Book of Remembrance: Dick Donelli
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The Old Blue
Donelli's Teammates and Friends Share their Stories
Six days ago, I brought the sad news that Dick Donelli '59, had passed away.
Since then, I have been privileged to hear a rich treasury of stories about Dick. Most of them center around his founding and long association with the Old Blue Rugby Club, but they go further than that.
With the help of my friend Roger Dennis '66, I have been given this compilation of the memories below.
Feel free to add to them in the comments sections and spread the word of this Columbia legend in his own time:
I was shocked when i heard about Dick passing. even though he had gone through so much, it never occurred to me that we would lose him. He was an amazing man. Such a powerful personality. Probably the loudest quiet person I ever met.
Along with quite a few fellow Columbia footballers, I started playing regularly with the Old Blue in 1966. Dick, and fellow founders Billy Campbell, Billy Smith, and John Wellington were, to me, the heart and soul of the Old Blue. Individually and collectively, they were tough, smart, and impassioned leaders. As great as they all were, when we were on the field, during the game, Dick was our general, (obviously an ‘in the trenches’ general), he was the best scrum half in the country. He was in a class of his own because of his physical abilities and especially his psychological and emotional strengths – he had this leader mindset and energy that just permeated every effing cell of his body!
I remember one game, not sure vs. whom, I must have been playing wing because I was near the pack just before a set scrum or a lineout. In a calm but deliberately loud enough voice to be heard by both teams, Dick says: “just (do such and such); they’re afraid of us anyway.”
Off the field he wasn’t the friendliest guy; for quite a while he didn’t say hello to me and i thought he didn’t like me... or that the jury was out – like he was deciding whether I was okay or not. At some point he seemed to decide I was okay, and I remember feeling relieved and honored.
A number of you knew Dick better than I did. I wish that weren’t the case; I would have liked to have spent more time with him, talked more with him, shared ideas. but I appreciated him greatly. He was honest, he was a thinker, he was a very ‘for real’ guy. And he loved the Old Blue and worked very hard for us all these years, and he meant and means so much to us! (and to the rugbyworld)
You know, I didn't realize how much he meant to me.
One more thing. If you haven’t already read it, I suggest you read the book Alive. It's the one about the rugby players whose plane went down in the Andes. It's a true story; only 16 of the 45 guys survived. You get to see the personalities of the players, how they cope, who steps up, etc. When I read it I recognized in these guys many of the Old Blue, but there was one guy who really stood out; and i said to myself 'that's Dick Donelli; that's their Dick Donelli.'
Lucky for them because not every team has a Dick Donelli. They were lucky; as are we! Thank you, Dick!
Dick Donelli was the backs coach for the freshman football team in ‘62, when there was still freshman football, and Billy Campbell was the line coach. Shortly thereafter, they joined with some others to form The Old Blue, and in the immediate years that followed, the undergrads branched off to form their own team.
What struck me then as an undergrad player and remains with me now was the way we organized ourselves and played the game must have been how all of sports had been conducted during those early years depicted in the sepiaphotographs of men with mustaches and wearing no pads ranked around some football championship banner. As Rugby was played back then, there were no coaches other than those who rose informally from the ranks of the players themselves, no training rules other than to lose a bit of weight or smoke less if your strength had waned a bit early during the last game, and no governing body to enforce a series of informal arrangements made between the increasing number of teams. If you played for the Old Blue you didn’t even have to have an association with Columbia, although you probably knew someone who did. And it all worked beautifully.
I was an undergrad player, but I was there from the start to witness the Old Blue in its earliest incarnation, and I knew then that I was witnessing something legendary in the form they took during those early teams. In his underrated novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Keasy has a passage that refers to a team of men who, as I remember, are engaged in a frantic bout of cutting timber in the face of some on-coming threat like weather. In remarkable and poignantly phrased prose, he states that in a frenzy of coordinated motion, they became The Team, meaning that they achieved some Platonic ideal that epitomizes being ON and is as present in the right pick-up basketball game as it is in the Knicks during a championship season.
And that was what the Old Blue achieved during those years. I can tell you that watching Dick, John Wellington, Balsy Campell, and the rest of those people communicated a rarely witnessed sense of The Other, that being a whole that was unmistakably greater than the sum of its considerable parts. But they were as understated as they were deadly.
As Roger so beautifully put it, Dick himself was the noisiest quiet person in the world, and the loudest Wellington got was a glare – although you could, of course, hear the sounds of the collisions from the sidelines.
I remember one game they played when they were undefeated. Just before the coin toss, I remarked to someone, (Hank Deiselman?), that Donelli appeared to be in a good mood. “Yeah,” he replied to me, “they’re obviously way off form, so here goes our first loss of the season.” And sure enough, they did lose.
Well, I guess the Old Blue of that era really are the men in sepia photographs now and I am a sepia witness, but I’ll take the deal, and with thanks. When we look back on our lives from the vantage point of age, some things that seemed quite large appear smaller, like that elementary school classroom. And some things now seem much larger than whoever won the NCAA football championship back then... at least compared to abunch of normal-sized guys on some muddy field being watched by a few wives, girlfriends, and their B squads roiling to take the field after them.
