All-Empire Small School Football: Fort Bragg’s Dondanville defensive player of the year

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat Neil Dondanville, Small School Defensive Player of the Year

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat
Neil Dondanville, Small School Defensive Player of the Year


Fort Bragg nose guard Neil Dondanville laid waste to opposing offensive schemes. The challenge for Timberwolves coach Roy Perkins was to keep Dondanville from laying waste to his teammates.

“As the season progressed I had to keep him from practicing, because I was worried for my own kids,” Perkins said. “I literally had to take his helmet away in practice. He has one speed, this incredible motor.”

With Dondanville leading the way, Fort Bragg surprised almost everyone by going 10-2 and winning the NCL I. Now he is The Press Democrat’s Small School Defensive Player of the Year.

The Timberwolves’ season was a shocker considering they went through a coaching change just three days before their first game — after going through a previous change during the offseason. Legendary coach Jack Moyer retired after the 2011 season and was replaced by Kevin Costello. But that didn’t work out, and Costello and the school parted ways with the season ready to kick off.

Perkins entered in the nick of time, and one of his first significant moves was to move Dondanville from linebacker to nose guard in the 3-5 defensive alignment he introduced. Dondanville wound up anchoring a stellar defensive line that included ends Jacob Clark and Eric Herrejon.

It all revolved around the nose.

“He would literally demand at least two guys blocking him every play,” Perkins said. “Having him is like playing with 12 or 13 guys.”

For the record, Dondanville recorded 54 tackles and 3½ sacks. That doesn’t begin to define his contributions.

“As a spectator, sometimes you don’t really see who’s making plays on defense,” Perkins said. “We had a middle linebacker making 18 to 20 tackles a game, and he was a good one. But sometimes he was not even touched, because of Neil.”

Dondanville not only accepted his unglamorous job. He relished it.

“It’s just a down-and-dirty position,” he said. “Honestly, some games it was hard for me to walk after, just because of how brutal it was. But it was all worth it.”

Dondanville isn’t a massive, lumbering nose tackle. At 5-9, 215 pounds, he just as easily could have played linebacker. Sometimes, in fact, it was hard to tell what position he was playing. Perkins recalls watching film of Fort Bragg’s game against Lower Lake.

“It’s Neil playing the nose, and he almost sacks the quarterback,” Perkins said. “The guy gets the pass off, and then Neil tackles the receiver 14 yards downfield. He’s an unstoppable force.”

Dondanville is currently wrestling for the Timberwolves at 192 pounds. He knows a lot of the other NCL wrestlers, and they frequently talk football. The discussion often comes around to Dondanville’s dominance.

“Most of them are saying that in the locker room, their coaches would get frustrated,” he said. “They’d be asking why can’t they handle our down guys. ‘What are we doing wrong?’ A lot of the time, it felt really good when the center would have to make a check and call for help.”

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