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The day Roswell stood still

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Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

On Oct. 13, 1974, Donnell Hunter told one of his best friends, fellow linebacker Jake Villareal, in the locker room at halftime in the Wool Bowl of the Lovington game he thought he injured his neck and had his bell rung right before halftime when making a tackle.

“I noticed that he was kind of quiet at halftime,” Villareal said. “I came over to him and said, ‘Hey what’s up?’ I saw that he was kind of rubbing his neck.”

“I might have hurt myself on that last tackle,” Hunter replied.

Villareal mentioned to Hunter that he should tell Goddard football coach Joe Allen, and make sure he was alright.

Hunter, at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, only knew one speed, and that was all-out. He never backed down from another athlete. Hunter was wiry, but strong as steel, and played linebacker on the Rocket defense.

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When Hunter tackled a ball carrier, he always did so with his head down. He was intent on separating the ball from the runner, and the runner from his uniform. He was a young man who touched every life he encountered. But on the field, he was a fierce competitor.

“Donnell would hit you with his head down,” Villareal said. “He’d come up and try to put it on you. He wasn’t afraid to go down low and hit with his head or helmet.”

The hit

It was the beginning of the fourth quarter with Lovington driving the ball. Goddard called the “Phantom defense.” The defense was such that none of the defensive linemen got down in a three-point stance; they all stood up making it harder for an offense to figure out who to block. Hunter played right linebacker and lined up on the strong side of the field.

Lovington called a sweep at Goddard’s 10-yard line, and the running back was running laterally looking for a hole; Hunter was running with him from the defensive side of the ball and when Lovington’s running back saw a hole and turned up in the hole, he was met by Hunter, who hit him low and Troy Grant hit him high for a loss on the play.

Medics needed

Both players were running full speed and met at Goddard’s 9-yard line. Each player had his head down when all three players collided and it sounded like rams when they hit. Both players stayed down on the ground. Instantly, everyone in the stadium knew it was bad.

Hunter upon the hit bounced and landed on his face mask. Grant got up instantly and teammate Villareal rushed over to see if Hunter was alright. Both pulled him over onto his back and when they did, they felt sick. Hunter looked up at Villareal and mouthed, “I can’t move.” With that, his eyes rolled back in his head, and his eyes stayed open. His feet crossed and went limp.

“I knew it was bad instantly,” Grant said. “He was conscious and could see us, but he wasn’t able to respond. You could just tell by his muscle contractions in his face that something serious had just happened. I didn’t think he was going to die, but I remember waving at the coach to come out. Once the ambulance came out on to the field, I walked into the end zone and started praying. We learned later he quit breathing two or three times on the way to the hospital.”

Mom sees son on field

Jewelene Hunter, Donnell’s mother, was in the stands talking to a family member and when the play happened, her body stiffened, and she became quiet. Jewelene Hunter raced to the field with a lump in her throat, because out of all her 11 children, she was closest to him. Donnell Hunter had a way with her that none of her other children did then or since.

“My mother and Donnell Hunter had such a close relationship,” said Donnell’s eldest brother, Charles Hall. “I thought his death would kill her. You would think that us having a baby sister they would be closer, but no. She loved him.”

When she got to the field, Jewelene lost control of her emotions after seeing her baby in the condition he was in and passed out. Assistant football coach Bill Cawood caught her before she hit the ground. The whole stadium was stunned as paramedics carefully strapped him onto the gurney to take them to Eastern New Mexico Medical Center. Donnell Hunter’s injury was so serious that the paramedics didn’t try to take any of his equipment off or remove his helmet.

Roswell community at hospital

Eventually, the Lovington player was able to regain consciousness, and the game resumed. Goddard would go on to win, but the score was meaningless. By the time the community heard of the accident, the Roswell community was on the way to the hospital to be with the Hunters. People camped out on every floor of the hospital and on the grass to support the family.

In Donnell Hunter’s hospital room, the only sound anyone heard was swooosh sssssh ahhh, swoosh ssssh ahhh, was the noise of life support keeping him alive. Jewlene Hunter was placed in ICU.

When Donnell’s brother Warren “Junior” Hunter got to the hospital, he was met in the hallway by the doctor. The doctor told him, “I haven’t told your mom yet, but there is nothing that can be done to save him.”

When it happened, as soon as it happened, he was gone. The doctor told him his helmet went back and severed his spinal cord in his neck.

“Don’t say that,” Junior said.

The doctor was hoping that Junior could break the news to Jewelene Hunter.

Donnell says good-bye.

Donnell Hunter never spoke again. He would communicate by blinking his eyes. One of the last times he opened his eyes was when Junior went into his room and said, “Donnell do you know who I am?” And Donnell blinked his eyes.

