Ray Donaldson set the bar high for the center position during his memorable 17-year NFL career.
Some football historians also claim that Donaldson was the first African-American center in the National Football League.
He anchored the Baltimore Colts’ offensive line for four seasons from 1980 to 1983. When they became the Indianapolis Colts in 1984, Donaldson continued playing at a high level although the team fell way short of expectations.
Not only that, but Ray Donaldson also became the undisputed leader of Indy’s offensive line from 1984 to 1992.
Donaldson racked up six Pro Bowl selections in his career and also earned Second-Team All-Pro honors in 1987.
Donaldson finally earned a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys during the twilight of his pro gridiron career in 1995.
In a nutshell, Ray Donaldson wasn’t your ordinary center. He was one of the most dominant forces on the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
Raymond Canute “Ray” Donaldson was born in Rome, GA on May 18, 1958.
According to the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Mark Montieth, Donaldson had eight siblings. Ray never got to meet his biological father. Sadly, he passed away several months before his mother Wilma welcomed Ray into the world.
Donaldson and his siblings had a stepfather for a short while. However, he lived in a different house and struggled with alcohol issues.
Donaldson wanted to play in the National Football League as a child growing up in Northwest Georgia. He believed establishing a career on the gridiron could help his mother make ends meet.
East Rome High School ( GREAT ) Ray Donaldson pic.twitter.com/RNh0nsSgCU
— ROME WOLVES 🐺 (@AllRomeWolves) April 2, 2021
Ray Donaldson attended Rome High School in his hometown. He was a two-sport athlete who excelled in basketball and football for the Rome Wolves.
Donaldson played linebacker, fullback, and tight end for the Wolves for two seasons. Although his time on the high school gridiron was short, he made the most of it, earning All-American and All-State honors as a senior in 1975.
Donaldson eventually remained in-state and accepted a football scholarship from the Georgia Bulldogs that year.
When Ray Donaldson moved 130 miles east for his true freshman season at the University of Georgia, a timely position switch made a profound difference in his gridiron career.
College Days With The Georgia Bulldogs
Ray Donaldson attended the University of Georgia from 1976 to 1979. He suited up for Bulldogs head football coach Vince Dooley for three seasons.
Donaldson played linebacker when he first took the field for the Bulldogs in the 1977 NCAA season. When one of Georgia’s centers got injured, Dooley tried convincing Donaldson to switch to the center position.
Donaldson, who had no prior experience on the offensive line, initially refused. However, he eventually relented after giving it some thought.
The transition to center, the position that anchored the offensive line, required Donaldson to beef up and put on more weight.
Before long, Ray Donaldson weighed close to 300 pounds. A new Ray Donaldson became the first African-American offensive lineman in Georgia Bulldogs football history, per Montieth.
Georgia's honorary captain for today: All-SEC center from the late-70s, RAY DONALDSON pic.twitter.com/kzZb5OyzNz
— Patrick Garbin (@patrickgarbin) October 17, 2015
With Donaldson becoming one of the pillars of the Bulldogs’ offensive line, Georgia averaged seven wins per season from 1977 to 1979.
Donaldson and co. played in one bowl game during those three years. Unfortunately, the 11th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs lost to the Stanford Cardinals in the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl, 25-22.
Donaldson earned All-SEC and All-American honors following his senior season in 1979.
Ray Donaldson embarked on a memorable 17-year career in the National Football League. He eventually became one of the best centers in Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts history.
Pro Football Career
The Baltimore Colts made Ray Donaldson the 32nd overall selection of the 1980 NFL Draft.
According to the Georgia Bulldogs’ official athletics website, Donaldson became the first African-American center in the National Football League.
Donaldson’s rookie season in Baltimore got off to a controversial start. Some of the Colts’ coaches felt he was better off playing the guard position. The other coaches felt otherwise.
However, Colts head coach Mike McCormack had the final say – Ray Donaldson was going to remain a center in the NFL.
Not only did Donaldson remain a center, but he also became an excellent one during his 17-year pro football career.
Donaldson was part of the first Indianapolis Colts roster in 1984. Team owner Robert Irsay relocated the squad from Baltimore on board a Mayflower van in March of that year.
Aside from Donaldson, other pioneer members of the re-christened Indianapolis Colts were quarterback Mike Pagel, running back Curtis Dickey, wide receivers Ray Butler and Tracy Porter, outside linebackers Johnie Cooks and Vernon Maxwell, and defensive back Eugene Daniel.
Donaldson’s teammates called him “Bulldog” during his pro football career in Indianapolis. Not only was it the mascot of his college alma mater, the University of Georgia, but it also reflected his toughness, per the Indianapolis Business Journal.
Behind a fortified offensive line featuring Donaldson and left tackle Chris Hinton, the Colts running backs racked up an average of 132.6 yards on the ground from 1984 to 1989.
Indianapolis averaged barely seven wins per season with just one postseason appearance during that six-season stretch.
Donaldson and co. made it possible for Indy’s running attack to amass 2,439 rushing yards in the 1985 NFL season – the second-highest in team history at the time.
