Sunday Conversation: Pat Donovan turned small-town dreams to Super Bowl ring

WHITEFISH — When the 2019 NFL Pro Bowl kicked off on Sunday afternoon, it brought back memories for former Helena Central multi-sport athlete Pat Donovan. An eventual graduate of Helena High, Donovan completed an all-American football career at Stanford University before enjoying arguably the greatest professional sports career of any Montana athlete.

A state basketball and track and field champion, it was football that captivated Donovan to stardom in the 1970s. The Dallas Cowboys selected Donovan in the fourth round of the 1975 NFL Draft and moved him from the defensive line to offensive line, where he would become a four-time Pro Bowl selection who played in three Super Bowls, winning one. Donovan was featured in MTN Sports’ #MTTop40 — a list of the top football players from Big Sky Country — this past summer.

Donovan moved back to Montana in 1992, currently living in Whitefish, where he was a founding partner of Iron Horse Golf Community.

MTN Sports sat down with Donovan during the summer, recapping his career, achievements and transition to the real estate world.

MTN Sports: When did sports first become part of your history, how athletics got started in your life?

Donovan: “My mom and dad were both very interested in keeping us in sports. I come from a family of four boys. My brother is older, I started playing whenever he started playing. Mom and dad felt like sports were a good way to keep us out of trouble, and in those days, really good idea.”

MTN Sports: Which one of those sports first captured your love? You were good at a lot of them.

Donovan: “Baseball. We liked baseball. That’s the thing, it was baseball, football, basketball and then track in the spring. Those were the only sports there were. There was no soccer or any sports they have now. Weight lifting was something that, they had a dusty set of barbells and dumbbells over in the corner, but that was it. You just picked up the ball and, I have a good friend that always talks about, ‘Remember when you were a kid and every year you picked up the ball and you were better than the year before? Whatever happened to that?'”

MTN Sports: What were some of the biggest challenges back then with some of that? Weight rooms aren’t as elaborate as they are now, basketball courts, the bleachers were right on top of the floor. The football fields, there wasn’t any turf or lights and all the fancy stuff there is now.

Donovan: “We didn’t really perceive it as challenging, but I was surprised when I went to college in California and these guys from Los Angeles had 12 games and their longest commute was 30 minutes. They all played right in the city where they lived, and of course here we were going to Havre, Billings and places like that for a game. They couldn’t believe that. That was probably the biggest challenge was riding to a game, getting off the bus and playing, that was pretty challenging, really. A night game in Butte, snowing, you know? Those were a little tough.

MTN Sports: You were playing back in the Helena Central days, now East Helena High School is coming in, Helena Central closed and you went to Helena High, now we’re coming full circle where they’re opening up another high school over there.

Donovan: “The biggest thing was, probably the biggest sporting change was, having gone to Helena Central, which had 300 students I think, everybody, it was almost a requirement that you go out for sports. When I went to Helena High, you had a much, much larger student body. I think our graduating class was 600 or 700 people in the class. The interesting thing about that was, I played at Central as a sophomore in basketball and football, and they closed the school, very surprising to everybody when they closed the school. They closed it during the summer. They didn’t even close it during the school year. We went over to Helena High, 22 starters in football, 10 guys on the basketball team and everybody was a sophomore, they all expected to start as juniors, I suppose. Well, Helena High had the same group of guys, 22 in football, 10 in basketball, so we were doubled up across the board. The coaches were really challenged with mixing, but they did a phenomenal job. The coaches and administration, I always wondered if it would have gone as smooth if Helena High had closed and they all came over to Helena Central. I don’t think it would have gone as well. We had the advantage of having tremendous inter-school competition for every spot. In basketball, I think there were only two of us from Central that went to Helena High as juniors and played on the team. Dick Kinzer, who was the basketball coach at the time, said it was because he didn’t want to have everyone just sit on the bench, so a lot of the starters for the next year played on the JV, but they probably could have played on the varsity. But he took some of the best players and kept them on the JV, just so they would mature. There were some good-thinking coaches at Helena High in those days, and they were dealing with what could have been a huge problem. You have the natural, probably not appropriate to say, but you had the Catholics and the other kids, and they really accepted us. Before that it was middle finger in the air because we played each other in crosstown basketball the previous two years and Helena Central won one of those. There was some deep hatred. It was big.”

