from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows.
He didn’t play in that first game against the Chargers.
He never started an NFL game. Chronic injuries derailed a once promising career.
A year later, the 26-year-old was out of football. He was Montana bound.
That, Mitch said, is when drinking started to become a major player in his life.
Even in the locker room in Denver, Mitch said the beer would flow. Budweiser was a sponsor. Beer was readily available. He said driving home drunk from team meeting became the norm. It all seemed harmless then.
At home in Montana, it became a daily ritual.
Mitch still has his home 49ers game-worn jersey. The No. 54 on the front features battle scars. The scarlet material has small holes under the armpits and all the way down both sides. That is where the laces went, he said, to make his jersey tight so offensive linemen couldn’t grab onto him. His former good friend, Bill Romanowski, taught him that trick.
He still has his Broncos helmet and a few other keepsakes from his brief four-year NFL career. Deep in his closet, his dust-covered Wyoming helmet sits on a shelf. The yellow mouthpiece, 29 years old now, is still jammed into the facemask.
“I used to lay the wood in that,” he smiled, pointing to the scars across the brown and gold stripes on the crown of the helmet.
Yes, he did.
Mitch gave his father plenty to be proud of during his four years in Laramie. The guy in the No. 49 jersey racked up that same number of sacks, which is still a school record. He was named WAC Defensive Player of the Year in 1989-90. Despite being undersized, Mitch was a wrecking ball of speed off the end of the line of scrimmage.
A prime example of his dominance came in a game against San Diego State his senior year. That night, Mitch got to Aztec quarterback, Dan McGwire, three times and forced a fumble. McGwire was a first-round draft pick in 1991. He was the older brother of baseball legend, Mark McGwire.
"Their tackle who was covering me was just terrible," he joked. "They were getting confused and we were running lots of twists and blitzes, they were letting me in scot-free. They didn't touch me or try to at all. When I hit him, it was like 'bam.' He was 6 foot, 6 inches, and my helmet is hitting him right in the chest where the ball was. I caused a fumble and he went airborne."
Mitch was named a first-team All-American after logging 21 sacks during his senior campaign.
He painfully bent down and pulled a wooden plaque out from deep in the closet. It represents his UW Hall of Fame selection in 2002. He lifts it up and wipes the dust from the metal inscription, which in part reads: “Mitch Donahue became the greatest defensive end in school history …”
Mitch talked about beating a Ty Detmer-led BYU team in the first ever night game at War Memorial Stadium – and shutting down the Cougars and hushing more than 70,000 in Provo. He recalled winning the WAC title in El Paso, lifting head coach Paul Roach up on shoulders as time expired.
He gave Barry Sanders plenty of credit for his 222-yard, five-touchdown performance in the 1988 Holiday Bowl, but added that Oklahoma State was stacked across the board. Sanders was amazing, he said, but was also a product of that roster.
It seems like a lifetime ago, Mitch admits.
He thought his football life was in its infancy when he went to San Francisco. Instead, it was the beginning of the end. Football never felt the same way, he says. He now knows those cool, fall afternoons in Laramie would be the pinnacle of his football career.
It’s ironic that this day was Super Bowl Sunday.
Smells of random dips and buffalo wings lofted from large silver pans on the marble-topped island in his kitchen. Mitch, as miserable as he is feeling, is left with the cooking duties. His wife, Melissa, is sick in bed. Later, friends and family will fill this living room and surround themselves around the big screen television.
It reminds him a lot of a Saturday afternoon in April of 2017 – the day his son Dylan was selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft.
It also made Mitch reminisce about his own draft day.
“We lived out of town and I was outside shooting my gun at targets,” Mitch laughed. “The first round took forever. I believe it was the longest in NFL history. The whole day went by and I didn’t get picked. I started worrying.
“I thought, ‘am I just going to be on the meat-squad or what?’ Mid-day, the next day, the 49ers called me and asked if I could fly out the next day. I told them, ‘yeah, I think I can clear my schedule.’”
Laughing and joking wasn’t an option on Dylan’s big day. They knew he was going to get selected. They just didn’t know when. Mitch said his nerves were way worse waiting for his son’s name to get called.
This time, Mitch didn’t have alcohol to rely on, either. Right before the 2017 draft, he said, he quit drinking.
“I needed to be sober for him,” Mitch said. “I needed to be able to give him advice for what he was about to go through. Plus, I was tired of being drunk all the time.”
