Dr. Richard Donelli
Dick Donelli, at the time of his passing on July 11, 2011 at the age of 73, had given more than half a century of his life to the advancement of the game. His was a profound influence, as one of America’s premier ruggers, and as a leader, innovator, coach and administrator.
A graduate of the College of Columbia University (’59) and of Columbia Dental School (’63), the worthy son of Aldo “Buff” Donelli (who coached Columbia University to its only Ivy football championship in 1961) would become acquainted with the members of that championship team as their senior quarterback in their freshman season, as a residence dorm counselor and subsequently as their backs coach. Their shared passion for winning and total commitment in football would come to define the unprecedented success of a newly founded Columbia University RFC (est. 1961). Donelli served as both the President and Captain of the CURFC (1962-63); and, as their scrumhalf, led the Lions to an undefeated 12-0 season in the Spring of 1963. He is unquestionably the greatest CURFC player of its first half-century.
Donelli, along with five other former Columbia football alumni, was a co-founder of the Old Blue RFC in the fall of 1963. A member of the Old Blue Hall of Fame, he was the club’s inaugural President (1963-64) and its second Captain (1964-65).
For the next 48 years, his identity and that of the renowned Old Blue were virtually indistinguishable. His was a personality larger than life. His character was such as to make him a force of nature. To the Old Blue family he seemed indestructible, immortal; and his loss thus all the more incomprehensible to all who knew him. Donelli was possessed of the greatest competitive spirit – he viscerally hated to lose, with a devotion to the sport that had almost religious overtones.
His supreme confidence, determination, psychological strength, physical ability, fitness, abandon and unrelenting aggressiveness on the pitch made him the immediate star and imperial leader of the OBRFC. One of the greatest American rugby players of his era and arguably the best scrum half in the country, Donelli was the face of an OBRFC that developed an almost mythic reputation in the 1960s. He personified the uniquely American and intense style of play that came to characterize the club and which placed it at the forefront of American rugby.
In 1963, there was no USA Rugby. There was no US Eagles national team. It was in this period that Donelli led his teammates in their unforgiving efforts on the pitch and defined the Old Blue tradition. In this period they established for the OBRFC a standard of exceptionalism informed by their combined Columbia-Old Blue experience in formal spring league competition. In the continuum of those early winning streaks from collegiate to club rugby (1962-65), Donelli and his co-Founders did not know loss. They were undefeated in 54 games, with a 52-0-2 record. In those 54 matches, Dick and his teammates shut out the opposition no less than 32 times, and yielded but a single score in 13 more.
In an era when there were no substitutions whatsoever, in a game that was brutally elemental, and no national club championships, Donelli’s Old Blue embraced the elegant violence like a breath of fresh air; and clubs focused on winning LAU titles and prestigious regional tournaments. After their extraordinary undefeated inaugural 1964 season and first ERU championship, Donelli led them to three more ERU Championships in six years, undefeated five times in 11 seasons, and won the Met NY Union LAU title six times, including the inaugural Met NY Union Championship in 1967.
In 1969 Dick scored the game’s only try in an epic Old Blue 11-6 upset victory over a touring London Saracens side; and his Old Blue beat foreign touring sides, including the Montreal Barbarians, Toronto Nomads, Clifton (Eng), Llandaff (Wales), when it was a rarity for an American club to do so. They also won every prestigious Eastern tournament, five in all, as the decade came to a close.
Dick was an exceptional 7s player and a ferocious defender. In November 1963, in their inaugural competition as a club, he and Old Blue swept through the field to go 5-0 and win the New York 7s championship. They shut out all five opponents in a display of relentless defense, then went on to repeat the feat with five more shutouts to win the 1964 NY 7s a second straight time, an accomplishment of unthinkable proportions. Ultimately, with another title in 1966, Old Blue won three NY 7s championships in four years, with fourteen shutouts in fifteen matches, yielding a single try.