MTN Sports: We see too much of that (schools closing and joining forces). My school (Kremlin-Gildford) closed and had to consolidate with the rivals (Blue Sky, becoming North Star) and that’s small town, maybe a different story.

Donovan: “Helena was a pretty small town in those days. Smaller than it is now. High schools couldn’t make it. Helena Central and one that was a little too big, Helena High, and now they’re Capital and Helena High both very, very full.”

MTN Sports: You were able to find success right away, you look back and there’s individual track and field championships – shot put, discus, anchoring relays – and basketball back-to-back state championship appearances, all-conference and all-state and all kinds of accolades in football, but what do you remember most about those days? All those awards and honors are awesome, we’ll talk plenty about them, but what stands out to you?

Donovan: “Everybody was so involved and so engaged in it. That’s the biggest thing. As you go to college and on to the pros, it becomes more important the further you go because there’s less of it. In high school, it’s your whole town and it’s everybody at school. It was just a huge community deal. I went back and talked to the 1991 (Helena High basketball) team, because we won in ’71 and they won the basketball championship in ’91, and I went back and remember telling them, ‘You guys may play in a lot of big deals, you may play in college, I’ve played in the Super Bowl, and let me tell you, this is a bigger deal. Winning the basketball championship in high school was a much bigger deal than either of those, to me, at the time.’ It was just huge. That’s the thing everybody forgets and misses, as you go on, it’s special. But there’s no way it’s more special. It’s pretty special when you’re in high school.”

MTN Sports: Playing against Kalispell, was Sam McCullum on those teams back then?

Donovan: “Sam was on those teams, Brent Wilson, unfortunately, was on those teams. He kind of had his way with us. We were closer to beating them when I was a sophomore at Helena Central, we almost beat them with a coach named Jim Deming, who was really a good basketball strategist. We played a slow-down offense and almost beat them, but they were, they out-manned us across the board.”

MTN Sports: Brent Wilson was on our basketball #MTTop50 countdown, McCullum was on our football #MTTop40 countdown, what was he like on the field and what made him so special?

Donovan: “The thing is, you saw those guys play, but it was only during the game. There was no film study in high school, so these guys would come up and you would go, ‘Jeez.’ I can remember thinking the first thing, ‘Jeez, they have a black guy. That’s unbelievable.’ Montana was such a, especially in those days, so non-diverse. Those were the surprises, really. I think you really were more impressed with guys, I mean, you heard about them with the game coming up, everybody always had a lead guy or two that everyone had their eye on, but it was the guys down the line a little bit that really opened our eyes. We got our eyes opened a lot because we were not a very good football team. I remember they kept putting in the paper that our offensive and defensive lines outweighed the Grizzlies’ line and we couldn’t win. We just didn’t have it.”

MTN Sports: Pete Lazetich was a guy you credited as helping you get to Stanford, what’s that story and how it came about?

Donovan: “Pete’s success there is probably what I would say. When you come from Helena, Montana, these coaches from UCLA, Stanford, Notre Dame and all these places are all coming up, you’re really looking over your shoulder and wondering if they have the right guy. I don’t care how good you are, you’re worried that you’re a little bit of an imposter. I remember the Stanford guys, I was talking to them and they were pretty honest about it, they said, ‘Jeez, we couldn’t tell anything from the films that you sent. We watched your basketball games because we couldn’t tell anything. The stuff you sent us in football, the guys looked like they were on roller skates, you were pushing them around so much. We couldn’t tell anything. And you have no technique.’ Growing up in Montana football, they’re looking at kids from Texas and Ohio and places that have phenomenal junior programs. In Montana, it’s like we were talking about earlier, you just kind of picked up games. It was pretty much a pick-up game in high school. I think you get recruited, and you see a guy like Pete having success, and I knew Pete from track, he was always really nice, three years older than I was, a senior when I was a freshman, but he was always really nice to me in track when I was in high school. I was really lucky enough to go to the state meets and Pete was there. He was really nice. My older brother was at Stanford, so I wasn’t afraid of going out of state or anything like that, but just to see somebody else succeed that you knew, that was pretty cool.”

MTN Sports: Was there another school in the mix that made that choice a little more difficult?