Junior said, “We love you,” and Donnell blinked his eyes. After a few minutes, he never opened his eyes again.

Junior told his mom, and the family took Donnell off life support the next morning. He was so strong, he lived another three days.

Funeral

The Hobbs, Carlsbad and Lovington football teams came for the funeral. The west side of the Wool Bowl was packed with over 3,500 people who showed up to pay their respects to Donnell. The football field was full as well, from goal post to goal post, with his casket on the 50-yard line.

“That whole side of the Wool Bowl was packed,” Steve Whalen said. “It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen in my life.”

Family remembers him

“Donnell was the baby,” Hall said. “We spoiled him; he was so much fun and energetic. I think he had more ability than all of us (eight) brothers. He could do it all — football, basketball and baseball. He had this charisma about himself, yet he was humble. The first thing he would do was run to mom and ask, ‘How did I do, Mom?’”

All Donnell Hunter wanted to do was please his mother.

Junior remembers Donnell telling him that he’d be a better athlete than Junior, and he was bigger, faster and ambidextrous. He noted how Donnell would walk through the door and hit him in his chest and run behind Jewelene, so he could not get hit back.

“He was something else,” Junior said. “I wish he could have made it. I would have loved to see what he would have been. He was something special. He really was. In my opinion, he could have played baseball or football. He was that good.”

Litigation

When the family lost Donnell, a couple of attorneys told the family they would be in a great position to sue the company, school and others and they could stand to make money. Because of Jewelene Hunter’s religious beliefs, she declined and felt like God decided that he would no longer be here with their family.

Jewelene Hunter shows compassion

The player who collided with Donnell Hunter had a scholarship offer to other colleges and vowed to never play football again. Family members remember Jewelene holding that young man in her arms as he cried apologizing for the accident, and that he wanted to take his own life.

“Baby, don’t give up, it wasn’t your fault,” Jewelene said. “You keep doing what you’re doing, because you didn’t mean to hurt him.”

Donnell Hunter’s death affected his father, W. C. Hunter, so much that he died a month after his son died.

Jewelene seeks God to make it

After Donnell’s death, his mother went into a deep depression, for a long time, until her children reminded her how much they loved her and needed her as well.

“If it weren’t for God, I would lose my mind,” Jewelene told friends after her son’s death. “I know it is nobody but God keeping me right now.”

Many people in Roswell often thought of Jewelene as a mother, and her color didn’t matter. Oftentimes, kids would ask her if she was coming to their games, and she would say yes, and show up and cheer loudly for them.

“It was hard,” Jewelene said. “It was the hardest thing I ever went through, but the Lord kept me through it. If it wasn’t for my faith in God, I couldn’t have made it.”

The Hunters remember Troy Grant’s parents being some of the nicest people in Roswell. Junior recalls Mr. Grant giving all the kids in the neighborhood rides to and from Little League baseball practice in their truck.

“There is nothing like the Grant family,” Junior said. “They are gold to us. We all went to the same schools together; Troy Grant grew up with us.”

Grant felt like there was a closeness between the families. When he preached his first sermon in high school, Donnell and Jewelene Hunter showed up to support him. They grew up playing together.

Goddard football names award after him

After Donnell’s death, an award was named after him, the Donnell Hunter Fighting Heart Award, which was adopted by Goddard Sportsmen’s Booster Club. The award was donated by Roswell Sports Supply, and owner John Ussery outlined that the award would be an annual award. Jake Villareal was the first recipient of the award.

“Donnell was an inspiration,” Grant said.” “I would hate to think they (Goddard) did away with his award, or it has been lost. He was a good person; athlete and I know a lot of people looked up to him. I think he was an example of what a lot of athletes need to aspire to try to achieve and be. I hate to think that was lost. I think that should be brought back. So much of my childhood involves Donnell.”

Goddard ended the season with a 6-5 record. At the time, it was their best season. It was also the first time Goddard defeated Roswell, 20-14. Grant thought that losing Donnell was hard on everybody, including the coaches.

Where has the award gone?

“I think the award ought to be brought back,” Grant said. “I think they should retire his number as well. My kids still wear his number. They know what happened. My kids wear No. 44 in honor of him. He hasn’t been forgotten by many people in the community. I don’t know when they stopped giving the award out. However, we need to give it out again with the scholarship.”

Villareal notes that for the longest time, Goddard never let anyone wear No. 44, and now that has changed. He feels the number should be retired, and the award and scholarship should be given out every season, so people and generations don’t forget who Donnell Hunter was.

“Donnell Hunter was one of those types of guys who didn’t like to lose at anything,” Villareal said. “Other teams feared him because he was a tenacious player. He was a 110 percent guy. It meant a lot to me to win the award because I knew his family and brothers.”

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