By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
There was no stopping New York Jets linebacker Dylan Donahue from following in his father’s NFL footsteps. Mitch Donahue was a middle linebacker who converted from being a defensive end at the University of Wyoming (where he still holds the sack record with 49). In 1991, Mitch was a fourth-round Draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers where he played two years (alongside then-safety and now current Jets head coach, Todd Bowles) and then two years for the Denver Broncos. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons but tore both hamstrings and ended his NFL career, returning with his family to Billings, Montana where he grew up.
“I think ever since I was conscious of football, I always wanted to (play in the NFL) because of my dad,” Dylan said. “He was always my favorite player to watch.”
Dylan was raised in Billings where he was an athlete in multiple sports, including baseball, which his father, who coached him, tried to encourage over football. But Dylan loved football from the start. In fact, Mitch recalled things finally coming to a head when a young Dylan burst into tears begging not to play baseball anymore. And, so it was.
It wasn’t that Mitch didn’t think Dylan was a talented football player, in fact, it was just the opposite, and he knew it from the moment his son started playing youth football.
“He just annihilated people,” Mitch laughed. “He played strong safety and he would come running from all the way back. He comes flying in and cleans everybody out. It was like to where his mother, Melissa, and I would sit there just cringing saying, ‘I hope that other kid’s OK.’ Dylan has made me feel that way on every level.”
As for Dylan, he knew early on that he wanted a career in the NFL, but there were some challenges, and despite his talent, for a while it looked like he wouldn’t even have a college football career. He struggled with ADD and depression, and fell into what he described as a “fog.” His grades fell and although he became a member of the Montana Western football team, he was redshirted due to his academics and didn’t play in a game there.
Dylan withdrew from the university and went home where he began working for his father who, following his years in the NFL, had built a roofing business in Billings. Neither of the Donahue men was happy with that. Dylan quickly decided it wasn’t what he wanted to do, and Mitch still saw untapped potential in football for his son.
Then a friend, who was attending Palomar College (a junior college) in San Diego, suggested that Dylan should go there.
“He said, ‘You’re better than the guys I’m playing with and they’re all getting D-1 scholarships,’” Dylan said. “I went out there and I was defensive player of the year.”
While he received numerous offers from Division I schools, due to different eligibility requirements between NCAA Division I and Division II, Dylan ultimately needed to go to a Division II school and chose the University of West Georgia. That’s where he finally hit his stride.
“I had a great year my junior year,” he said. “Then, I tore my MCL when I was a sack away from the record. [That was] a crazy year. I got All-American, All-Conference, and I was a finalist for the Gene Upshaw Award, and a finalist for the Harlon Hill trophy. [Senior year] I broke the sack record for the school and the career sack record for the conference.”
All of which culminated in the 2017 NFL Draft. Unsure of where, or if, he would be selected, by day three, at home in Billings with his family, Dylan’s confidence was wavering.
“I waited and waited,” he said. “I left my phone upstairs and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is really going to happen.’ Then my mom started yelling, “Your phone’s ringing, your phone’s ringing.’ I pick it up and it’s the Jets telling me they’re going to turn my name in. It had been six years. I started bawling. My parents were crying too. They knew how hard it [it had been].”
Mitch, although he worried about his son’s early struggles, provided insight and guidance throughout and couldn’t be more supportive and thrilled with how it all worked out.
“I knew from day one he’s better than I ever was,” Mitch said. “I know he can do this and I’m not surprised he’s in this position. Even though I didn’t want him to, I secretly wanted him to. So, now that it’s worked out I’m the happiest dad on the planet.”
He’s got a lot of work ahead of him, but the son is pretty happy too. Said Dylan with a big smile, “I’m crazy excited.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.