(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. This week, we profile the defensive linemen.)
No. 3 defensive lineman – Mitch Donahue, Billings West
When it comes to Montana natives on the college football stage, Mitch Donahue has one of the most impressive careers in state history. A Billings West graduate, Donahue starred at Wyoming, setting numerous sack records for the Cowboys.
Mitch Donahue stat sheet
Donahue was a 1986 graduate of Billings West High School, where he was an all-state football player under then-coach Paul Klaboe. Donahue was the state’s first Gatorade football player of the year in 1986.
He then went on to a sensational career at Wyoming, graduating in 1991 as the program’s all-time sacks leader with 49. Pat Rabold and Jeff Knapton are tied for second on the career list with 30 sacks each. Donahue recorded 22 sacks during the 1990 season, which garnered him all-American honors and fourth-place finish in Outland Trophy balloting. The Outland Trophy is annually awarded to the top college lineman in the nation. Donahue thrice had three sacks in a single game during the 1990 season (against Utah, New Mexico and UTEP). During his Wyoming career, Donahue earned all-conference honors in the 1988, ’89 and ’90 seasons and was named the Western Athletic Conference defensive player of the year in 1989 and ’90. He’s the only player in Wyoming history to be a two-time conference defensive player of the year. He was inducted into the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002.
Donahue was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round of the 1991 NFL Draft. Undersized at defensive end, he moved to linebacker in the NFL, but it wasn’t a great fit. He appeared in 31 career games – 15 with the 49ers and 16 with the Denver Broncos – before ending his professional career with the Atlanta Falcons in 1995.
Donahue’s son Dylan, who also starred at Billings West, is entering his second season in the NFL. Dylan Donahue was the Gulf South Conference defensive player of the year in 2016, when he set a conference record with 13.5 sacks while at the University of West Georgia. He was drafted by the New York Jets in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
… on Donahue:
Former Wyoming assistant coach Mike Van Diest: “I watched Mitch in high school. He played high school football and ran track with my brother-in-law, Pat Dringman. Billings West High had some great players, some great athletes in those years, and I think it was Pat’s junior year and Mitch’s senior year when they won state track. I just remember at state track Mitch was doing handstands going across the infield of the track meet. He could do everything, he was just that way. He went to Wyoming, was an all-American, I think fourth in the nation in voting for the Outland Trophy. He led the nation in sacks. Consequently, he was drafted by the 49ers. I just remember, I got the job (as an assistant at Wyoming) with Joe Tiller that spring when Mitch was a senior, and watching him go through all the different scouts and testing, there was a little black box with, ‘What does he do at the 10-yard mark? The 20-yard mark?’ Things like that. He was an unbelievable athlete. He was great in high school and had a great, great college career at Wyoming.
“You see what he did in high school in track and football, and you see what he did at the college level. They won a couple conference championships with him in 1987 and 1988, they were conference champions. They played against Barry Sanders in the (Holiday) Bowl, which was pretty cool in that bowl game. I don’t think it was very much fun because I think he had quite a day that day. But when you watch what Mitch did during his college career at Wyoming, each year he just got better. He was just a great player and a great guy, he was a great guy. He was very outgoing and very personable. I just loved sitting down and talking to him when I got to Wyoming as a defensive line coach. Shoot, I pirated all of his film from his junior and senior year and used it as teaching techniques for the guys.
“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree with that talent. Mitch had such a great get-off. I know the 49ers, I’m not a pro scout or a pro coach, but playing at middle linebacker, I think Mitch was better suited in the days of coming off the edge. I know at Wyoming, Coach (Paul) Roach and those guys, Del Wight, who was his great defensive coach, they would move Mitch inside to a three technique on guards because guards couldn’t handle him one-on-one. They moved him around and utilized him. I was hoping that that could have happened with him (in the NFL). To be able to make it that far says an awful lot coming out of the state of Montana.”