Find a Way to Win (Mike “Duke” Donnelly 1952-2017)
I remember the first time I met Coach Mike Donnelly. I was a 20 year old junior college player who was at a crossroads in my life. It was already April and I hadn’t committed to a college yet and time was running out. My former high school coach had signed on to coach running backs at Muhlenberg College and had contacted me to swing by the school when I came home over a long weekend from Lackawanna College. Even though I was from the Lehigh Valley, I didn’t know too much about Muhlenberg college. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t very interested because I had been recruited by several big schools who were holding scholarship opportunities for me and I was basically visiting the school as a courtesy to my high school coach.
When I arrived on campus I was lead into the building and remember walking up the stairwell next to the gymnasium. It was anything but impressive. In my mind I wanted to shake hands and make a quick exit so I could get back home and meet up with a few friends. When I got to the top of the stairs, I was greeted by Coach Donnelly who lead me into his office. After we shook hands and we sat down, the first thing that came out of his mouth was “Our team stinks!” This took me by surprise because I had been on several recruiting visits and the coaches typically didn’t begin their sales pitch by telling me how bad they were. If you know Duke though, he was anything but typical. He proceeded to tell me that he had watched my game film and that if I were to attend the college, I would be part of the biggest turnaround in school history. I would be the first junior college transfer to play football at the college and would open the doors for other players who were in similar situations as me.
At the time I thought he was nuts because the program I was looking at won probably 5 games in the previous 5 years. Even though I thought he was off his rocker, there was something about coach that I liked. He was a straight shooter and had an intensity level that matched mine. He had a piercing glare that seemed like he was looking into my soul and he could see what I couldn’t see in myself yet and could bring it out of me.
After our meeting, I decided I was going to give him and the school a shot. It is probably the best decision I ever made in my life. The life lessons I learned from coach are too numerous to count but the one that has always stuck out for me was “find a way to win.” I use that saying almost everyday in my personal life and with my athletes. I remember contemplating dropping out of school because I was struggling in one of my classes that I needed to pass to earn my degree. I had to stay up late and wake up early almost everyday studying just to earn a B in the class. I could have taken the easy way out and packed my bags but I could hear Duke in my ear telling me “Brader, find a way to win.” “Dig in and make a play.” Whether it was on the field or in my everyday life, he taught me to always give my best and pay attention to the little details because the little details will make the difference in my performance.
My first game at Muhlenberg I rushed for 23 yards and went into his office on Sunday morning and told him I didn’t sign on to get my ass kicked. I wanted to have children one day and be able to play with them. The way I felt that day made me think I was going to be crippled by the end of the season. I was a record setting running back at Lackawanna and took a hit to my ego after the poor performance. He told me to keep my head up and that the next game I would put it all together and to have faith in the process. I did just that and finished the season 7th in the NCAA in rushing yards and was named the ECAC rookie of the year and 1st team All-Centennial Conference. Even though we finished 1-9, our offense was ranked #1 in the league and we laid the foundation for the future. The following season I was named Pre-Season All-American and team captain. We finished 5 and 5 and beat our rival Moravian for the first time in years. It was an outstanding season and I will remember it for the rest of my life. Not only for the great football games but for the time I had with my teammates and the coaches. It was awesome considering I was doing something my parents and brother never had the opportunity to do. Go to college, earn a degree, and set the stage for beautiful life I have now.
I have been fortunate to have my wife Alyson, my beautiful daughters Alexis and Gabriella. Along with my girls I have my son JJ. I can throw around with my children and teach them the lessons Duke taught me on and off the football field. Some of these lessons are:
- Life isn’t easy and don’t expect anyone to hand you anything…When the times get tough, “Dig in.”
- Circle the Wagon
- Pay attention to detail because the details make a big difference.
- Treat people with respect and dignity because that’s the right thing to do.
- It isn’t where you’re from it’s where you’re going. Make everything you do and everyday count.
- Be a great teammate and citizen. Be a great contributor to a cause bigger than yourself.
- Challenge yourself daily in everything you do from academics to athletics.
- Be a lifelong learner
- Make an impact and be a leader. Pick up the people who are weaker and lead the way.
“Find a way to Win!!!!
This spring Coach was diagnosed with Leukemia and it never crossed my mind that he wouldn’t beat it. The past few months he fought for his life meanwhile becoming a big advocate for “Find a Match” bone marrow registry. He was always looking for ways to make an impact on his players and those who he didn’t even know. Even though he lost his battle yesterday to cancer, his legacy will live on in all those he touched throughout his coaching career. I will remember him as a coach, mentor, father figure, and friend for the rest of my life and do my best to pass on everything he taught me. I love you coach and wish if we could celebrate one more time after homecoming. You will be greatly missed by your former players, coaches, and me and will be remembered for everything you have done to make us the men we are today. Rest in Peace Duke…Until we meet again.