THE inaugural “Night With Dallas” at Gunnedah was as big as the man they honoured.
It was also warts and all, a memorial ball in honour of the late John “Dallas” Donnelly, a Gunnedah rugby league legend who tragically died in the surf after suffering an epileptic fit.
He was just 31.
I never met the man but I felt like I had by the time his friends and family had woven a story of a fierce competitor, prodigious drinker, passionate and loyal footballer, friend and ally.
He had crammed 60 years worth into his 31, reckoned his former coach Roy Masters.
Unable to attend, Masters, a former Tamworth High School teacher who won Uni Shields with THS before heading to Sydney and coaching the Western Suburbs Rugby League Football Club (now Wests Tigers after their merger with Balmain Tigers), sent a long and luxurious email to be read at the ball by Garry Knight, a former Gunnedah coach, policeman and great mate of the man they nicknamed Dallas.
Terry Donnelly, who captain-coached Gunnedah as well as playing for Queensland, also sent an email from Vietnam where he now lives, recalling not only an immense playing talent but a loyal and passionate friend and cousin.
The memorial ball came about through one phone call from Scott Morris (president of the Western Suburbs fanatics Club) and current Gunnedah Rugby League Football Club president Ray McCoy.
“Scott rang me and we had a chat about Dallas and how he was held in such high esteem down there at West,” McCoy said.
“He rang back a second time and said they’d love to do a John Donnelly Memorial Ball.
“I passed it all over to Lauren, my daughter, and she organised the rest.
“She got in touch with the Donnelly family and it became a sensational night.”
The memorial ball also doubled as a major fundraiser for the Bulldogs club.
Former West backrower Paul Merlo’s speech was emotional and showed why the Magpies were such a force in those heady playing days in the ’80s.
Also speaking on the night were Phil “Muscles” Donnelly, John Lennan and Robert “Changa” Jones.
Phil – one of five Donnelly brothers – played for Gunnedah, Group 4, Northern Division and Country NSW and remembered all the good and naughty things his cousin got up to.
He also remembered “Dallas going out of his way to look after a busload of kids I took down there one year”.
“Dallas spent the whole night with those kids and introduced them to all the West players,” he recalled.
“People never saw that side of him.”
What they saw was a giant of player, a prop forward who played four Tests for Australia, 144 games for the Magpies and four games for NSW.
He also represented NSW Country while a teenager playing first grade for Gunnedah.
He was named in West Suburbs’ Team of the Century and one of the toughest 12 to have ever played the game.
He got there by training hard, recalled Lennan, the former Gunnedah captain-coach who took the Bulldogs to successive Group 4 premierships in 1984 and 1985.
A lot of people didn’t realise Dallas was a fine swimmer, even if he had an ungainly stroke, Lennan said.
His swimming helped him be an outstanding footballer.
“He was fit,” Lennan recalled.
“He used to run from Barber Street out to the airport and back.
“I asked him why he did it one day and he said ‘because I want to be fit’.
“He was way ahead of the rest of us even back then.”
Jones also grew up with Dallas and they played top-level junior football together, University Shields for Gunnedah High and first grade for Gunnedah while at school.
Jones and Dallas’s late father, Rocky, drove Dallas to Sydney for his first training session with Western Suburbs.
“I couldn’t believe how hard West trained but Dallas was up there with them,” he recalled.
Jones left Gunnedah and moved to Redcliffe to play with the Dolphins.
He’s now the club chairman but not a week goes by he doesn’t think of his great mate.
“It was the saddest day of my life,” he recalled when he was told of Dallas’s demise in the Byron Bay surf.
He then forked out $1000 to buy Dallas’s old watch at the fundraising auction.
It was a fitting touch to a night where Tommy Raudonikis, a kid from Cowra who captained NSW in the first State of Origin and who was made a life member of Western Suburbs the same night as Dallas, also gave a wide ranging talk about his former teammate.
He remembered one day when, just after Dallas had had an epileptic fit, Masters told him in the sheds before running on that he wasn’t go to play him that day because he feared what Terry Randall (ex-Manly great) might do to him.
Raudonikis thought Dallas was going to hit Masters.
Instead he told him he’d get Randall.
True to his word, he did, as the video footage run on the night clearly showed.
Raudonikis said Dallas not only made the first aggressive play but then, after the fracas had stopped and the game started again, he was the first man to take the ball up into a seething Sea Eagle mass spearheaded by the outstanding Randall.
“He was great man,” Raudonikis said.
Unfortunately the Gunnedah Bulldogs could not transfer that emotion and the chance to play in black and white Magpie jumpers with Donnelly’s 708 club number on the back into a win against traditional rivals West Tamworth.
Trailing 22-20 at half-time, they lost 50-24 but have the chance to bounce back against the North Tamworth Bears at Jack Woolaston Oval this Saturday.