It’s been two long calendar years since SDSU has been allowed to host their annual spring game for the public on campus. In addition to the grand opening of the new Snapdragon Stadium, this spring football game offers the fans a first glimpse of this much anticipated 100th SDSU football team.
The annual game is to be held this Thursday, March 24 at 6:30 pm. on the SDSU practice fields. The official announcement sets up two Aztecs legends, Brian Sipe and Donnel Pumphrey, both as honorary head coaches on opposite sides. Autograph signings from each will be held in tandem at 5:30pm just before the pregame warmups.
For Brian Sipe, it’s a familiar face on the Aztecs sidelines. The leader of the SDSU offense during the reign of legendary head coach Don Coryell, Sipe earned his place in Aztecs lore when he received the 1980 NFL MVP award as the QB of the Cleveland Browns.
Brian, eventually returned to his alma mater at the invitation of then head coach Brady Hoke in his first stop at SDSU. Sipe would serve on the staff from 2009-2014 as quarterbacks coach.
For Donnel Pumphrey—the SDSU and NCAA all-time leading rusher—this is just an early note in the coaching chapter of his football story book—and what a story he has written for himself so far.
Donnell sat down with sonsofmontezuma.com for an exclusive interview leading up to the Aztecs spring game. It was important to us that we catch up with the now 27 year old former running back in his new coaching capacity. Donnel peeled back some of the layers of his fantastic football journey and was as candid as ever. All championships, records and highlights aside, Donnel conducts himself off the field just as he did on the field—fearless.
For the full Donnel Pumphrey audio & video interview, you can find our show released Tuesday, March 22nd anywhere podcasts are available, here at sonsofmontezuma.com, or on our TV channel on YouTube.
Football is a battle of the will. The ultimate team sport, yet an illuminator of an individual’s character. It’s a game of inches, where each and every hard earned yard is met head on with opposition aimed to hold you back.
In America, the gridiron has often times been utilized as the measure of a man. Busts in hall of fames, statues in front of stadiums and jerseys hanging high for all to see, depict the sort of imagery & reverence that we as a culture have come to idolize. The superman like figures, big chested and brawny, represent the games highest of order.
So whats there to say when along comes a complete anomaly to the game. One that totally blindsides those physically dominant figures and make the so called experts wish they had never spoken.
Donnell Pumphrey is that man. He was that anomaly.
Donnel spent four spectacular years at SDSU (2013-2016) leading the Aztecs to two Mountain West Championships and shredding up the record books along the way. All 5 foot 8, 170 pounds of Donnel ran circles around defenses and surpassed Marshall Faulk’s career rushing mark in his senior season. In the final game of his collegiate career, a Las Vegas Bowl rout of the Houston Cougars, Donnel eclipsed Ron Dayne’s all-time NCAA Division I FBS lead in career rushing yards with 6,405.
“Honestly i’m not going to lie, it’s in the genes.” Donnel proclaimed as he visibly perked up in his seat. “Starting with my dad, he was a running back that should’ve been ‘that guy’. But obviously he fell into the street life when he got out of high school.”
“I’ve always looked up to my cousin Jeremiah Johnson. He had an opportunity to play in the NFL. I have a little cousin named Ajon Bryant. He’ll be a sophomore this year and he plays for Mater Dei the #1 school in the country—look out for him. And my uncle coached Dillon Baxter at Mission Bay.“
Donnel was eventually drafted into the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles organization in the fourth round (132nd overall) of the 2017 NFL Draft.
“It was definitely a crazy experience.” Pumphrey recounted. “Just going from division 1 and finishing my career breaking the record and being on top of the world. Then having to go to the senior bowl and competing against the best of the best. Just being in the NFL Combine was nuts.
Donnel’s rookie year was sidelined due to a torn hamstring in practice. Being present during Philly’s magical Superbowl title run afforded him some comfort that he had been drafted into a good situation. But after the Superbowl festivities were complete, Pumphrey was released by the team that drafted him just a year earlier.
A brief try with the Detroit Lions, back to the practice squad in Philadelphia and a hopeful resurgence into the XFL was stamped out by COVID-19, Donnel was forced to face a difficult decision—one that all professional athletes must make at one point in time.
After weighing all the options, Donnel executed what he so rarely did on the gridiron—he laid the pigskin down on the grass and left it on the ground. It was time to leave his measure of a football man right then and there for the all scribes to discuss & debate his place in the game’s history. The NCAA’s all-time leading rusher had completed his football journey. The player chapter was over.
Having most recently served this past football season as a member of the staff at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, it was clear to see from the start, how Donnel’s character shone through in that decision alone.
“My first year coaching last season I had an amazing time. I definitely got a lot from it.” said Donnel. “I could’ve coached at plenty high schools that had the better athletes, but I chose them because I wanted to learn as a coach and be around kids who don’t naturally have that gift and actually wanted to get something from it.“
With reports last year that Pumphrey was being groomed by coaches Jeff Horton and Hunkie Cooper, we are yet to see if that translates into an opportunity larger than this week’s honorary coaching designation with the SDSU staff or elsewhere. But what finally made Donnel get into coaching as his next step, was all the film study while a member of the Eagles and the relationship he has watching his former high school coach and current SDSU wide receivers coach Hunkie Cooper.
“I’ve always followed his steps in life. He’s basically like my father figure. I grew up with his son since we were about 8 or 9 years old, running track and playing football together. He’s pretty much been in my life forever and he’s the one that kept me from being a knuckle head growing up.”
“When I got in trouble at home, my mom is calling him, not my dad or anyone, only him. At high school (Canyon Springs, NV) when I get my lunch I would just go sit in his office chill with him, watch film and just talk life lessons.”