Donovan: “Yeah, Notre Dame was probably the other high contender. I liked UCLA and I liked Colorado a lot because of the skiing, they didn’t tell you they would let you ski, but the Notre Dame thing, being Irish-Catholic, my whole family was pretty tuned in to wanting me to go there. It felt like, I grew up in Montana in an Irish-Catholic family, went to a Catholic school for two years, it’s in the north, it’s conservative, it’s winter, then you’re looking at California and you kind of think, ‘That’s a very different experience.’ I was lucky enough to realize, even though Notre Dame would have been a really big deal, Stanford was not a good sports choice at the time, at all. They were in the Rose Bowl that year, but still it wasn’t really a good sports choice. I just wanted to go to California. When you grow up in Montana in the 60s, everything came from California.”

MTN Sports: What was the difference in competition level? Did you notice that right away, maybe in practice even?

Donovan: “I didn’t know about Notre Dame, you don’t know what it’s like there. You don’t have any idea. When you get into the Pac-8, now it’s the Pac-12, when you get into those places, you’re playing UCLA, USC, Washington, Oregon and teams like that, you have a really high level of competition. It’s all you can handle. I was probably OK competing at Stanford, but you really have to step your game up when you get into those other conference rivals. We played Illinois, Penn State and stuff like that, so you really noticed that.”

MTN Sports: Did you ever think that the boy from the small Helena Central school could be all-conference, all-American, the accolades that rolled in?

Donovan: “It’s like when you watch the guys in golf, a couple guys at the U.S. Open, they did a little vignette on a couple of guys and one of them said, ‘I was standing over this putt and if I make it, I win the U.S. Open. I’ve made that putt a thousand times.’ You know, as a kid, you’re in the backyard or wherever, ‘If I catch this,’ you know. You do all that, and then when it happens, I think you’re a little skeptical that it’s really the same deal. I was always pretty skeptical of it, never really comfortable in the role, even in high school or college. I remember when I made all-American as a junior, some guy on the team came into the library, I was studying, he came in and said, ‘Way to go. You made all-American.’ I went, ‘Oh come on. No way. There’s no way.’ And then a couple other people mention it, so I went back to the dorm and everyone was going nuts. It was a fraternity house, I guess, but it was very surreal. You call your parents and go, ‘So this is weird.’ Same thing when I first made the Pro Bowl, you’re hoping that the next message isn’t, ‘Oops, we made a mistake. You’re really not selected.’ I think you have to have a lot of that in you because you play against a lot of good guys. How people sort fish at that level, it has a lot to do with your public relations department. There’s a lot of it that’s flat out great PR, which Stanford had, and the Cowboys had. I’m blaming them.”

MTN Sports: Is there a moment from college that you would call your defining moment? Or maybe the one you remember the most?

Donovan: “Making all-American the first time, that was pretty special because everyone was right with me, they were all shocked, too. It wasn’t like it was expected, it was a big surprise. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I would have been disappointed if I didn’t get it,’ it was really, completely out of the blue. Things like that, I think that’s pretty special.”

MTN Sports: The NFL Draft now is a party, almost matching the Super Bowl, but what was it like then? Take me through that day you found out Dallas was coming calling.

Donovan: “I have an older brother, he was home between jobs, I think he was going to Carroll or something at the time, but he and my dad would call and we would talk all the time. During college, we would talk about the games and stuff. Then when the draft was coming up, they would call from time to time and say, ‘Oh, San Francisco would be great. You should go to San Francisco,’ knowing it’s a draft, right? But somehow they think you have some (pull). ‘San Francisco would be great. We would love to go to San Francisco.’ Then it would be, ‘Seattle. Seattle is right here and we could go to a lot of games.’ Then it was Denver and all these places you could go. The night before the draft they called and said, ‘You know, we’ve been talking about this and it’s not going to happen, but we really don’t care where you go, just so it’s not Dallas.’ I swear to God. So the next day I got to call them when I got the call and said, ‘Good news, bad news.’ But I had been hurt a lot my senior year, I had broken my collarbone and first rib, played through that. I hurt my knee midseason, dislocated my elbow in the Shrine Game, so I had a tough year, none of it kept me out of anything, but I had a tough year. I think they thought I was a little injury prone. I didn’t go to the Senior Bowl, which at the time was a big deal. I was scheduled to go there, but when I dislocated my elbow the doctors said, ‘You’re done.’ So they were a little upset about that. The Senior Bowl at the time was essentially what is now the NFL Combine. That’s where all the combine guys went and ran, stuff like that. But my elbow was almost the size of my thigh. You know how when you dislocate your elbow you’ve really hurt yourself. So the doctor said, ‘Don’t even go. You’ll do something or they’ll make you do something, just stay away.’ I was drafted fourth round, which in retrospect, there was nothing wrong with going to Dallas. Great team, good environment, good city and great fun. All good stuff.”

