|Mike Donnelly, watching his team's scrimmage atop the press box, without a headset.
Muhlenberg athletics photo
By Adam Turer
Over 40 years of coaching, Mike Donnelly has always instructed his players to find a way to win and dig in.
The man they call “Duke” wasn’t on the sidelines when the Mules opened their season with a resounding victory on Saturday. He was in Buffalo, New York, at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Donnelly was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia in the spring. Saturday’s game marked the first football weekend he had spent away from the field since 1966. The Mules were on his mind, and Duke was in the hearts of everyone associated with Muhlenberg football.
The program is dedicating this season to its head coach of the past 20 years, the winningest coach in program history, and the trunk of one of the largest coaching trees in Division III football.
“When he first told us, he sounded confident and optimistic. He’s always telling us to find a way to win, so we knew he’d find a way,” said senior captain Matt Stickney. “Duke’s still been guiding us all the way.”
There has been an outpouring of support from past and present Mules players and coaches, as well as the entire Muhlenberg community.
On Sept. 1, the day before the season opener, the Mules hosted a blood drive and bone marrow registration drive. Mules players spent all day working the event, and 281 people swabbed their cheeks to join the bone marrow registry. Nearly 100 more registered online. The event was held in conjunction with Be the Match and the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation, the organization founded by the former St. Lawrence and Villanova head coach.
“Getting to be a part of an event like that and seeing the amount of people in the community come out and show their support for Be the Match was huge support for us going into our first game the next day,” said senior captain Nick Savant. “Knowing that there are so many people there behind Donnelly and so many others. We know that everyone who signed up is making a difference for so many.”
At Saturday’s game against Wilkes, Muhlenberg raised more than $2,000 from donations and sales of orange t-shirts. The shirts say “Find a Way” on the front and “Dig in for Duke” on the back, and will be sold at every home game this season with all proceeds going to Be the Match.
Muhlenberg players urge people to get their cheeks swabbed to see if they are a match for anyone in need on the bone marrow registry.
“It makes you happy to be a part of a tremendous community where people are aware of the bigger picture. The support from the whole Muhlenberg community has just been overwhelming,” said athletic director and acting head football coach Corey Goff. “I hope Mike and his family realize the impact they’ve had on this whole community. It really just reminds you how impactful Mike Donnelly has been on so many people’s lives. We’re hearing from people on a daily basis who he has coached or mentored or all of the above. It just makes you proud.”
Goff hadn’t been on a football sideline in more than a decade. He was an assistant coach under Donnelly from 2000 to 2005, then led the Mules baseball program from 2007 to 2012 before being named director of athletics. Donnelly brought Goff to Muhlenberg 17 years ago, and handpicked him to steward the program in his absence this season.
“He and I talked about what would be best to make the most seamless transition for him. Allowing the coaches we have to continue to do what they’re doing and not asking more of them while also not having to consider bringing someone in externally was the best way,” said Goff. “It’s really been a great opportunity for me to reconnect with student-athletes in a way that you’re just not able to when you’re the athletic director.”
Just because he’s in Buffalo undergoing treatment does not mean that Donnelly has let go of any of his coaching responsibilities. Thanks to the technology available, and his insatiable love for the game and his team, Donnelly has been able to continue watching video, leaving notes, and communicating with his coaching staff and players.
“We’re trying to keep everything as close to his traditions as possible and make it run as smoothly without him as we can,” said Savant.
A 62-19 win in the opener, keyed by Savant’s school-record 351 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns, certainly helped ease the minds of the Mules players. They celebrated the victory by flooding their head coach with text messages.
“It felt really good just knowing we could pull out a good win for him and make his stay in Buffalo a little better,” said Savant. “We knew it was tough for him not being there with us.”
“You want to make sure that team is performing well for Donnelly while he’s battling,” said Stickney. “It felt great to get out there and strap it up against another team. We definitely needed it, Coach definitely needed it, and we’re happy with the outcome.”
The Mules also had support from their opponent, Wilkes. Coached by Trey Brown, a former Donnelly assistant, the Colonels wore the same “Dig in for Duke” helmet stickers as the Mules.
The whole experience has given the young men on the roster extra motivation and has given them an opportunity to show their poise and maturity, character traits that have been shaped in many ways by their seasons spent with Donnelly.
“The upperclassmen have had to take on a role of upholding the culture of excellence that Mike Donnelly has created here over the last 20-some years. Without him having his thumb on it every single day, it’s up to us to make sure that happens,” said Goff. “Our upperclassmen have done a great job of doing that. They’ve been compassionate to Mike throughout this whole thing. They’ve also been resilient and understood what Mike wants, which is for them to focus on football and academics. That’s how we’ve been able to have a successful early start of the season.”
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When Donnelly broke the news to his players in the spring, the room fell silent. Duke being Duke, he cracked jokes to lighten his players’ moods. If they didn’t understand before, they have certainly realized now that the lessons of perseverance Donnelly has been preaching for decades carry well beyond the football field.
“We know he’s gonna find a way to win and get the job done. It helps calm us down because we know that he’s up there doing whatever he can to beat leukemia,” said Savant.
“It definitely adds some emotion to see someone who’s been around the game for so long have it taken away from him,” added Stickney. “It definitely gives our team some appreciation for the opportunities we’re given to be around the game.”
Donnelly was in attendance for the team’s preseason scrimmage against King’s, another program led by one of his protégés. Monarchs coach Jeff Knarr has enjoyed keeping up his usual weekly conversations with Donnelly and hasn’t noticed any change in his former boss’s demeanor.
“I think he looks at football as a nice distraction from what he’s battling,” said Knarr, who led his team to a season-opening victory last Thursday. “He loves football and he’ll talk football with anybody at any time.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Donnelly has been updating the community of his status. Not surprisingly, his main focus remains on his Mules preparing for game days. Four days after the Mules had their first game of the season, Donnelly had the biggest day of his campaign against leukemia. On Tuesday, Sept. 5, his daughter Lauren donated bone marrow. Wednesday was “Day Zero,” the day Lauren’s blood was transfused into her father.
This past week has been eventful and emotional for Donnelly and the Mules, but everything is trending in the right direction. The team is still following the leadership of their coach, digging in and finding a way.
“What he preaches is being mentally tough, physically tough, and finding a way to win. That’s his motto, to battle through adversity in his life,” said Knarr.
“Knowing him, he’s a tough guy. I know cancer’s pretty tough, but I started thinking cancer might have picked the wrong guy.”
As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. Up next is Rockford sophomore defensive lineman Jacob Cremeens, who explains how a season off the field helped him appreciate the game even more.
I started playing football in middle school and always had a good time, but I didn't fall in love with the game until my junior year of high school. I've always enjoyed football, but once I realized that I couldn't play the game forever I started to love every repetition. Injuries were also a big eye-opener for me. I broke my hip and was forced to watch our team’s season instead of competing with my teammates, which made me love and appreciate the game even more.
I still love football because I haven't found anything else in life that motivates me like football does.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.
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There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about D-III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!