State Your Case: Ray Donaldson

Blocked for NFL rushing champions Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith

(Published February 2018)

The wait continues for Kevin Mawae…and everyone else in line behind him.

And that’s not fair to Ray Donaldson.

There are only seven centers from the NFL’s modern era in the NFL Hall of Fame but only one has been enshrined in the last 20 years – Dermontti Dawson. Mawae was a finalist for the Class of 2018 for a second consecutive year but was passed over for a second consecutive year.

Mawae is a deserving candidate. He was a first-team all-decade center for the 2000s – and every first-team center from the 1920 decade on has already been enshrined in Canton. Mawae went to eight Pro Bowls and was a seven-time first-team all-pro, so it’s only a matter of time before he gets his bust.

But every year Mawae doesn’t move up in the queue is another year Donaldson loses in his candidacy. Candidates have a 20-year window of modern-era eligibility – and Donaldson has already burned 17 of those years. Time is running out on a trailblazer at his position.

Donaldson became the 32nd overall selection of the 1980 draft by the Baltimore Colts. At the time, that was the highest an NFL team had ever selected an African-American center. He went 16 picks ahead of fellow African-American center Dwight Stephenson, who now has a bust in Canton.

Then Donaldson became only the second African-American to start in the NFL at the center position in 1981, beating Stephenson onto the field at Miami. Only Larry Tearry, who started for the Detroit Lions in 1978 and 1979, preceded Donaldson and Stephenson into an NFL lineup.

Over the next 16 seasons, Donaldson performed among the elite at his position. Donaldson blocked for NFL rushing champions Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith. He also blocked for AFC rushing champion Chris Warren plus an 1,100-yard season by Curtis Dickey.

Donaldson was voted to six Pro Bowls, including each of his final two seasons in 1995 and 1996 with the Cowboys. His final Pro Bowl came at the age of 38 when he was part of a blocking front that allowed a league-low 19 sacks. He won his first Super Bowl at the age of 37.

But there was so much losing before then at Indianapolis and Seattle that doomed Donaldson to a lower profile and now seems to have damaged his candidacy. His teams posted a 76-139 record during that 14-year stretch before he arrived in Dallas. The Hall of Fame selection committee likes winners.

Mick Tingelhoff holds the NFL record for centers with 240 career starts. He played in four Super Bowls and six Pro Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings. It still took him 32 years to get his bust in Canton and only then as a senior candidate. Mawae is next on the all-time list at center with 238 starts, followed by Donaldson in third at 228.

Does Ray Donaldson belong in the Hall of Fame? The jury, obviously, remains out. But when you play 17 seasons, start 228 games, go to six Pro Bowls, block for two NFL rushing champions and win a Super Bowl, you certainly deserve to have your career discussed and debated to determine where your game fits in an historical context.

But time is running out on the chance for Donaldson to have that discussion.


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