MTN Sports: It was quick when you had to change positions. You had played the position (offensive line) before?

Donovan: “Never. I had never played offensive line in my life. I was a tight end in high school. I was a fullback, tight end and defensive end in high school. In college I was defensive end all the way, so I hadn’t done any offensive line stuff. It’s not like you’re kind of warming into it, you’re there with all these guys who are the best in the country and you get to hone your beginner skills with them. I was on my way out the door, I’m absolutely certain. Everyone else thought I was, too, some older guys like Ralph Neely, who I was backing up Ralph Neely and Rayfield Wright, two all-pros. We had some other guys who were, I don’t know if they were better, but they were more experienced and we had six preseason games, I think it was during the fourth preseason game in Kansas City, I was all ready to go because we were supposed to be playing and somebody didn’t get out on the field, which is typical. Someone didn’t get out there for special teams, a punt, some rookie, and I was standing right next to Mike Ditka, purely by chance, and Ditka starts screaming, ‘We need someone at the left cover spot,’ so I said, ‘I know how to do that. I did that in college.’ He goes, ‘You have contain, you have contain.’ I told him, ‘I know, I did this in college.’ I went out, and for the first time in training camp I was comfortable and fortunately they were trying to run around the end all day, so I made like seven tackles on the punt team. At one point, someone missed the kickoff team and Ditka came looking for me and said, ‘Go in and cover the kickoff.’ I made a few tackles on kickoff, too, and that was absolutely where I made the team. It’s all a game of numbers in the NFL, and having an offensive tackle who could cover kicks and do punts, so I was on all the special teams my first two years. In fact, my second year I was the captain of the special teams. As an offensive lineman, it was kind of odd to be covering kicks and stuff, but that was definitely how I made the team. No question about it, it was doing the kamikaze thing. When I finally started my third year, which was pretty typical in those days, you would hang around learning positions for a couple years, then your third year you were expected to start producing, but I started at right tackle and we won the Super Bowl that year. I guess we were doing OK.”

MTN Sports: The “Four Irishmen and the Scott.” There have to be some stories that are at least close enough to family friendly to share, right?

Donovan: “That was one of those weird things. Four of us were white and one of us were black, he happened to be Herb Scott, and so it was this sort of, ‘Is this OK to say?’ Herb was great about it, he was the greatest guy ever. Everybody was great with it, but when they put it in the paper you were kind of like, ‘I wonder if we’re going to get any backlash?’ We didn’t get anything, everyone recognized it for the harmless joke it was. (Tom) Rafferty, (John) Fitzgerald, (Jim) Cooper, me and Herb Scott. That was about as far as it went, but it started out as an inside joke.”

MTN Sports: You talk about winning a Super Bowl in your first year starting, is there a more perfect storybook ending than you starting that year, making this run and doing that? That doesn’t’ happen.

Donovan: “That doesn’t happen. It was just being on that team, I think, again, you go into it and don’t realize, just like when you go to college you don’t really realize what you’re doing, but being in Dallas, I played nine seasons and we were in the NFC Championship game six times. A game away from the Super Bowl six times? That’s pretty remarkable for a nine-season career. We made it three times, lost twice. But just going, it’s a big deal. I think more than going, you’re in the playoffs, we were in the playoffs every year, it would have been kind of tough to languish in one of those cities where it’s not really part of the DNA. In Dallas, it was just so much, which brings with it its own disappointments. I mean, if we weren’t in the Super Bowl, everybody was very disappointed. You think about it, you played your NFL career and you only ended your season with a win one time, because if you’re in the playoffs you lose out. It’s a little frustrating.”

MTN Sports: What about the transition into this, the business world? You seem to enjoy it and everyone knows your name for it and loves it.

Donovan: “I wanted to stay in Dallas, at first, and I went to work for a development company. I went around to all my friends and asked them what they would do if they were me and going to get their first job in long pants. I was an engineer by education, so I thought about going into that, but a good mix was real estate development, which was the first thing I went into in Dallas, and I was there another five or six years after I quit playing. It seemed like Montana was starting to take off, and the idea was to come and get a home-and-away kind of thing, so I came up and hit the tar baby, Iron Horse, in the first couple of years I was here and I’ve been on that ever since, really. We sold the club and the rest of the real estate in 2007, but that was pretty much from 1991-2007, that was our main thrust of everything.”