Mitch has been sober for more than two years now.
Dylan is closing in on a year-and-a-half clean.
For just eight games, Dylan was suiting up at linebacker for the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football. In April, the league folded, leaving players without teams and futures on the football field in jeopardy.
Dylan is one of them.
“We were at practice, doing walk-throughs in the parking lot across from the team hotel,” Dylan said of when he got word the AAF was closing its doors. “One of the guys had a phone on them. Another guy looked at Twitter.”
Dylan said he hoped the league would finish out the remaining two games but was prepared for the worst. On this day, he was cleaning out his Airbnb in Atlanta and heading back to New Jersey. The Legends General Manager told him he has a good chance of making it back to the NFL.
If that happens, Dylan said, it’s because of the work he has put into changing his life. It’s due to sobriety. It’s because of his father’s positive influence on his life.
Mitch’s Christian faith “led him to the light.” Dylan is banking on God’s help, too.
“It was bad sometimes,” Dylan said of his father’s drinking. “But at the same time, he worked his ass off. He’s the only reason we got through those times, though he made it hard at the same time. I’ve completely forgotten about the bad s--- that happened. When I talk to him, I remember the good things.”
Like the late-night phone calls about how to mask blitzes more effectively. The angles it takes to get around a 300-pound offensive tackles. The route you need to take to get to the running backs.
Mitch and Dylan both agree that their playing style is similar. Dylan is a little slimmer at 6-foot, 3-inches and 247 pounds, but faster. They have both been called high-motor guys by NFL GM’s. They both used technique and leverage on the field, not brute strength. They bury themselves in the playbook and watch countless hours of film, something Mitch joked he should’ve done more of during his playing days.
Mitch and Dylan have always shared a bond. This, Mitch says, just makes them closer. So does their daily battle with the demons of drinking.
His dad is the more emotional type, Dylan says. Guilt is a big thing. Dylan said it doesn’t need to be.
“Hell no. Definitely not,” Dylan said of holding his dad responsible for his own issues. “I know he blames himself. I made my own choices, but at the same time, it was easier to justify it, for sure.”
Dylan is not immune to his father’s situation, either. Now, unfortunately, he is feeling much the same. He found himself back home, helping out at his old high school after being forced out of the NFL. He should’ve been suiting up to play in New York City, instead, he was giving interviews to the local newspaper and telling them where it all went wrong.
Fortunately for him, he said, unlike his father, he got to come home to his.
“People don’t have any sympathy for a guy who lost his dad,” Dylan said about his father coming home from the league. “He had to start working or he would lose his family. What do you have to cope with that? It’s easy to turn to alcohol, especially for Irish guys like us. We can’t just have two beers, we have to have a whole rack.”
Dylan admits the temptation is still there. He’s 26, the same age his dad was when he came to his crossroads in life. He said he simply picks up the phone.
“Multiple times since I’ve been sober, I have thought about having a drink,” Dylan said. “I just call my dad. Before he even says anything, it makes my mind up for me.
“We talk about Jesus every time and it takes my mind off it. This whole thing, without Jesus, wouldn’t work.”
The hardest part for Mitch was the status. That’s why, he said, more than 70 percent of former NFL players become addicts.
The spotlight goes dark.
The crowds stop cheering.
The money stops flowing.
The only check to be had is a reality one.
Mitch, like any good father, wants his son to learn from his mistakes, not repeat them.
“I almost don’t want him to play NFL football,” Mitch admits. “It’s a torture session. When it’s over, it’s hard. You’re used to being the man. When it’s over, you’re not the man anymore. It’s not really, but it’s like losing the use of your legs or something. You can do something and now you can’t. It’s a tough thing to deal with, especially when you are young and not fully mature.”
Mitch, obviously still in immense pain from his day job, was quick to crack a smile and state that life has never been better. He has a beautiful family, home and spirit. His grin brings back instant memories of the tow head who wreaked havoc in Laramie nearly three decades ago.
Aside from his back pain, he said he is feeling more like that kid, too.
Having his son by his side makes it that much sweeter.
But what would William Donahue say if he were alive today?
“He is probably telling all the angels up there, that's my son -- that's my grandson,” Mitch smiled. “I know when I played, after he died, I would pretend like I was talking to him a lot. It probably looked like I was talking to myself. I know he’s in Heaven and can see what we are doing.
“Hopefully he’s proud of some of it,” Mitch said. “There are probably some things he’s not too proud of.”