IOWA CITY — Tom Donatell grew up surrounded by the highest level of football, but has worked his way up from the bottom rung at Iowa.
Donatell’s name was never part of the froth that came from the mouth of recruitniks. He was the son of NFL assistant coach Ed Donatell, but that cut no ice with college programs. Two torn ACLs in high school will have a chilling effect on recruiters.
So Donatell walked on at Iowa in anonymity, and moved from quarterback to linebacker to defensive back to linebacker as a Hawkeye without many in the outside world taking notice.
But he started two games at outside linebacker in place of injured Tyler Nielsen in the middle of last season, and had a total of 13 tackles and helped his team instead of hurting it in those contests.
After last season, he made his final position switch. Today, the fifth-year senior he is listed as the co-No. 1 strong safety with sophomore Nico Law.
“It’s definitely been a journey and a dream come true,” Donatell said.
His story is almost an Iowa program prototype. He’s the son of a coach, which Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz likes. And like all former walk-ons (he was put on scholarship after last season), Donatell was never a silver-spoon guy.
He played high school football in Duluth, Ga., while his dad was defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. He spent a lot of time at Falcons practices, just as he did in Green Bay with the Packers when Ed Donatell was the DC there for four years.
“We were in Atlanta when Brian Ferentz was playing with the Falcons,” Donatell said. “Coach Ferentz was visiting him, watching practice. I was rehabbing my knee, so it really kind of opened up where I could go.
“So when Coach Ferentz was there he said ‘Hey, come take a visit.’ And on my official visit I just loved it here and loved the program. I enjoyed the coaches, enjoyed the program here. Something told me this was the place for me.”
There were no guarantees Donatell would ever play in a game or get a whiff of a scholarship. He came all the way up to Iowa, anyway.
“Aaron Kampman and Matt Bowen, my dad always told me they were guys — “Iowa guys,” he called them — guys that he wanted me to be like. Just work hard, come to work every day and do your best.
“They were some of my dad’s favorite players. Aaron Kampman has always been influential to me. He was always lending an arm and trying to help me once he knew I was coming here, trying to ease my transition here.”
Kirk Ferentz seemed to enjoy talking about Donatell Tuesday at Ferentz’s press conference.
“The only reason he came here, I don’t want to misquote, speak for Tommy, but Matt Bowen and Aaron Kampman were playing for us,” Ferentz said. “Up in Green Bay, that’s where it all got started. Interesting that a guy from Atlanta would choose to walk on. Those guys made an impression on his dad and also on Tommy.”
Some sons of coaches feel neglected. But with Donatell, whose father is now in his second year of coaching the San Francisco 49ers and 22nd season in the NFL, it was the opposite.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I loved it. My dad always let me tag along to practice, watch film with him even if I didn’t know what was going on.
“He never pushed me into anything, though. If I wanted to do it, he’d help me. But if I didn’t, he wasn’t that kind of dad. He kind of let me choose for myself, and I think that’s why I have the same love for it today as he does.”
“He’s a phenomenal coach, a phenomenal dad. He’s had some success (for instance, Ed Donatell was part of back-to-back Super Bowl champions in Denver), but what he remembers are the relationships that he’s built with people.”
For Donatell, being born on the West Coast, and living in New York, Denver, Green Bay and Atlanta probably helped him with moving from position to position with aplomb.
“Pro football is definitely a business,” he said. “You’re either promoted or fired after four years. You either get the job done or not.
“So I’m kind of like, every year has been a different position, a different area, learning something new everywhere I go no matter my situation.”
Said Ferentz: “He’s worked very hard. He’s a very conscientious guy. Improved with every opportunity. He’s been like a lot of our success stories, with every year he’s gotten better. Works hard, goes about his business in a real positive way. Has been a great team member.
“I’m really hopeful that he’ll have a great senior year. I think he’s very excited about it.”
This is the year a walk-on from Georgia gets to show he, too, is an “Iowa guy.”