Ricky Donegan, who threw some of the prettiest passes these eyes ever saw, died of cancer April 17 at age 68 in his adopted hometown of Tupelo. And I know what some of you older readers are thinking: “Ricky Donegan, where have I heard that name before?”
Donegan, born and raised in Hattiesburg, was a quarterback. He played at Hattiesburg High and then at Southern Miss. He was so thin that USM fans often referred to him as “Little Ricky.” His teammates were even more to the point.
“Ricky was so skinny, we called him Blade,” said Gary Grubbs, the USM receiver who caught many of Donegan's passes and went on to become a Hollywood actor.
Says Craig Logan, a teammate at both Hattiesburg and USM, “Our coaches in high school called him Hoe Handle. He was that skinny.”
On the day in 1970, when he quarterbacked USM to a stunning, 30-14 victory over No. 4 Ole Miss, Donegan weighed in at 162 pounds. In boxing, 162 pounds is the middleweight division. In Division I football, 162 is featherweight.
The USM football guide for 1970 lists Donegan at 6 feet, one inch. His foot speed was about average. What Donegan could do was throw.
“Ricky threw perfect passes. He was on the money. We changed our entire offense at Hattiesburg High because of him,” Logan says. “Hattiesburg had always been a running team. In the '60s, most everybody was a running team. But our coach, Don Ward, saw Ricky throw the football and that's what we became. We split our receivers and ran from a one-back set and threw the ball all over the field. We won a bunch of games and we had a lot of fun.
“We weren't that strong up front and Ricky took some beatings. I remember him coming back to the huddle, all bloody but he'd call another pass, take another hit and get up and do it again.”
Nevertheless, the scholarship offers did not exactly pour in. Even in 1968, 160 pounds was small for a quarterback. Donegan signed with his hometown college. He and Logan were in the last signing class of Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Thad “Pie” Vann. They would play on the USM varsity for P.W. “Bear” Underwood, another Hall of Famer.
Grubbs, from Prentiss, had transferred to USM from Mississippi State and what he remembers most about Donegan are those perfect spirals he always threw.
“Most quarterbacks, especially in college football, will throw a perfect spiral some of the time, maybe even most of the time, ” Grubbs says. “Ricky threw one every time – there was no wobble at all, just a perfect spiral. And he threw it with zip. If you were running a 10-yard hook pattern, you better be ready when you turned around or it would hit you right in the face. It was always there.”
Southern Miss was in the process of moving up from being a small college powerhouse to trying to get its footing at the Division I level. All the big games were played on the road. In 1969, USM played at Ole Miss. Archie Manning and the Rebels routed them 69-7. Donegan threw three interceptions.
But, later that same season, Southern Miss played at undefeated Louisiana Tech, the same week that Tech quarterback Terry Bradshaw was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. USM ruined Tech's perfect season, driving for a winning a field goal in the closing seconds. Donegan, a skinny sophomore, had helped defeat Bradshaw, who would be the first player taken in the 1970 NFL draft.
In 1970, USM went back to Oxford. Ole Miss was coming off victories over Alabama and Georgia, was a 50-point favorite over a USM team that had just been throttled by San Diego State. Donegan completed 14 passes of 30 for 162 yards. He did not throw an interception. He also had a key, 42-yard run in USM's historic 30-14 victory.
“We were not in awe of them,” Donegan, a quiet guy who never tooted his own horn, told me years later. “I'm not saying everybody thought we would win but we thought we had a shot.”
The next year, USM had a chance for a similar upset at Auburn, the year Pat Sullivan won the Heisman Trophy. Sullivan and Auburn pulled away at the end but not before Donegan had completed a then-record 13 straight passes.
Donegan, who beat Bradshaw and Manning and almost beat Sullivan, never played a down after 1971. The pros weren't looking for 162-pound quarterbacks, even if they did throw perfect spirals.
No, Donegan went into the Air Force and served his country for 23 years. He then became production supervisor for a Tupelo manufacturer. Friends say few people knew of his football exploits of yesteryear, and Ricky, never boastful, wasn't going to be the one to tell them.
But those who were around Hattiesburg, nearly a half century ago, will never forget those pretty and often perfect passes and the blade of a quarterback who threw them.