To the die hard St. Louis Rams fans who watched the New England Patriots kick a last-second field goal to win the Super Bowl on Sunday, Aldo Donelli’s name brings to mind the 1944 season, when – as head coach – Donelli led the old Cleveland Rams to three straight wins to open the season, before finishing with a 4-6 record (OK, maybe even the die-hard fans can barely remember the 1944 season).
To the die hard supporters of the U.S. Men’s National Team who watched the U.S. win the Gold Cup this past Saturday, Donelli’s name brings back memories of one of the best single-game performances in Men’s National Team history (OK, maybe only those of you who have actually memorized the
U.S. Soccer Media Guide will recall Donelli’s heroics).
Regardless, the trick here is that both sets of fans are correct. Almost 95 years after his birth, his name still stands in the U.S. Soccer record book, and he still holds the most lethal strike rate in U.S. Soccer history - tallying five times in two appearances. Outside of soccer, he also served as a head coach in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1941) and the old Rams (1944), and he also went down as one of the most prolific football players and coaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Nicknamed “Buff” because of his interest in showman “Buffalo” Bill Cody, Aldo 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 the Morgan Strasser F.C. of Pittsburgh, Pa. He spent seven (1922-28) seasons with Morgan Strasser, leading the squad in scoring from 1922-1928.
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 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. Based on his play with the Curry Silver Tops, Donelli was one of 18 players named to the U.S. Men’s National Team that traveled to Italy for the 1934 World Cup.
The U.S. entered the 1934 World Cup coming off their successful showing at the inaugural 1930 tournament, where they finished third. In order to qualify for the event, however, the U.S. had to first play Mexico in a qualifying match in Rome just three days before the start of the tournament. It was in that match that Donelli put his mark on the record book, becoming the first player in U.S. Soccer history to score four goals in one game, as the U.S. downed Mexico 4-2.
The U.S. drew the hosts Italians in both teams’ first game of the tournament, and the U.S. were eliminated with a 7-1 loss on May 27 in Rome. In what would be his last international match, Donelli scored the team’s lone goal. He retired from international play with five goals in two games, but was so impressive in the defeat that he was offered a contract after the World Cup from Lazio, one of the top professional clubs in Italy.
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 to the first undefeated season in school history, 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 win 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 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 Donelli's 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 returned to the soccer field to play for Morgan Strasser in 1943, leading 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.
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, an honor obviously fitting of such a talented and diverse individual.