Tom Donney was sleeping much better last week, and it was not just because the Black Hills State University football team had earned its first win of the season a few days earlier on Nov. 3.
Donney, the defensive line coach for the Yellow Jackets, got the surprise of a lifetime before a team practice — the kind of surprise every father with a child serving in the military would love to receive.
BHSU head coach John Reiners and Donney’s wife, Patti, arranged the surprise as a way to give back to a coach who volunteers his services to the team.
That payment came in a surprise visit from his son, who Donney assumed was still serving his country in Afghanistan.
Reiners got the team together in a huddle nearly two weeks ago and asked his assistant to come forward. Standing just a few feet away from Donney, unbeknownst to the coach, was his son Nate, a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard.
After a few words from Reiners about sacrifice, the 26-year-old soldier suddenly popped up from one knee, hidden in a camouflage of Yellow Jacket green and yellow jerseys, helmet now off and in hand.
“I thought, 'Who is that guy?'” Donney said. “I looked around for a second and looked back at him. I was like, ‘Oh my God, it's Nate.’”
Father and son hugged to thunderous applause from the Yellow Jackets players as it became apparent that Donney didn’t want to let his boy go.
Nate had returned from Afghanistan to the family home in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Oct. 29. Patti Donney just came back from Spearfish to Iowa after watching the Yellow Jackets play Colorado State-Pueblo at Lyle Hare Stadium a couple days before that.
Reiners and the Donney family tried to stage a reason to get him back to Iowa. Patti later said they told lies to try to lure him home. Nate said they fudged the truth.
Not knowing the real reason, Tom Donney declined, thinking he would just come home in about three weeks when the season was over.
As Plan A failed, Plan B needed to be executed like a successful last-second scoring play on the football field.
Reiners suggested that Patti and Nate drive out to Spearfish and they would figure something out, kind of like drawing up the play in the dirt. As it turned out, it was a playground scramble that scored.
The key to pulling off the surprise was to make sure that nobody spilled the beans. It wasn’t easy. Reiners said he didn't tell his players about it until just before practice.
Earlier in the day before team meetings, Donney was talking to junior wide receiver Luke Whalen, who himself served in Afghanistan before returning to the team this past spring. Whalen, who didn't know about the plan, asked Donney how his son was doing. He said he hadn’t heard from Nate in a couple of weeks.
“When a parent doesn’t hear from them in a couple of weeks, you’re mind starts to wander. It can play tricks on you,” Donney said.
Donney didn't know at the time that he would see Nate in just a few hours.
Now that Nate is done with his tour, he is registering for classes as a junior at the University of Northern Iowa. Donney, however, said he wouldn’t be surprised if his son volunteers again for a mission in about six or eight months, as he will “probably get bored again.”
Regardless, the family that also includes Luke, 28, and Sarah, 25, is thrilled to have their son and brother home.
“As a parent (of a soldier fighting overseas), once you realize that they are back in the states and are safe, those first few nights of sleep are incredible. You no longer have that hanging over your head,” Donney said. “It's like the weight of the world is lifted off of your shoulders.”
Patti and Nate didn’t stay in Spearfish long. They tried to talk Donney into going back to Iowa with them, but feeling somewhat secure that Nate was home safe, he again declined the offer. He had his job to do as the Yellow Jackets left that day for Las Vegas, N.M., to face New Mexico Highlands. BHSU would get that elusive first win, 48-45.
Donney, who owns Tom Donney Motors in Fort Dodge, doesn’t coach for the money. He has coached for 23 years, mostly on a volunteer basis, and has been at Black Hills State since 2009.
“I feel really blessed to have a great family, a great business and a great home back in Iowa,” Donney said. “I don’t really need the money. When you get older, it’s enough just to have a chance to help some of these young men. I think football is the ultimate team sport. Being around the young guys is a lot of fun and it’s great to give something back.”
He and Patti have talked about moving to Spearfish. They have looked into buying property in the area.
Donney is also a car collector with a “huge collection” of Saabs that he calls one of the largest in the world. He has also broken the 2011, 2012 and 2013 World Land Speed Records at Bonneville Salt Flats in a vintage 1967 Saab Sonett painted in BHSU green and yellow.
Cars are his passion; football and his business keep things in line. Family is what counts the most and last Wednesday brought Donney, Patti and Nate, and his extended Black Hills State family together.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by Reiners, who is also a husband and father of four.
“We all play to win the game. There’s not one guy on the team who doesn’t want to win,” Reiners said. “But you know what? That (reunion) was worth everything this year, no doubt about it.”
The Yellow Jackets broke huddle to begin practice with “America on two.”