He was a big scrumhalf for his era and played defense more like a flanker. But it was his skills on offense and his method of passing that first gained him international recognition on the historic OBRFC 6-3 tour of Great Britain in 1966. Dick had developed a one-handed spin pass to put the ball into play faster, farther and more accurately, when it was gospel worldwide to use solely a two-handed flat or dive pass. He was able to get the ball out more quickly to the backline and to the centers, if he wished. Donelli was the star of the tour and every team that saw his pass and play recruited him to play for them. All Blacks coach Jack Sullivan coached the club for their tour, and on his suggestion, the All Blacks visited the Old Blue the next year on their way to the UK. Donelli displayed his pass for Kiwi coach Fred Allen and his famous scrumhalf, Chris Laidlaw, who switched to the spin pass subsequently, and it soon became universally employed worldwide.
On a club with no shortage of very tough men, over fifty years, he was the toughest. After a collegiate football career and nine years of rugby at the highest levels in the United States, he discovered in 1969 that he had been competing with a congenital heart condition: a hole between two chambers of his heart. Eight weeks later he was wearing a Teflon patch in his heart. He was playing rugby within four months of that diagnosis; and, just 18 months after open heart surgery, played for the NY Met Union All Stars in the stunning 12-11 upset against Fiji. The man ultimately played rugby with a pacemaker for over a decade.
Donelli subsequently played against the best teams in the world: He played for, and coached, an ERU side the next year against the Australian Wallabies, and in October 1972 played for and coached the NY Met Union side against the great New Zealand All Blacks, in a 9-41 result that compares favorably to the result of any US side to date. In the Rugby Magazine October 1984 issue, Kiwi coach Jack Sullivan was quoted by Bill Smith, NY Times Financial and Business writer, as saying: "If Dick Donelli had moved to New Zealand, he would have taken Chris Laidlaw's job in six months." Laidlaw, the All Blacks scrum half at the time, was considered the best in the world. No American scrumhalf - and no American player ever - has yet had such an endorsement; Donelli’s health challenges notwithstanding.
As an administrator, Donelli served as the Vice President of the NY Met Union (1976-77). He served as Chairman of the Old Blue Rugby Foundation, which was created to support the OBRFC and rugby, and when there was an organizational restructuring, became the first Chairman of the Board of the Old Blue. He made the club solvent through its Endowment and created the Foundation’s Annual Hall of Fame Dinner/Fundraiser. He insured financial support for the Columbia rugby program, and for youth rugby through Play Rugby USA. It was his support that led to specific sponsorship of the E.A. Reynolds West Side High School, a last-chance school for students who dropped out of the system multiple times. Old Blue adopted the team; and the impact of their rugby experience and formal identification with Old Blue has been nothing short of life changing for these teens, according to PRUSA founder and former OB Eagle hooker Mark Griffin.
Dr. Donelli was preeminent in his profession, with over 3,000 hours of postgraduate education course time, and with innumerable certifications and dental association memberships. The passion Dr. Dick Donelli carried to all things he touched was evidenced in his practice: he was beloved by his devoted long-serving staff and his patients alike. For all of his larger than life and often intimidating expressiveness, he was in truth a most sensitive, considerate and loyal man, firstly to his family and then to the Old Blue RFC and his teammates.
Dr. Donelli fiercely opposed self promotion and always understated his achievements; and, in a private endeavor unknown to most of his rugby friends until after his passing, he provided pro bono professional services and financial support to the Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, NY, a specialty children’s hospital dedicated to improving the health and quality of life of children with complex medical illnesses. He absolutely loathed any talk of credit and attention to his efforts; and, as wife Kathleen noted, he played rugby and lived for the moment, not for such opinions. Dick is survived as well by his five children, Tiffani, Jacqueline, Kerry, Nicole and Charles.
To view a Memorial Tribute Video to Dr. Dick Donelli, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-ucCCIwJ4c