MTN Sports: Everyone knows Iron Horse, and not just people in Montana, there have been some big names coming through. Who has this all introduced you to?

Donovan: “Whitefish has become pretty high-end. Iron Horse was part of it, but there was a reason Iron Horse was successful, and the biggest reason was Whitefish and Montana. You come up here, and we had nothing to do with the great little town of Whitefish, Whitefish Lake, Flathead Lake, Glacier Park, all the stuff that’s around here is the stuff that Montanans have been experiencing, I mean, I started coming up here when I was 5 years old with my parents, who were from Missoula and Butte, so this was their ideal vacation spot. All Iron Horse did was expose this to a larger, broader group of people from places with terrible summer weather.”

MTN Sports: When you look back, what’s that one memory, that moment, or maybe the biggest change you’re seeing now, what is the difference between your career then and what you see now?

Donovan: “Unquestionably, beginning in high school and going through college it’s the specialization, especially starting in high school. We were absolutely going to play all four sports, regardless. I think it was a tremendous add, benefit. I skied, through my whole NFL career and everything else I’ve always skied. I think that’s a tremendous benefit to me in terms of balance, strength. There are just a lot of things you pick up in other sports. Basketball was tremendous in quickness, agility. I know they do a lot of drills now, but people are so much more specialized. And you have to, there’s no question. Coaches are on them to specialize and the specialization we had was when we had the basketball coach come up to me after we ran the fat-man relay at one track meet, they made it an 880, we each had to run 220, and Buddy Walsh of Butte was ahead of me when he got the baton, they cheated and put a bunch of track guys in the shot put, but Buddy was their anchor, you had to have at least one real weight, and I was our anchor. I was running around the corner and was telling Buddy, ‘I’m going to catch you. I’m going to get you.’ I smoked by him and won the fat-man relay and the track coach, who was our basketball coach, came up and said, ‘Congratulations, that was the fastest 220 time in the state so far this year. Welcome to the relay team.’ So they put me on the anchor leg of the relay team, so I could only screw up one handoff. The fact we won just meant that we had three other really fast guys, which we did. We really did. No question about it, I got the baton with the lead and barely held it. I just think that specialization is hard on kids, you know? It’s good for them, they do better, I’m sure they do better in their sport, but I had a great time doing all the sports. That was really fun. I think the guys who were really good in football and backups in basketball and just came out for track, I think they also had a great time. There’s a lot about the comradery and having everybody involved, maybe not everybody, we had some guys that weren’t, but the core group was in all the stuff and that was fun.”

MTN Sports: What do you miss the most?

Donovan: “About sports? I’ve never really been a real sports fan. I don’t watch much football, I kind of like the playoffs. One of the things about football is that the TV doesn’t show me the angle, they follow the ball too much and you don’t get to watch what you want to watch. That’s frustrating for me. I love basketball, but I would always rather do a sport than watch a sport. I golf now, still snow ski. I would still rather do any of that (than watch). You miss the team nature of all the sports I played, which was unquestionably the best thing of it. To get 50 people on the same page when you’re 20, 30 years old, it’s a pretty remarkable thing. You learn that later when you go into business, no matter how close-knit of an organization you are, it’s still nothing like a team. Those teams are a really big deal, so you miss that. That’s the one thing I miss. The rest of it? I would rather go play golf.”

MTN Sports: That was my final question, how many hole-in-ones then? If you’re able to get out on the course, there has to have been a couple.

Donovan: “I’ve had one, it was last year. It was late coming.”

MTN Sports: What hole? What happened?

Donovan: “The guy that was with me describes it as the ugliest shot ever, so I just say it went in the hole.”

MTN Sports: That’s all that matters.

Donovan: “That’s right. There’s no room for pictures on the scorecard.”

Richie Melby

Richie Melby

A Hi-line native, Richie Melby enjoys telling the stories of Montana athletes, coaches and teams. Richie got his start in TV at KTVQ in Billings and worked as the Sports Director at KRTV. After a couple of years in Tucson, Ariz., Richie returned to his home state as the Sports Director at KTVH.
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