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Ma-ma & football shaped Donnell Gordon’s character & career

September 9, 2019 FieldsColumn

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Former South Oldham County football star Donnell Gordon has been with the Lexington Police Department since 2005. (Photo by Mike Fields)

BY MIKE FIELDS

Sgt. Donnell Gordon gets a lot of TV time in Central Kentucky these days as a spokesman for the Lexington Police Department.

If the name sounds familiar, yes, it’s the same Donnell Gordon who was the best high school football player in the state 27 years ago.

He won the Paul Hornung Award as the top player in Kentucky in 1992 after rushing for more than 6,300 yards and 61 touchdowns in his career at South Oldham. Gatorade also honored him as the best in the Bluegrass State that year.

(Paducah Tilghman quarterback Billy Jack Haskins won Mr. Football.)

Gordon went on to play college football at Kentucky and Louisville.

With broad shoulders and thick chest, he still looks like he could suit up and make defenders tremble before trying to tackle him.

He wears a different uniform now — police blue — but just like in football, he’s a team player.

“That same kind of team atmosphere drew me to being a policeman,” said Gordon, who joined the force in 2005. “Just like in football, we’re a team here. We all depend on each other to protect each other, to have each other’s back.”

Gordon, who also works in diversity recruiting for the police, has found that former athletes make excellent candidates.

“Coming from a sports background, they know what it’s like to be part of a team, and how everybody has to do their part.

“Like football coaches always say, if you don’t do your one job then the play doesn’t work.”

Gordon credits football for giving him the chance at a fulfilling career.

But he makes it clear that he wouldn’t have had the character to make it in football if not for his great-grandmother, Addie Lee Hinkle, who raised him. He called her Ma-ma.

“She taught me to appreciate hard work and she kept me humble,” Gordon said. “My great-grandfather (Eugene Hinkle) died when I was 16, so I was the man of the house at a young age.

“I always had chores. I’d come home from school and have to chop wood or do something. Our house (in Pewee Valley) was on about six acres, and there was no riding mower. It was a push mower. There were hedges all around the yard, too, and there were no electric (trimmers).”

Donnell Gordon rushed for more than 6,000 yards and 61 touchdowns in his career at South Oldham.

There was no sleeping in on Saturday either.

“After playing football on Friday night and getting in late, Ma-ma would call up to me at 6 the next morning and say ‘Donnell, it’s time to get up.’ I’d tell her I had had a tough game and was sore, but she didn’t want to hear it.

“She’d say, ‘Well, you don’t have to play football.’ So I’d get up and go to work.”

Addie Lee Hinkle didn’t take any guff from anybody.

“She was a really tough lady,” Gordon said. “Not many people messed with her. Coach Schnellenberger found that out.”

Howard Schnellenberger was the football coach at Louisville when he came to Pewee Valley to recruit Gordon.

“He had his big cowboy boots on; he had that big mustache, and he had that real deep voice,” Gordon recalled. “He walked in the house, introduced himself, sat down in the chair, put one foot up on the coffee table and started puffing on his pipe.

“I knew it was going to be all downhill after that.”

Gordon couldn’t help but laugh as he remembered how his great-grandmother scolded Schnellenberger.

“She told him: ‘Before we get started, two things. First, there’s no smoking in my house, and second, you don’t put your feet on my coffee table. So I think it’s time for you to go.'”

Schnellenberger got up and left. He later called to apologize and got a second home visit.

Gordon blossomed into a big-time recruit his senior season at South Oldham thanks in large part to first-year coach Bob Bronger, who had left Louisville Holy Cross to take over the Dragons.

“He came in and really focused on me as a player,” Gordon said. “For me to get a scholarship, he knew I had to get (colleges) looking at me. He pushed me out there, and I think he probably saved my career.”

South Oldham’s fledgling program went 10-4 that season, with Gordon leading the state in rushing with 2,342 yards and 25 TDs. 

“It didn’t surprise me we were so good because we had been playing together since youth league,” Gordon said. “Aaron Ramey, Sean Taylor, Mike Ball . . . “

Gordon’s athletic ability was top-shelf. He also ran track and cross country when he was younger, and played basketball for South Oldham through his junior year.

Donnell Gordon’s Paul Hornung Award is displayed in the South Oldham trophy case, along with his retired jersey.

“Football came naturally to me,” he said. “There’d be times when I’d make a move and juke somebody out, and I was like, ‘I can’t believe I just did that. Where’d that come from?'”

Bronger became his biggest fan.

“With Donnell’s speed, power and strength, he was amazing to watch,” he said. “He was an easy person to love and to like and to admire and to use as a role model because he was such great athlete but also so good, kind and humble.

“And his smile! Oh my goodness.”

Gordon signed with UK to play for Bill Curry. He was on track to be the Cats’ top running back when an injury sidelined him. Moe Williams stepped in and became the main man.

Before his sophomore year, Gordon was touched by tragedy when UK teammate Trent DiGiuro was shot and killed. DiGiuro was also a South Oldham football alum, graduating two years before Gordon.

“We were really good friends, best friends really,” Gordon said. “In a way, he was kind of a father figure to me.

“It was unbelievable what happened to him. It was a tough time.”

Gordon transferred to U of L early in his junior year, partly because he could help take care of his great-grandmother, who was ill and living with an aunt in Louisville.

He also liked Cardinals’ coach Ron Cooper’s offense better than Curry’s system at UK.

Injuries again kept Gordon from fulfilling his potential at U of L. By the time his senior year was done he knew his knees wouldn’t allow him to pursue a pro career.

Having majored in criminal justice, it was no surprise that Gordon eventually became a police officer.

He’s done a little bit of everything and worked all different shifts since joining the force in 2005.

His wife Erin was delighted when he joined the public information office because he’s on regular hours now. They have more family time with their three sons — Jackson (who’s 15), Dash (12) and Owen (6).

Jackson runs cross country; Dash plays football; Owen is just starting flag football.

While some parents are skittish about their sons playing football, Gordon feels comfortable with it.

“Back when I played, you had to earn your water breaks,” he said. “Times have changed. The equipment is better — my son Dash’s helmet looks like something from NASA — and the new (targeting) rules make the game safer. They’re teaching kids better, too.”

And Gordon, 45, still appreciates what football did for him.

“Coming from my background and humble means, we couldn’t have afforded college,” he said.

“Football gave me the chance to go to college, and to meet people I never would’ve met. It opened doors and gave me opportunities I would have never enjoyed.

“I know I wouldn’t be where I am now, in a place where I love my job, and love coming to work every day.”

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