Donny Football almost ended up playing not too far from Johnny Football.
Eastland junior Donny Groezinger, whom classmate Walter Ollie affectionately – and appropriately – gave the aforementioned nickname, could easily be a cog in a Texas powerhouse's engine.
Groezinger's parents, Donald sr. and Shawni, bought a house in Sulphur Springs a few years ago. That's about a 3-hour drive from College Station, where Johnny Manziel leads the Texas A&M Aggies.
But Donny and his three sisters – his older brother, Louis, was already out of the house – dissented. Even though they were all straight-A kids more than capable of acclimating to a new life in a very different place, they didn't want to leave their friends.
And Donny didn't want to play for anyone other than Eastland-Pearl City.
“The conversations were tough,” Donny said.“My sisters and I didn’t really want to move, and we had a lot of frustrations and stuff telling our parents that we didn’t want to move. It was their choice, ultimately, and I’m glad they decided to stick it out here.”
"You have to understand, my wife and I hate the winter," said Donald Sr., a Stockton native. Shawni hails from Dixon. "The kids had a lot to do with us staying, and with the economy going downhill, we weren't going to give our house away, either."
In staying, they've reaped the dividends of their son playing for one of the hottest 2A programs in the state. But all parties involved are quick to admit the 8-0 Wildcatz, despite having clinched a share of the NUIC Northwest title, have a lot to prove.
"I hope they're as good as they look, although they've only had like two or three games that have tested them," Donald Sr. said. "They're good, but I'm not sure how good they are yet. I don't think they know yet."
His Swiss Army Knife
Eastland-Pearl City head coach Randy Asche isn't sure how he could replace a Donny Groezinger.
He'd likely need more than one guy.
"He returns kicks for us, he can run in the bone, the double-wing, he can run jet sweeps, and he can run from the Wildcat," Asche said. "We can split him wide and use him in the double-spread."
So he's kind of like the Wildcatz's Reggie Bush, yes?
“He’s a little better than Reggie Bush,” Asche said. “He can do it all, and he’s a very special player. You don’t get guys like that, who can do what he does and with his football IQ.
“I would never say he couldn’t play D-I, but the only thing that would keep him from it is his measurables.”
Groezinger, who checks in at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, leads the squad with 19 receptions for 297 yards, and is second on the squad with 649 rushing yards on 69 carries, a 9.4 yard-per-carry clip. His 18 total touchdowns also lead the Wildcatz.
With Groezinger's versaility, Asche and his staff can shift the shape of the offense. Groezinger takes pride in helping create opportunities for guys like Eric Schaney (87 carries for 885 yards, 4 receptions, 54 yards, 16 total touchdowns), Shawn Larak (19-260, 2 TDs), Ollie (35-237, 4 TDs, 6 receptions, 76 yards, TD) and Skylar Paulson (8 receptions, 137 yards, 4 TDs).
"When I see them bring the safety down and play Cover 3, we can run it right at them," Groezinger said. “When they split me out wide, that opens up holes for the other running backs.
"It's a lot of fun."
Asche believes in wealth distribution, not just to best use his players' talents, but to also keep them fresh. So Groezinger went from about 25 touches a game as a fresh-soph star to about 15 on varsity.''
“It was different at first,” he said, "but I’m OK with it. I know the touches I’m gonna get, I’ve gotta make everything out of those touches.”
Groezinger is only used in down-and-distance scenarios on defense, but urged his coach to put him in during the final 2 minutes of a 28-20 road win over Monmouth-Roseville in Week 2.
His interception sealed the game and preserved a coachable moment.
“In the second half of the game, we struggled," Groezinger admitted. "We found out that we can start off strong, but that we need to finish. That can help down the road.”
While Groezinger oozes natural talent, it's been refined by intimidating work ethic and…tumbling.
While in sixth grade, he and his sister Shandi, now a senior cheerleader at Eastland, competed at the United States Tumbling Association's national championship for Sterling's Saltos Gym.
Groezinger won the national title in the double-mini. While his dad laments missing "about half of [his] kids' lives" because of his Wednesday-to-Wednesday schedule at a steel mill in Iowa, senior got to make most of the trips to state and nationals.
"I know tumbling helped him build balance and strength," Donald Sr. said. "He puts in a lot of plyometric work, and I really think tumbling helped him a lot in that area."
Asche lives nearby the Groezingers in Shannon and, during the offseason, he'll drive by the Groezinger household at 5 a.m. on the way to work. More often than not, the lights are on, as Donny Groezinger continuously puts himself through the wringer. He even completed the cutting-edge Insanity workout program the last 2 summers.
“That comes from my motivation to get to state,” Groezinger said. “You’ve got to keep getting better. That means working out, whether you have practice or not. Our main goal as a team is to achieve what no other EPC team has done, and that’s to reach state. That’s what all the seniors are striving for. They’ve never tasted that, and this is their last hurrah.
"We juniors and sophomores are doing everything we can to help them get there."
Make 'em laugh
When Groezinger's parents bought the Texas home, he says the varsity Wildcatz knew little of him. But his close friend, classmate Jared Gaughan, knew exactly what the program had.
"I was really kind of nervous about them leaving, because he's definitely a star player," said Gaughan, the team's starting left guard. "I'd say we'd be lost without him. I have that conversation with him at least once a week, telling him he can't leave after this year."
Asche said Groezinger and Gaughan keep things light during workouts.
"Donny is a fun kid to be around," Asche said. "He's just goofy. He's a comedian. He'll make funny faces, funny voices. He'll make a 40-yard run, sprint back and, if you're not looking, he'll throw it [the ball] between your legs and catch it on the other side."
It's hardly all fun and games. Groezinger says approaching workouts with a sense of humor allows players to pump each other up. He and Gaughan have a unique brand of give-and-take. The hulking linemen might embarrass Groezinger on the bench, but that's after the fleet-footed skill position player torched his close friend in ladders.
A proud leader of the junior class, Groezinger even polices his classmates on Twitter, reminding them to keep charged-up football opinions out of the public forum.
"I definitely think he's the leader of the juniors," Gaughan said. "I wouldn't say that he tells seniors what they should or shouldn't do. The seniors lead each other. It's the perfect balance.
"I think this is the year when it's all going to come together."
Everything's bigger in Texas
Don't utter that old adage to Donny Groezinger. To him, there's nothing bigger than the opportunity he and the guys he's played with since sixth grade have in front of them.
But he admits more opportunities could have come from playing for Sulphur Falls, which won the Texas Class 4A title in 2008 and, like EPC, always seems to reload.
But the house in Texas is paid for. There's no rush.
“It’d be tough to miss out on this,” Groezinger said. “It’d be really tough. The success we’re having is pretty great."
Oh, and there's that whole crisp fall air thing.
“I don’t even think they get snow down in Texas," Groezinger said. "It’s just 100 all the time. I like this weather. It’s nice. It’s football weather.”
Meet the Groezingers
Parents: Donald Groezinger sr., steel mill worker; Shawni Groezinger, owner of chiropractic practice in Lanark and fitness afficianado
Siblings: Louis, 25; Shelby, 22; Sandy, 17; Shay, 12