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Catching up with Billy Donlan

By Greg O' Brien, special to the BIR, May 1, 2014

They call up the memory him at the Heights with great reverence; he was the Doug Flutie of the 1950s. At barely five feet, eight inches tall with a big stretch, Billy Donlan was one of the finest Boston-bred quarterbacks and scholars to grace a gridiron or lecture hall. Starring on the Boston College teams of almost 60 years ago, he was among the nation’s premier passers, throwing short tosses and tight 60-yard lasers with a right hand slightly larger than his left, cupping the football like a grenade at a time when most quarterbacks were tossing dirigibles.

Years earlier as a senior at BC High, Donlan was captain of three varsity sports, an All-Scholastic, All-America pick in football in leading a team that won the city championship in football. And, yes, he was class valedictorian. Every college in the nation, including Harvard over in Cambridge, coveted his brawn, and his brain.
“Billy had an incredible mind, but was rooted in the sod,” says longtime friend and BC High classroom legend Bill Burke with understatement. “He was all we wanted to be: a brilliant student, an outstanding athlete, and a really good guy.”
Billy, deeply religious since childhood, humble and reflective to the core, is still a really good guy, but today, at 79, he can’t speak for himself. That’s a challenge when you’ve called signals at the highest level in college sports. Four years ago, Donlan, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, suffered a debilitating stroke at his home in Brighton’s Oak Square after retiring as chairman of the philosophy department at Salem State College.
He now lives in Spiddal outside Galway, whence came his parents to the United States, with his wife Carmel (Francis), a Spiddal native, and his daughters Claire, a doctor, and Eileen, who is studying medicine. Donlan was flown to Ireland, courtesy of a group of friends, after being discharged from Mass General.
The oldest in a family of four boys and a girl, Donlan today uses a walker while still making eye contact as he did with onrushing linemen. He understands some of what is said to him, and says his prayers at night, surrounded by family pictures and photos of him from his sporting days that seem to evoke strong emotions within.
Donlan spent most of his life carrying others, and now family and friends are carrying him. The chief supporter among them is his youngest brother, Fran, who, on his first day of class at BC High was asked to stand up as the Jesuit Father D. Augustine Keane fixed his gaze on him, and said, “So you’re Billy’s little brother!” He has worn Father Keane’s anointed moniker with honor since then, and now, a half century or so later, he has become Billy’s voice.
“Billy was a great mentor to me,” says Fran, a financial advisr at Janney Montgomery in Hingham. “As a kid he made me eat raw eggs for protein, and threw tight spirals at my head to force me to react; he made me study Latin when I was ten, and on family car rides had me read “Don Quixote” to him. They don’t make ‘em like Billy any more.”
The Donlans are cut from a swath of tree as sturdy as an Irish oak. Their mother, Bridget (Cody), was born in Loughrea in Co. Galway; the Gaelic is Baile Locha Riach, translated “town of the grey lake.” Their father, William, was raised nearby in Lisnadrishna where the family tried to make do with land and a few cows. He was strict, but deeply caring, a ditch digger as many Irishmen were upon arrival in Boston. Later, and for close to a half-century, he became a chef at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton where he served breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily to 400 members of the clergy. “The monsignors got steak; the priests hot dogs and hamburgers,” says Fran. So it is with pecking order.
After attending Our Lady of the Presentation School in Brighton, Billy wowed them at BC High, starring in baseball (center field), hockey (center), and football (QB) while never getting anything less than a “A” in his class work. Wrote the late Jack Conway in the Boston Herald of Donlan’s high school exploits, “Not since Harry Agganis at his high school peak has any schoolboy displayed such amazing forward passing and all-around excellence.” Agganis, nicknamed the “Golden Greek” in the late 1940s and early 1950s, passed up a career with the Cleveland Browns to play first base for the Red Sox. His early death is considered one of the greatest tragedies in Boston’s sports history.
Soon Harvard, Notre Dame, and Boston College came knocking for Donlan, who wanted to play for the legendary coach Frank Leahy at Notre Dame. He took a 16-hour train ride to South Bend for a look-see from both sides. Leahy said he was impressed, but with regret he told Donlan that quarterbacks at Notre Dame had to be six feet tall at least. To Donlan, four inches had never seemed so long. And so the job went to a kid named Paul Horning, later an All-America and Heisman Trophy winner for the Irish and celebrated NFL Hall of Famer.
Stung by the decision but unbowed, Donlan accepted a scholarship at Harvard, the Proper Bostonian bastion. Then, three weeks later, he realized the Ivy League was not for a tough Catholic Irishman from Brighton, so he enrolled at Holy Cross. But, he found that the Lord works in mysterious ways. A month later, at yet another crossroad in his life, he left Worcester and enrolled at Boston College. There, a post-pattern play from where his father worked as a chef, he met a coach named Mike Holovak, who changed his life.
Holovak, who played for BC in the early 1940s, and then for the Cleveland Rams and Chicago Bears, evoked even greater grit and passion from Donlan. The rest of the story is part of BC’s football history.
After graduation, Donlan earned a master’s in philosophy, then declined at the last minute a call to the priesthood before earning a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Cork. The old sod has, of course, always been in his blood.
Donlan still has a house in Brighton, the same home he grew up in. It is filled with trophies, photos, and sports memorabilia, a museum of sorts. “Billy’s spirit is still there,” says Fran. “He will always be with us.”