Donaldson and the Colts’ offensive line also helped six-time Pro Bowl running back Eric Dickerson record a league-best 1,659 rushing yards in the 1988 NFL campaign.
Ray Donaldson was a tough and durable offensive lineman. According to Montieth, he started all of the games he played in from the 1981 NFL season onward. That included 184 games for the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts.
Donaldson also started 152 straight games for the Horseshoe over a 10-year span. He earned four consecutive Pro Bowl berths with the Indianapolis Colts from 1986 to 1989.
Still, Donaldson was as human as everyone else. He played in just three games in the 1991 NFL season after breaking his fibula in a game against the Los Angeles Rams.
That marked the first time Ray Donaldson had to sit out multiple games due to injury. His injury added to the Colts’ woes that year. They won just one game all season long.
Donaldson endeared himself to his fellow Colts offensive linemen because he always stood up for them. He acted as their de facto spokesman in many instances, per Montieth.
Seven-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Chris Hinton, Donaldson’s roommate during their time together with the Colts from 1983 to 1989, has always been in his corner since they retired from the NFL.
“Ray was misunderstood,” Hinton told the Indianapolis Business Journal in 2022. “He spoke his mind, but I don’t think there was ever any bad intention. That was Ray. That was Bulldog. He was very, very well-respected on the offensive line.”
Hinton and Donaldson played next to each other in the Colts’ offensive line during the former’s rookie year in 1983.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 18, 2021
When Hinton’s pro football career took off when he became the Colts’ starting left tackle, he credited his mentor, Donaldson.
Ben Utt, an offensive lineman who played for the Colts from 1982 to 1989, also played in the trenches with Donaldson. Utt saw time at both left and right guard with Donaldson barking instructions in either direction.
Utt told Montieth in 2022 that Donaldson had exemplary leadership qualities – something the struggling Colts badly needed. As the offensive line’s de facto spokesman, he voiced their concerns on their behalf.
On the other hand, Donaldson wasn’t always popular with Colts coaches and team executives. He had three disagreements with Colts head coach Ted Marchibroda – who was usually a level-headed figure on the sidelines – in the 1992 NFL season.
Donaldson maintained that their arguments stemmed from Marchibroda pointing an accusing finger at the offensive line.
“He wanted to blame everything on the offensive line,” Donaldson told Montieth in August 2022. “I didn’t appreciate it.”
Former Colts assistant coach Rick Venturi confirmed to The Indianapolis Star’s Mike Chappell in the summer of 2013 that Donaldson didn’t always see eye-to-eye with team management.
Although Ray Donaldson had a reputation as a grumpy and irritable individual, he got along well with some of his coaches.
One of them was Colts offensive line coach Tom Lovat, who he worked with from 1985 to 1988.
Lovat, who now resides in Appleton, WI, told the Indianapolis Business Journal that coaches had to relate to Donaldson in a unique way.
Reprimanding Donaldson never worked. Coaches were better off sharing their thoughts with him and asking him about his say on the matter. Lovat did that and never had any issues with the eventual six-time Pro Bowl center.
Although Indianapolis won nine games in 1992 – an eight-game improvement from the previous year – it extended its postseason drought to five years.
Behind quarterback Jim Harbaugh, the Colts established a winning tradition in the mid-1990s. They narrowly missed reaching Super Bowl XXX with a heartbreaking 20-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1995 AFC Championship Game.
Ray Donaldson – who made the postseason just once in his 13-year tenure with the Horseshoe (a 38-21 loss to Bernie Kosar’s Cleveland Browns in the 1987 AFC Divisional Round) – was not part of Indy’s resurgence in the mid-1990s.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 14, 2021
The Colts – the team he had played for since the 1980 NFL campaign – released him following the 1992 NFL season.
Montieth believes Donaldson butting heads with coaches and management played a factor in his release on February 18, 1993.
In Montieth’s article, he quoted that day’s edition of The Indianapolis Star referring to Ray Donaldson as “a locker room presence that was deemed counter-productive.”
For his part, Donaldson told the newspaper that he didn’t harbor a grudge against the team that drafted him almost thirteen years earlier.
The Indianapolis Colts have had a history of dealing with superstars who had contract issues with the team. Two prime examples were running backs Eric Dickerson in 1990 and Marshall Faulk in 1999, respectively.
Ray Donaldson never initiated a contract holdout hoping he’d get a higher salary. Although he had some squabbles with his coaches and other higher-ups, he never criticized them in public or demanded a trade, per Montieth.
After he parted ways with the Colts in early 1993, new Seattle Seahawks offensive line coach Howard Mudd told head coach Tom Flores that they should sign Donaldson as soon as possible.
Flores agreed and Donaldson eventually signed a two-year deal with the Seahawks on April 17, 1993. Donaldson was supposed to earn $720,000 in 1993 as part of a five-year contract extension he signed with Indianapolis two years earlier.
Mudd laid out the facts for Ray Donaldson. He told his new center that the Colts released him because of his cantankerous nature, per The Indianapolis Star.
Mudd wanted Donaldson to become the focal point of Seattle’s offensive line. The latter obliged and impressed Mudd with his size, strength, and quickness.
The Seahawks averaged just six wins per season in Donaldson’s two years in the Emerald City from 1993 to 1994. They extended their postseason drought to six years.