A scene that seems to me to sum up the greatness of a particular sport, during a particular time and place, played by a man with the stature of Dick Donelli.
I spoke with my buddy in Wales; we frequently talk about rugby and the OB tour in '66.
He has frequently referred to the speed by which our scrum half was able to get the ball out from rucks or scrums and the "funny" pass he used to do. That of course was the conventional underhand spiral that Donelli and many other American QB's of the late 1950's used.
At any rate, he went on to say that the conventional method used by scrum halfs in Ireland, the UK, (and presumably France and the southern hemisphere), used the more traditional "layout", "flat" no-spin that Billy Dreher and most other scrum halfs of our era used, (Chorba might be able to confirm this).
Today, that underhand spiral is all that is used. Coincidence? I think not. Furthermore, the conversation prompted me to look at some of the more popular online rugby sites. One of them, in an obituary notice, credited Dick with popularizing something called the "torpedo pass."
From Tom Holmes:
In 1969 we played a combined Richmond/Saracens touring side, who had big-time players with them & had gone rather easily undefeated up the East Coast until they arrived here and played us at Baker.
When they saw a higher level of opposition, they tried intimidation – a fist fight between George Sherriff & Joe Tuths, (Joe never blinked), which didn’t affect our play - and so then they severely broke Dick’s nose thinking Dick would have to leave the field, as most any other rugby player would. He didn’t. Dick acted like nothing had happened, other than playing even harder than before. We won. They weren’t pleased.
Later that year the All Blacks under Head Coach Fred Allen came through NYC on their way to their UK tour and had asked if they could “stretch our legs?” at Baker. We accommodated them providing a scrum to push against, etc. At that time both line-outs and scrum service were short tumbling,(not longer spiral), passes. As Dick had been quarterback for the CU Lions, he developed an underhand spin pass that enabled a scrum-half to reach a fly-half much further away. Dick asked Fred Allen & the All Black #9 if Dick “could show you something?”. Their scrum-half said “I very much doubt it”. But they saw what Dick was doing and when their Europe Tour was finished, they went back to New Zealand and developed the spin pass for themselves,cwith no thanks to Dick. But we saw what happened. Dick had shown them something strategic that changed the game of rugby worldwide.
Years later when MetNY played the ’72 or ’73 All Blacks at Downing Stadium/Randall’s Island, Dick literally picked up his opposite #9 Sid Going who had 60 caps for NZ and threw Going bodily off the pitch – somethingcneither Sid Going nor NZ hadn’t seen before. Dick had incredible self-confidence, strength and determination. No one ever beat Dick Donelli oncor off the field, that I’ve ever even heard of happening.
Having been one of Dick’s patients for over 20 years, when Dickcwas designing a crown for me once, he asked me do “you want anything oncit?”. I said, “like what?”. He said – “well how about a rugbyball?”. So for the next 20 years, I had a funny brown ceramic rugby ballcon one of my lower molars, which I was pleased to display to people overcmany barroom-bars in many places. We had a lot of laughs there in Dick’scHartsdale office – too many to recount here, but, suffice to say, Dick was acfriend with a great sense of humor.
I thought Dick was bullet-proof, invincible, indestructible andcwould last forever. Some air has gone out of things for me with Dick’scnot being here with us anymore.
I just ran into one of us from yesterday's wake on the street-we allowed as how "we'll be going to more of these", as we're all getting "up there". He said "yeah, but Dick was special". He wanted to continue but, he was unable to speak and he didn't want me to see him cry.
I didn't either. I think there is something here like Dick representing the player, the competitor, the winner, the man for many of us-the person we admired and aspired to be, and tried to emulate, to follow. But in our own estimation - fell short. Maybe that's why those of us who played with him did so well - they had a standard of self confident defiance and self-assuredness to emulate. And that made us virtually unbeatable, as there was always an air of our knowing we were going to win before the match began. And our opposing teams felt it too. I hope The Old Blue of the next 5 years can get that back.
Jeff Joseph emailed me with the news of Dick's death.
Like you, I was shocked. Of all of us, I thought Dick would have been among the last to go. Dick was a giant of a man: tough as nails, smart as hell. The heart and soul of the Old Blue. He was an absolutely terrific player himself, but more than that, he taught many or us ex-footballers, including me, how to play.
On the field he made us all better. A superb tactician, we looked to him in close games to find us a way to win. And more often than not, he did. He could be frustrating from time to time, but there are few people I have respected more. Like, all of us, I'm going to miss him terribly.
These tributes are extraordinary.
Dick must REALLY be in heaven.
Hope someone compiles and saves these.
It is its own cultural history.
It's called LEADERSHIP, and Old Blue was built on it.
Dick would hate dialogue about credit. Heplayed Rugby and lived in the moment
for life, not about opinions.
I am missing him.