Almost 70 years after he reached the peak of his on-field exploits, Aldo ‘Buff’ Donelli’s record-setting feats, seem unfathomable. So much so, it’s difficult to know where to start, or what to focus on when writing a biography on ‘Buff’s’ life.
How about starting with his record-breaking performance to get the U.S into the 1934 World Cup in Italy? Or you could just talk about how he still has the most lethal strike rate in U.S. Soccer history. But, then again, what about the fact that ten years after playing in the World Cup, Donelli developed into a successful American football coach in the National Football League? And almost more importantly, how did he get the nickname ‘Buff’?
Donelli, who made his name as an amateur soccer star in the Pittsburgh area during the 20s and 30s, had one of the shortest, yet decisive stints with U.S. Soccer. The outstanding amateur player wasn’t picked for the inaugural World Cup in 1930, but was selected to the 1934 squad and made an immediate impact.
The U.S. placed a surprising third at the inaugural 1930 World Cup, but in order to qualify for the 1934 tournament it still had to go up against Mexico. The match, played in Rome just three days before the start of the World Cup, was Donelli’s coming out party. Yet, it almost didn’t happen.
Donelli wasn’t picked to start, but on the urging of Billy Gonslaves, the team’s biggest star, ‘Buff’ was included in the starting line-up. Gonslaves knew what no one else did – ‘Buff’ could score.
Donelli sliced and diced his way through the Mexican defense, netting all four goals for the U.S. in a 4-2 win that propelled them into the World Cup. Donelli opened the scoring with a goal in the 15th minute, and then broke a 1-1 deadlock with goals in the 30th and 73rd minutes, before topping off the match with an 87th minute strike. Donelli had a chance for five goals, but amazingly missed a penalty kick. By accomplishing the feat, Donelli became the first player in U.S. Soccer history to score four goals in one game.
As quickly as Donelli wrote his name in the record book, the U.S. team was eliminated from the World Cup. Italy knocked the U.S. out in both teams’ first game of the tournament, with a 7-1 loss on May 27 in Rome. As it would be expected, Donelli scored the USA’s only goal in the loss.
He was so impressive in the two games, he was offered a contract after the World Cup from Lazio, one of the top professional clubs in Italy. But, Donelli would pass on the offer and the USA’s loss to Italy – its worst loss in World Cup history – would be Donelli’s last match as he retired from international play.
He ended his career with five goals in two games. Donelli, who almost didn’t start for the U.S., still holds the most lethal strike rate of any player in U.S. Soccer history, almost 70 years later.
Nicknamed “Buff” because of his interest in showman “Buffalo” Bill Cody, Donelli was born on July 22, 1907 in Morgan, Pa. He grew up playing football and soccer, beginning his career at the young age of 15 when he joined Morgan Strasser F.C. of Pittsburgh, Pa. He spent seven seasons (1922-28) with Morgan Strasser, leading the squad in scoring all seven years.
At the same time, Donelli also played football for Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., playing as a center and a running back from 1926-1929. In his final season, Donelli served as captain of the first undefeated team (9-0-1) in school history. To date, Donelli’s name is still one of the most hallowed in Duquesne football history.
A year later, Donelli began playing soccer with the Curry Silver Tops FC, and he spent four seasons (1930-1933) with the squad. His play with the Curry Silver Tops was what enabled Donelli to be chosen as one of 18 players for the U.S. Men’s National Team that traveled to Italy for the 1934 World Cup.
After the World Cup, though, Donelli returned to the U.S. and jumped back to the gridiron, where he took over as head coach at his alma mater in 1939. Ten years after captaining Duquesne, he coached the team to its second undefeated season (8-0-1), where they finished the 1939 season ranked #10 by the Associated Press. The 1939 season was highlighted by one of the school’s biggest wins ever: a 21-13 road victory over the nation’s number-one team, the University of Pittsburgh.
After a one-loss season in 1940, Donelli put together another undefeated season – this one more impressive than the last. The 1941 team allowed just 21 points all season and was ranked as the nation’s best in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. They finished the season with a #8 ranking in the AP poll. In his four seasons as head coach, the Dukes lost just four games.
As if that wasn’t enough, Donelli was actually coaching two teams in 1941: his beloved Duquesne AND the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, then NFL commissioner Elmer Layden forced Donelli to choose between coaching the Steelers and coaching the Dukes. Donelli chose the Dukes.
Donelli did return to his soccer roots, playing for Morgan Strasser in 1943. He led the team to two U.S. Open Cup finals in 1943 and 1944, where they lost each match to the Brooklyn Hispano FC.
After the 1944 U.S. Open Cup final, Donelli moved back to the NFL, taking over the helm of the Cleveland Rams (who eventually moved to Los Angeles and then St. Louis). He guided the Rams to a 4-6 season after opening the season with three straight wins. Once the 1944 NFL campaign ended, Donelli joined the military service.
His college coaching career expanded, including stints at Boston University from 1947 to ’56 and Columbia University from 1957 to ’67.
Donelli, who eventually lived to be 87, passed away in 1994 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y. in 1954.
A complete collection of historical articles will be featured in a limited-edition 90-Year Anniversary Publication, a coffee-table book which will be published for fans and U.S. Soccer constituencies around the time of the organization’s 87th Annual General Meeting in Chicago from Aug. 13-16, 2003.
Note: Media outlets using excerpts from this feature article should courtesy ussoccer.com directly.