By Scott Latta
UA Media Relations
Sixty-four years ago, Joe Domnanovich walked off Denny Field for the last time as a football player at the University of Alabama.
Just minutes before Saturday's football game against Vanderbilt University, he finally returned.
"Sixty-four years, that's a long time," Domnanovich said. "That's how long it's been since I've been on the center of the field. That was 64 years ago and we played and beat South Carolina."
A lot more than just the name of the stadium has changed since the 88-year-old former All-American brought Saturday's game ball out to midfield. No longer do players travel by train to away games, Denny Field is now Bryant-Denny Stadium and is 80,138 seats bigger, and Alabama has won seven more national championships.
Domnanovich was an All-American offensive lineman, as well as an All-American defender during his days at the Capstone from 1940-42. Because a player could not return until the following quarter if he ever came out of a game, Domnanovich often played both offense and defense for 60 minutes.
A native of South Bend, Ind., Domnanovich was recruited by Notre Dame throughout high school, until the visits suddenly stopped. It was then that he decided to give Alabama a look.
"Notre Dame recruited me for quite awhile, and then all of a sudden they stopped and I came to Alabama," Domnanovich said. "They'd always had good football teams, they'd always gone to bowl games, and that was the thought that I hadÂ--that I'd get to go to bowl games."
When Domnanovich committed to Alabama and Coach Frank Thomas, the Notre Dame faithful in South Bend didn't take it well. Friends turned against him and cartoons depicted him leaving Indiana with a sack with the word "traitor" written across it. The treatment, Domnanovich said, wasn't limited to just his college years.
"They'd done it all the time, even after 20 years they still did the same thing," he said. "I get ribbed a lot still by people in South Bend. Now that I don't get to go anymore they don't do it, but I used to go a lot and they still did it."
While Domnanovich was at Alabama, the Crimson Tide went 24-7, capturing the 1941 National Championship with a 29-21 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M.
"We played a lot of people in that game and they did too," Domnanovich said. "A lot of people think that it's like playing the second or third team, but it's not. But we were ready for A&M and we beat them pretty good."
Alabama's 1942 team went 8-3, culminating with a 37-21 come-from-behind victory over Boston College in the Orange Bowl. Domnanovich recorded a safety in the game against an Eagles team that featured six players that he would later play with in the professional ranks.
Domnanovich was named to the all-time Alabama team for the first 50 years of Crimson Tide football as well as the all-time Orange Bowl team and was invited back to a 50-year reunion of the 1943 Orange Bowl in 1993. He was voted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1984.
Following his football career at the Capstone, Domnanovich joined the service during World War II, setting up recreation stations for soldiers overseas. After five years in the military, Domnanovich played six years of pro football, for the Boston Yanks, New York Bulldogs and New York Yanks.
Because Thomas did not allow his players to get married while they were on the team, Domnanovich couldn't marry until after the final snap of the Orange Bowl.
"We got married when Coach Thomas said we could, in April of '43 after the Orange Bowl game," Ms. Domnanovich said. "We did what Coach Thomas said.
"We've always been close together. He loved me the first day I saw him and I loved him the first day I saw him. There's never been anyone else. I take care of him and he takes care of me."
Four years ago, Domnanovich suffered an aneurysm in a doctor's office from a blood clot that formed from a hit when he played pro football. Cancer in the lungs has necessitated radiation treatments that have caused his lungs to scar, leaving the former standout with little to no stamina.
Until poor health made it difficult, Domnanovich returned to Tuscaloosa every chance he got to watch his former team. Today, he has a grandson in Alabama's law school and is still friends with the remaining players from the Alabama teams of the 1940's.
"What you get out of being a Crimson Tider is friends for life," Ms. Domnanovich said. "The university is your friend for life and the athletic department is your friend for life."