One of those life lessons almost derailed his career and hit Donnel very hard and early in his young life. In just his junior year of high school and already a committed D1 athlete to SDSU, the future was bright for Donnel. He had always envisioned playing his high school years in San Diego’s rich football culture. His idols of LaDainian Tomlinson and Reggie Bush still bring a smile to his face when he thinks on those childhood heroes.
But after deciding to not leave for San Diego and instead stay in Las Vegas, Donnel ended up learning and experiencing the life lesson that he was going to be a father.
“Finding out that I was going to have a kid as a junior, is definitely a scary experience. I remember going to class and crying non-stop for days. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what was next. I’m thinking maybe football is done for me.”
“My daughter was actually born on senior night of my senior year. Now you have to be in school in order to play. Well it was the division championship that day, the final game right before playoffs. The mother of my daughter was in labor and she was going to let us know exactly when. Coach Coop was going to take me directly from school. We never got a call and of course at kickoff time, we got a call.“
Donnel ended up getting injured the very first play of the game which gave him the quicker opportunity to leave and go hold his daughter for the first time.
For many, the addition of such a responsibility thrust into their lives would rock their world and change their goals. With the support of his family, Donnel was instead able to live out his dreams for his daughter and credits her for being the motivation. “She’s been the reason why I was able to do what I did in college and chase all those yards. That’s what I’ve always thought of.”
REFLECTIONS IN D
Such realities bring out the true character in a person and just like every obstacle he’s faced on the football field, Donnel stepped up to the challenge before him. Looking back, it’s no wonder how such an anomaly of a small stature man on the field could accomplish what Donnel did. The life-changing role of fatherhood wasn’t a detractor, but rather the thought of Donnel’s daughter propelled him to success.
When asked about the all-time record now, you can still hear and see the enchantment he feels for it.
“It feels cool. Honestly it feels like it still has not hit me. It really has not. When people talk about it, I still think it’s crazy. One of my close friends who i grew up with he’s like, bro that’s insane that I’m here next to the all time leading rusher in college football history and look at how you’re built!“
“Thinking about all the great running backs that have come across college, even a great like Jonathan Taylor at Wisconsin. He played 3 seasons and was 200 yards from breaking it, but didn’t come back his senior year. So I feel like its something that you have to play all four years if you’re gonna break that record.“
Donnel in all four years at SDSU has no regrets, just fond memories of his time playing with his best friends. But when it comes to his time after college, that’s a different story.
“Really they (Eagles) tried to utilized me on punt return, if anything they should’ve had me at kick return. But, I honestly feel like I didn’t take advantage of my opportunity though. Looking back at it. Especially when I went to Detroit, I felt like I definitely didn’t take advantage there. And that was more so because a lot was going on in my life at that time.”
“I got cut from the Eagles, we just won a Superbowl. It was kind of a bittersweet thing. I didn’t think I would be cut because I got drafted, so that kind of hit me. But looking back, I would’ve went way harder and just took advantage of each opportunity that came my way.“
This kind of honesty and introspection can only come from someone who has experienced the highest of highs, as well as the lowest lows of getting released by the team that drafted you.
And so begins the new chapter of Donnel Pumphrey’s football story—coach.
For Donnel being situated as the honorary coach of the WHITE team in this years Spring game, he knows all too well what happens during Spring camp. “My freshman year at SDSU they wanted to redshirt me. So first day I went over in pads with the scout team. I went out there and every time I touched the ball I scored a touchdown. That was the last time I was on scout team.” Donnel says with a smile.
“The crazy thing is after my freshman season, they (SDSU) were going into spring ball they were talking they don’t know if I’m going to be ‘the guy’, if I can hold up. They obviously saw what I was doing in practice and I treat practice like a game, thats what makes it easier on game days.”
Being able to recognize his own talent back then, Pumphrey’s eye for runners may prove to be his effectiveness in coaching moving forward. “I’m happy to see we (SDSU) that we were able to keep a local in Lucky Sutton here. I feel like he can be that guy along with other guys we already have like Chance Bell & Byrd. They’re gonna be good.”
This kind of honest evaluation from such an outspoken guy like Donnel takes cues from his mentor once again, coach Cooper.
“What I love about coach Coop is that he’s so straight forward. He will tell you what he’s thinking, tell you if you’re messing up and what you need to do to be successful. And if you don’t do it, he’s going to send you back to where you came from. He’s not going to shy away from that whatsoever.”
With this kind of guidance in his personal and professional capacity, it should be no surprise if Donnel conducts himself with the same unapologetic fearlessness on the sidelines that he demonstrated on the field in his time at SDSU.
“I see stuff on Twitter all the time when they talk about the best running back in college and they don’t ever show a picture of me or anything. All they show are guys that aren’t even close to none of the records or none of that but, it is what it is. You know how that goes.”
One has to be fearless to take on a record that a 250 pound rival running back labeled the ‘Great Dayne’ held in his clutches. When asked wether he thinks him taking the record away has hit Ron Dayne yet? Pumphrey grinned and replied …
For the answer to that question and much more of the full conversation with Donnel Pumphrey be sure to listen & subscribe to the Sons of Montezuma Podcast tomorrow at 9am PST when our exclusive interview with Donnel Pumphrey will go live. You can find it here at sonsofmontezuma.com, our YouTube channel or anywhere you get your podcasts!
A look at all the SDSU Aztecs to step into the Sons of Montezuma Podcast!
Get caught up on all our interviews wherever podcasts are available, at http://sonsofmontezuma.com or now on our Sons of Monty TV YouTube Channel Can’t wait to see who’s Next?🤔