Seattle management eventually dismissed Flores – a Super-Bowl winning head coach of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders – at the end of the 1994 NFL season.
🥳 Happy Birthday 6x Pro Bowler, Super Bowl XXX Champ & Colts great Ray Donaldson! Playing an incredible 17 yrs at C, Ray started 228 games including all 16 games for the Dallas blocking front that allowed an NFL-low 19 sacks in 1996 – his final season at age 38! #Colts #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/BPkCUCfERl
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) May 18, 2020
Ray Donaldson also left Seattle at the conclusion of the 1994 NFL campaign. He signed a two-year, $1.6 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys on March 21, 1996.
The 37-year-old Donaldson, who replaced Mark Stepnoski, became the NFL’s oldest starting center.
Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck gave precedence to Donaldson over free-agent centers Jim Sweeney and Tom Newberry.
Donaldson felt he still had plenty of gas left in the tank. He felt honored that the Cowboys thought highly of him – a 37-year-old veteran who could still hold his own against younger defensive linemen.
“I was honored the Cowboys called me to replace Stepnoski,” Donaldson told The Free-Lance Star in the spring of 1995. “Don’t let the age fool you. I beat up on some people pretty good the last two years, and I think I will do the same this year.”
Ray Donaldson made good on his promise. In fact, he became one of the best free-agent acquisitions in Dallas Cowboys franchise history.
Not only that, but Donaldson finally experienced playing for a championship-caliber team. Dallas still had stalwarts Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Daryl Johnston, Jay Novacek, Charles Haley, Deion Sanders, and Darren Woodson in 1995.
Donaldson joined a top-tier offensive line that consisted of Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Larry Allen, and Erik Williams.
The Cowboys, who won two of the past three Super Bowl titles, were loaded and primed for another title run in 1995.
The ageless Ray Donaldson exceeded expectations during his two-year tenure in Dallas.
With Donaldson anchoring the offensive line, Aikman threw for 3,304 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. On the other hand, running back Emmitt Smith had his best statistical season with 1,773 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns on 377 carries.
To nobody’s surprise, Donaldson earned the first of his two Pro Bowl selections with the Cowboys in 1995. Dallas eventually beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, 27-17.
Ray Donaldson was a Super Bowl champion. He was one of the reasons the Dallas Cowboys won their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
— 90’s Dallas Cowboys (@90s_cowboys) May 20, 2021
Donaldson retired from professional football following the 1996 NFL season.
Donaldson, who loved football with all his heart, told Montieth some twenty-five years later that he was willing to begin his gridiron journey all over again.
“Every guy who played in the NFL, that’s what they wanted to do. I’m proud as hell of my accomplishments,” the 64-year-old Donaldson told the Indianapolis Business Journal in the summer of 2022. “Even with everything that’s gone on, I’d do it again. I liked football that much.”
Former Colts assistant coach Rick Venturi aptly summed up Ray Donaldson’s presence on the offensive line.
“He was just a monster. He was a dominating center,” Venturi told The Indianapolis Star in July 2013. “That guy was a dominating force.”
Ray Donaldson and his family currently reside in Indianapolis, IN, per Montieth.
Donaldson returned to the Circle City after the Cowboys released him prior to the 1997 NFL season, which would have been his eighteenth.
He had plans of becoming a coach in the National Football League. Unfortunately, that never materialized. Instead, he became a high school football coach in the Indianapolis area.
Ray Donaldson became a member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. The Rome-Floyd County Sports Hall of Fame inducted him four years later.
Donaldson was one of 4,500 retired NFL players who reached a $765 million concussion settlement with the league in the summer of 2013.
According to The Baltimore Sun, those former players received an individual settlement of $170,000.
— Mike Bostic (@ClonyDungyXL1) October 4, 2015
Although Donaldson spent 13 seasons and became a four-time Pro Bowler with the Colts organization, he has never been enshrined in the Colts Ring of Honor.
Colts chief operating officer Pete Ward told Montieth in August 2022 that the team has considered Donaldson for future induction.
On a bigger scale, some pundits feel Ray Donaldson should also earn a gold jacket and bust as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
Unfortunately, Montieth argued that Donaldson’s below-average track record playing for many losing teams has been a detriment to his chances all these years.
Donaldson’s teams had a combined record of 105-159-1 during his 17-year pro football career.
Before Donaldson earned his first and only Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys following the 1995 NFL season, he endured the Colts’ and Seahawks’ combined 83-149-1 record.
In Donaldson’s nine-season tenure in Indianapolis from 1984 to 1992, the Colts went 55-88 (.385). They lost at least eleven games four times during that forgettable stretch in franchise history.
Donaldson is currently taking care of his 87-year-old mother Wilma, a stroke survivor he moved to Indianapolis, IN from his home state of Georgia.
Ray Donaldson lives within a two-mile radius of Lucas Oil Stadium. He watches several Colts home games every year.
Donaldson hasn’t been an active Colts alumnus since he retired from the NFL in 1997. Although he left the organization on amicable terms in 1993, some hard feelings still remain to this day, per the Indianapolis Business Journal.