(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. We’ve wrapped up the defense, also profiling the defensive linemen and linebackers. Now, we switch to the offense and start with the offensive linemen.)
No. 1 offensive lineman – Pat Donovan, Helena High
When discussing Montana’s all-time great athletes, names like McNally, Mortensen and Estes are frequently mentioned. Pat Donovan, one of Stanford University’s all-time best and a four-time Pro Bowler with the Dallas Cowboys, is in the same breath.
Pat Donovan stat sheet
Donovan actually started his high school career at Helena Central, but moved to Helena High after the Catholic high school closed its doors. Between the two schools, Donovan earned 10 letters in football, basketball and track and field and was an all-state athlete in all three sports, earning the distinction on both offense and defense in football. Helena High played for the Class AA state basketball championship both years Donovan played the Bengals, defeating Billings West for the 1971 crown. After averaging 17.4 points and 17.0 rebounds per game, Donovan was named to two different all-American teams. He owns the Bengals’ single-game (28), single-season (452) and career (749) rebound records, as well as winning six first-place medals — three shot put, two discus and one 880-yard relay — at the state track and field meet. Donovan was inducted into the Montana High School Association Athletes’ Hall of Fame in 1994.
After graduating from Helena High in 1971, Donovan continued his football career at Stanford University, where he would play solely at defensive end. He broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 1972 and never looked back, becoming a two-time all-American. Donovan led the Cardinal with 109 total tackles as a junior and nine tackles-for-loss as a senior. He was named to Stanford’s all-century team and inducted into the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Donovan in the fourth round of the 1975 NFL Draft, and he moved to the offensive line and saw action at both tackle positions. After spending two seasons as a reserve, Donovan moved into the starting lineup at right tackle in 1977, helping the Cowboys to a 15-2 record and 27-10 win over Denver in Super Bowl XII. Donovan moved to left tackle the following year and would spend six seasons protecting quarterback Roger Staubach’s blind side for two seasons and Danny White’s for four. He also helped open running lanes for Tony Dorsett, who averaged at least 4.2 yards per carry during every one of Donovan’s seasons. Dorsett rushed for 1,646 yards during the 1981 season, ranking second in the league. Donovan was a Cowboys co-captain is final five years in the league and became the team’s highest-paid offensive lineman. He was named to the Pro Bowl for his work in the 1979, ’80, ’81 and ’82 seasons and finished his career starting 103 regular-season games and advancing to the playoffs all nine seasons, playing in an additional 20 games.
Donovan moved back to Montana in 1992 and currently lives in Whitefish.
… on Donovan:
Pat Donovan: “When you come from Helena, Montana, these coaches from UCLA, Stanford, Notre Dame and all these places are all coming up, you’re really looking over your shoulder and wondering if they have the right guy. I don’t care how good you are, you’re worried that you’re a little bit of an imposter. I remember the Stanford guys, I was talking to them and they were pretty honest about it, they said, ‘Yeah, jeez. We couldn’t tell anything from the films that you sent. We watched your basketball games because we couldn’t tell anything. The stuff you sent us in football, the guys looked like they were on roller skates, you were pushing them around so much. We couldn’t tell anything. And you have no technique.’
“I played nine seasons and we were in the NFC Championship game six times. A game away from the Super Bowl six times? That’s pretty remarkable for a nine-season career. We made it three times, lost twice. But just going, it’s a big deal. I think more than going, you’re in the playoffs, we were in the playoffs every year, it would have been kind of tough to languish in one of those cities where it’s not really part of the DNA. In Dallas, it was just so much, which brings with it its own disappointments. I mean, if we weren’t in the Super Bowl, everybody was very disappointed. You think about it, you played your NFL career and you only ended your season with a win one time, because if you’re in the playoffs you lose out. It’s a little frustrating.”