The email arrived at 8:32 p.m. on Jan. 10, the same day John Donovan was announced as Washington’s next offensive coordinator.
The subject line stated simply, “John Donovan”.
The body text read as follows:
What Portee didn’t say — at least, not initially — was that, when he first arrived at Villanova in 1997, he slept for several months on the pull-out couch in the Wildcats’ weight room; that he literally lived at work; that, because of his peculiar circumstances, he observed every practice, every rep, every drill, every play.
And that, when he did, he was immediately impressed with Villanova’s newest assistant coach.
“I knew (Donovan was going to make it) right off the bat,” Portee, 46, told The Times in a phone interview on Sunday. “Within probably two weeks of being around him, watching the practices and watching him go and take his guys through drills and things like that, his intensity was through the roof … in a good way.
“He was very energetic about everything. He was very hands-on. He was a part of every drill and every little thing that went on. So I knew that he was going to make it. Then once he told me he was going to Georgia Tech (after the season), I was like, ‘OK, this guy’s golden. It’s just a matter of waiting to see if he ends up in the NFL.’ ”
How far was 22-year-old John Donovan from the NFL in 1997? In a way, not as far as one might think. The previous summer, after completing a college career as a defensive back at Johns Hopkins, he had interned with the Carolina Panthers. He was subsequently hired to coach DBs at Villanova, Donovan’s first full-time coaching position of any kind.
It wasn’t glamorous. Donovan and Portee eventually shared a two-bedroom apartment in Bryn Mawr, Pa., with a modest living room and a two-seater couch. (“Listen, it wasn’t a shanty, but it wasn’t a mansion either,” Portee said with a laugh.) They ate poorly and slept infrequently. Portee estimates he made in the neighborhood of $20,000 for the year.
Occasionally, Donovan would be tasked with retrieving a visiting recruit from the airport in the middle of the night. They’d jump in Portee’s beat-up Chevy Blazer and lumber to the Philadelphia International Airport, cracking open the windows in the Pennsylvania winter to keep both men awake. In fact, those car rides are some of Portee’s fondest memories; they’d listen to old-school hip-hop, shiver and talk about life.
“In a little bit of a way, it was kind of like going off to college,” Portee said of the year they spent together. “But it was a little bit different, because now you’re starting a new career — something you’re excited about, something you love doing. It was good to have somebody like John to go through it with.”
They went through it with bleary eyes and boundless enthusiasm. On average, work started between 4:30 and 5 a.m. So, after the aforementioned airport runs, they’d drop off said recruit where he needed to be and head straight to Villanova Stadium — which featured not just the weight room pull-out couch, but a creaky cot in a side office.
“Now, I haven’t been to Villanova’s campus in a few years,” Portee conceded. “But the weight room used to be right underneath the stadium, right next to the football field. So there were times we’d drop the recruit off wherever he had to go, go straight to the weight room and we would crash in there for an hour or so, and then get up and go to work.
“You know how it is when you’re that young and you’re grinding at a new job. So we put in some hours, but it definitely worked out for him.”
It also worked out for the Wildcats, who finished 12-1 in 1997 — including 8-0 in Atlantic-10 Conference play. They featured a pair of NFL talents in wide receiver Brian Fineran and running back Brian Westbrook, as well as current Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson as offensive coordinator. Portee called the entire season “completely exciting” and “a big adrenaline rush.”
As for Donovan? It’s safe to say he enjoyed the experience as well.
“This is going to sound goofy, but just take it for what it is: the one thing that I always remembered about him was that this kid was never in a bad mood,” Portee said. “He just loved what he was doing so much. Weather-wise, temperament of the team, it didn’t matter. Nothing wiped a smile off of this guy’s face. He just completely, 100% loved what he was doing.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Donovan’s still doing it more than 22 years later. When the 1997 season ended, Portee accepted a job at the University of Cincinnati, while Donovan headed to Georgia Tech. He has since served stints at Maryland (2001-10), Vanderbilt (2011-13), Penn State (2014-15) and, most recently, with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2016-19).
“Awesome coach. Brilliant mind. Even better person,” former Villanova head coach Andy Talley said of Donovan in an email last weekend. “Wished I had him for more than a year.”
Portee, meanwhile, transitioned into law enforcement and currently serves as a police officer in Nassau County, N.Y. He’s also involved with a strength and conditioning gym called Gridiron Inc. in nearby Mineola. Through the years, he’d occasionally Google search “John Donovan,” to inquire about his former roommate. But Portee and Donovan haven’t spoken in more than two decades.
Then came Friday’s news.
“For the longest time I was trying to get in touch with this guy and trying to find him,” Portee said. “You know how it goes with college jobs: you get a call and you’re packed and then a week later you’re living in another state. You lose touch. So when I saw the (Seattle Times) article I ended up reading it and I was like, ‘Oh, JD. I wonder if that’s him.’ Then I pulled up the picture and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that is him.’”
So, John, if you’re reading this: Craig Portee says hello, congratulations and best of luck.