Don McKinnon, 73

"Uncle Donnie" was Pats linebacker, Dartmouth legend
Fri, 02/06/2015 - 9:00am
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Block Island resident Donald B. McKinnon — a former Boston Patriots linebacker, Dartmouth legend and Wall Street executive, died Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Scallop Shell Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Wakefield, R.I. He was 73.

Donald was born the third of five children in Boston, on Aug. 28, 1941, to Paul and Lois (Brodil) McKinnon. His father, the son of a Boston police captain, parlayed a Harvard economics degree into a career as district director of the Internal Revenue Service in Boston. He and his wife were local tennis and squash champions and gifted their son with athletic talent.

While attending Matignon High School in Cambridge, McKinnon played center on the football team. He also played basketball, and led Matignon to two straight league titles, while earning All-Catholic League honors as the team’s center. 

Dartmouth College recruited the versatile athlete for its football program. Before reporting to Hanover, N.H., Donnie had to finish his duties with a milk company in Natick, Mass., where he worked on the midnight to 8 a.m. graveyard shift. The job was one of many he held to help put himself through school. But more importantly, the free milk contributed to his impressive stature. At 6-foot 3 and 230 pounds, he could fill up a doorway. 

At Dartmouth, the soft spoken, likable recruit studied sociology and helped lead the ’62 football squad to the Ivy League championship as team captain and an All-American center on the Big Green’s offensive line. It wasn’t easy; McKinnon came off a severe injury - two ruptured tendons and a broken bone in his ankle-to lead Dartmouth to its first undefeated season in almost 40 years. “It takes quite a player to bounce back like that,” said legendary Dartmouth coach, Bob Blackman. 

Described as a “legend” himself, the Dartmouth star center was a defensive standout, as well, doing double duty as a linebacker. “Tackled by McKinnon” sounded like a tape recording at most Dartmouth games. “He’s the best linebacker I’ve ever coached,” said Blackman, who marveled at McKinnon’s combination of size, strength and speed. On big plays, he routinely shed blockers and made tackles for losses. Blackman called him ”a bona fide All-American” and named McKinnon the MVP of Dartmouth’s storied ’62 season along with quarterback Bill King. 

Besides selection to the All-America national collegiate football team, he was named to the All-East, All-Ivy and All-New England teams.  What’s more, he won the George H. “Bulger” Lowe Award as the best Division I college football player in New England.  In January 1963, Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, congratulated McKinnon on being voted the Matthew Golden Award for the most outstanding Catholic collegiate football player in America. 

In addition to captaining the football team, he was president of his fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, a member of the Inter-fraternity Council and on the senior honor society, Sphinx.  He starred for Dartmouth’s rugby team and toured Ireland playing matches. 

McKinnon didn’t have time to reflect on his many collegiate achievements. The pros were calling, and the “Big D” as he was known, was drafted by the New York Giants and the Boston Patriots. He signed with his hometown Patriots. As a 22-year old rookie, McKinnon beat out veteran linebackers and played in 17 games over the 1963-1964 seasons before being hobbled by injuries. He fractured his hip during training camp but continued to play. “He’ll be a great one,” predicted Patriots Coach Mike Holovak. But it wasn’t to be. Leg injuries cut short what many expected to be a Hall of Fame career. 

Back then, NFL players didn’t get lucrative contracts. To supplement his football pay, Don played winters for the Patriots basketball team, which toured New England on a 25 game schedule. McKinnon at the same time completed a National Guard active duty tour, all while living with his parents in Arlington, Mass. 

After leaving the Patriots, Don acquired a stockbroker’s license. He started his new career with Wainwright & Co in Boston. He wed Nancy Hailer, a Lesley College graduate and budding professional model. They soon found themselves in Manhattan, where Don took an executive position with Becker Paribas heading its trading, convertible and over-the-counter desks. He then moved to Moseley Hallgarten & Estabrook where he served as vice president and sat on the board of directors. From there, he rose to Executive Director of Nomura Securities International’s equities division in New York. He headed American stock trading for the Japanese giant, traveling often to Tokyo before retiring in the mid-1990s.  

In retirement, McKinnon dabbled in films, playing minor roles in acclaimed Hollywood director Wes Anderson’s movies, “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic.” He appeared with stars such as Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, Owen and Luke Wilson. The famous Wilson brothers’ father, Bobby Wilson, was Don’s longtime friend from Dartmouth. 

For the past 20 years, he has wintered in Woodside, Calif., with his good friends, John and Jaye Krumme, and summered on Block Island where he is known by everyone as “Uncle Donnie.”  For many summers he drove a cab, charming his fares with his life stories. He was well known for his love of reading, his movie role in the island-based movie “Island Bound,” his breakfast roundtables with his friends at Bethany’s Diner and his ever-present unlit cigar (called “the dangerous stick” by his niece’s son). As one close friend, Dick Berkowitz said, “He was a charismatic leader, hugely successful in everything he undertook, blessed with a wonderful sense of humor even in the darkest days of his last illness.”

McKinnon’s marriage ended in divorce but not before he and his late wife had two fine sons, Donald, Jr., of Nashville, Tenn. and Andrew of New York City, who both survive him. He is survived by two sisters, Nancy Kelley of Yarmouth, Mass., and Gail Heinz of Block Island, R.I. He was predeceased by his youngest sister, Marie Sheehan, and his brother, Paul McKinnon, Jr.  He also leaves behind his brothers-in-law, Denny Heinz of Block Island and Michael Sheehan of Arlington, Mass., as well as many beloved nieces and nephews.

With special thanks to The Block Island Medical Center, The Scallop Shell, Home & Hospice Care of RI,  Amy Doran and Joel McKee.  A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, May 30, 2015 at 12:30 p.m. at the Block Island Cemetery. For more information go to www.galloglyfuneralhome.com. For those wishing, please make donations in Donald’s memory to the Island Free Library, PO Box 1830, Block Island, RI 02807.