Donahue leaves lasting legacy with Clinton Pee Wee Football

by Donna Lampkin Stephens
Mike Kemp photo

After 16 years, Kevin Donahue is stepping down as director, co-founder and coach of the Clinton Pee Wee Football program.

It’s a well-deserved break, but a hard one for some to take.

“It sounds cliché to say he’s meant everything to this program, but in all honesty, he has,” said Adam Eppes of Clinton, who will replace Donahue as director. “When this program first got started, it was on the verge of going under when Kevin took it over. He really built this thing from basically the ground up.”

Having reached, on some level, close to 1,000 youth over the last 16 years, it’s been a labor of love for Donahue.

“I love the game of football and love the town I’m in,” he said. “To give these kids some of my knowledge of football and to get them out there and teach them to have fun with what they’re doing, teach them the sportsmanship of the game and how to count on one another as a team and in school, to teach them that schoolwork comes first, to watch them grow — that’s big.

“It’s very satisfying to watch that in these kids. When they leave the pee wee league and get up in high school and grow so fast and get so much facial hair, they’re hard to recognize. When they see me and say, ‘Hi, Coach,’ it takes me a minute to find that little boy’s face.”

His wife, Aimee Donahue, said, “He hasn’t had a kid in the program since 2003; however, he remains completely dedicated to hundreds of other kids to teach them the fundamentals of football.”

From the time he was in fifth grade, Kevin Donahue grew up in Clinton, playing football for the Yellow Jackets and graduating from Clinton High School in 1980.

There was no pee wee program then.

“Back in the day, we’d always come down to the high school games and play in the end zone when they’d let you watch the high school kids,” he said.

After graduating, he worked as a pipe-fitter, traveling all over the country for his job, but Clinton was always home base. In 1999, he returned for good to work for the city. He’s now an operator for the city’s sewer, wastewater and water plant.

In 2000, with his younger son, Weston, in fourth grade, Donahue was a part of a small group of baseball dads who saw the need for a city pee wee football program.  

“We all got together and said, ‘Let’s start one up,’” he remembered.

His older son, Clinton, was in seventh grade, thus able to play for the school program. The pee wee program then was for fifth- and sixth-graders. Since then, it has grown to third through sixth grades, with Eppes estimating that it draws 25 to 30 boys per grade every year.

“We teach them the basics of football the best we can and get them to grow with each other and try to teach them a little about life situations,” Donahue said. “We’ve had anywhere from 65 to close to 100 kids in one year; our biggest number is 98.”

The Clinton program is part of the Central Arkansas Pee Wee Football Association, which also includes programs from Greenbrier, Vilonia, Morrilton, Heber Springs, Bald Knob, Riverview and Rose Bud. Greenbrier and Vilonia have two teams, so each grade level features competition among 10 teams.

“When we started, it was just Heber Springs and Clinton, Greenbrier and Vilonia,” Donahue remembered.

The CAPWFA features playoffs to a Super Bowl to end each season, and Clinton teams have been Super Bowl champs multiple times.

There seems to have been a correlation between the pee wee program and the success of the Clinton High School team. Although the 2015 Yellow Jackets had an off year, they won nine games in 2014 in reaching the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state playoffs. CHS also won nine games and a conference championship in 2010 and eight games in ‘11.

“I know that our teams have been going to the playoffs more and we’re having more winning seasons,” Donahue said. “Our (CHS) seniors who graduated last year were Super Bowl champs. We try to help the school as much as we can.”

While the kids and coaches involved in the pee wee program are involved from late July to November, as director, Donahue started the season in March — ordering equipment, taking inventory, figuring out the program’s needs and wants.

“We always try to get something new every year,” he said. “When I started, all we had was helmets and jerseys. Over the years, we purchased things like a five-man blocking sled, a bunch of blocking dummies, arm dummies, a run-through ladder, a lineman chute. We’d buy a little better jerseys every three or four or five years. Our school used to have the old H goalposts, and the pee wees bought new goal posts for the high school field.”

It’s an all-volunteer program.

“The city helps us out what they can do,” Donahue said. “They gave us a place to practice, stuff like that. If we need it, they’ll try to get it for us.”

The program added cheerleaders a few years ago, which Donahue called “one of the best things we’ve done.”

Besides the director duties, coaching responsibilities include two-hour practices three nights a week and games on Saturdays.

Why did he continue his involvement after his son aged out?

“I had nephews coming up,” Donahue said. “My brother coached with me, and I coached th
ree nephews younger than my boys (Rusty Flickinger, Dakota Flickinger and Skyler Donahue). Then I had two great-nephews (Gunner Tharpe and Gaige Tharpe).”

Gunner Tharpe is the last family connection for a while

“This was Gunner’s last year, so that was kind of a milestone for me,” Donahue said. “He’s done, and I don’t have any more nephews coming up.”

A cancer diagnosis about three years ago also put things in perspective. He is in remission.

“I was so fortunate,” he said. “The good Lord was with me all the time. I took chemo, but I didn’t get sick. I felt bad because sometimes I’d look in there at all these other patients, how bad off they were. I’m still doing maintenance every three months, but everything is still looking good.”

What does he look forward to doing with his newfound free time?

“I don’t know,” he said, chuckling. “I’d like to spend more time with my grandkids. I want to go to some Razorback games. My dad (Jerry Donahue) is getting up in age, and I’d like to go with him to some Razorback games. We like the Dallas Cowboys, and it would be nice not have to worry about pee wee on the weekends.”

There’s a grandson coming up, but Lane Donahue, 5, won’t be ready to play for several more years.

“I’m thinking I’m just going to watch when he plays,” Donahue said.

He is quick to say that as director, he had plenty of help. “It could not have been possible without the help of all the volunteers, coaches and parents,” he said. “Leadership is not a position or a title, it is action and example.”

But Eppes, who has had one son go through the program with another in fourth grade and two more to come, agreed that Donahue has been the heart and soul of the program.

“Absolutely,” he said. “He’s the reason why it’s where it is today.”

What a legacy to leave.