McKillop: Best ever? Could be

“Watch this quarterback for us. He may be the best ever,” I instructed Jay Shapiro, class of 1977 at Middlebury (father of Melissa ’13), at the Middlebury-Amherst College football game on Parents’ Weekend this fall.
Skeptical, he asked, “Better than Peter Mackey?”
The next week, Jeff Mackay ’65 came through and I said the same thing to him. He replied, “Better than Charlie Brush?” acknowledging the best of his era.
Is Don McKillop, the Panther quarterback for the past four years, the best ever to play this position in over a century of football at the college?
McKillop holds every passing record — single game, single season, career — at Middlebury, and most of the passing records in the Division III New England region. These records will likely be around for a some time because of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense that Middlebury plays: McKillop throws the ball 50-75 times a game and the team often runs more than 100 plays in a game.
This is a far cry from the “three yards and a cloud of dust” offensive strategy of the old days. The game was 30 years old before the forward pass was allowed by the rules. My dad, a great player in the leather helmet days, called the forward pass “the long fumble.” Times have indeed changed.
If you haven’t seen him play, you better reserve Saturday, Nov. 13, for visit to Youngman Field for McKillop’s only remaining home game, against Tufts University.
I have been at Middlebury for parts of the last five decades and he’s the best I’ve seen, and there have been plenty of very good Panther quarterbacks indeed. Dave Caputi (1978-80) comes to mind. Now the Bowdoin football coach, he led powerful teams coached by Mickey Heinecken.
Heinecken, football coach at Middlebury for 28 years (1973-2001), acknowledged that the “structure of the game” has changed: “(Middlebury) throws the ball as much in one game now as we did in six or seven. We threw the ball 20 times a game, 30 if we were losing.”
Heinecken added, “We never had anyone who can do what (McKillop) can do. No one ever has had more direct impact on the game.”
Looking back, Mickey cites Middlebury native Peter Mackey (1970-73) as the “best pure passer” during his tenure, followed closely by Caputi. Other terrific quarterbacks in the Heinecken era were Jim Loveys (1980-82), Matt Winslow (1976-78), and Brian Coates (1995-98). Coates was “McKillop’s predecessor,” providing the “transition to a more open game.”
Donnie McKillop’s coach, Bob Ritter (Middlebury, 1987) acknowledges his “great physical ability. There’s no question about it, he can make all the throws — the touch pass, long, short, plus he’s a good runner. But what sets him apart is his understanding of the game. He has an uncanny knack for the game. We ask him to make 60, 70 decisions a game.”
Both Heinecken and Ritter cite McKillop’s “outstanding accuracy.” He completes well over 60 percent of his passes, but as Coach Ritter points out, the passes he doesn’t complete are often “drops, or near misses. He’s that good.”
Ritter also describes him as “feisty,” and says “teammates respond to those guys,” and indeed McKillop’s teammates have, electing him a captain of this year’s team. At 6’ (barely) and 200 pounds, he looks and runs like a fullback, preferring to run over a defender than go into a self-preserving slide. This predilection has inevitably resulted in injuries on a couple of occasions.
“He’s confident and competitive,” said Ritter of his captain and quarterback. “That’s what the best quarterbacks have been in my years at Middlebury,” and he cites Rutland’s Mike Keenan (2002-04) and Coates in this company. What those players have in common is that “they love playing football, they love the pressure. They don’t dwell on their mistakes. They relish the game.”
How did Donnie McKillop get to Middlebury four years ago from his home in Poway, California, in San Diego County?
“I visited 35 schools all over the country,” he said, “and I found the best mix of athletics and academics here on the East Coast. I liked the people I met at Middlebury — the whole vibe on campus — from the coaches, the players, and the students I met on campus who didn’t play sports … I had some interest from schools at a higher level, but I wanted to play baseball too.”
He certainly does play baseball, captain of that team too, playing third base and leading the team in hitting with a .423 batting average last year (.398 overall in his three years on the team).
A political science major (with minors in psychology and American studies), Donnie hopes to ultimately attend law school. In the meantime, he will get a job and “earn some money and take a break from school.”
Of his experience at Middlebury, he says “it’s beyond any expectations I had, everything I wanted and more. I’ll be sad to leave. I’ve loved it.”

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