SDSU’s Donnel Pumphrey rushes into a new career

Credit: Times of San Diego

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The Journey

The Rocky Long Era at SDSU, culminating in the voter approval of SDSU Mission Valley, will go down as one of the more successful runs in program history.

Long led the Aztecs into 119 games. Among those, five jump out as the most memorable. 1. Winning at Boise State in 2012, announcing to the nation “the sleeping giant” had awakened. 2. Defeating Air Force in 2015 to win the first outright conference championship since 1986. 3. Defeating Wyoming in 2016 to win back to back MW championships. 4. Donnel Pumphrey setting the NCAA All-Time Rushing Record in a dismantling of Houston. 5. The 2017 defeat of nationally-ranked Stanford, with its unforgettable blackout, and a storming of the field.

Unsurprisingly, for DJ Pumphrey, the memory of the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl holds a special place in his heart. Pumphrey starred at Canyon Spring High School in Las Vegas. Playing under current SDSU assistant coach Hunkie Cooper, he rushed for 4,152 yards and 49 touchdowns. Sitting in the stands, on the day he would set the NCAA career rushing mark, were former high school teammates and coaches, his parents, and his daughter.

“The biggest memory for me in that moment,” Pumphrey told the East Village Times in an exclusive interview, “when I look back at it, was just seeing how happy everybody else was. That hit me the most. It’s not only my record. It’s our record. The guys were all part of this. I didn’t do it all by myself. I had the offensive lineman, receivers wearing number 90, something blocking out there. It was incredible to see everybody do that and to see how happy my mom was. It was amazing. My daughter in the stands. She has no idea. She’ll probably look back and say, ‘I was there. What a moment.’ It was just surreal.”

Holding the actual record, “has not hit me until this day. It won’t for a few more years. Maybe it won’t hit me until my son is playing ball,” Pumphrey said. The celebration afterwards, however, resonates with him because it was a culmination of the hard work and dedication to firmly establishing the foundation and culture of San Diego State football. Built on that foundation will be a New Aztec Warrior Stadium slated to open in 2022.

“It’s going to help the program out a lot,” Pumphrey said about the new stadium, “because when I was there, we didn’t believe in new locker rooms, new uniforms because coach Long was so old school. He had an old-school mind. You have to be able to do this type of stuff to be able to get recruits.”

“(The new stadium) is going to help a lot. San Diego kids are going to want to stay home. They are going to see such a nice new stadium. I feel like the Chargers would still be here if we had a renovated stadium. It’s incredible to see that we – I’m not going to say me – we built this foundation. It’s incredible.”

Drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft by the Eagles, Pumphrey entered into a different world. SDSU was a family atmosphere. Coach Cooper, who is a father figure to him, joined SDSU’s staff in Pumphrey’s junior season. The offensive coordinator and running backs coach at State, Jeff Horton, is one of the most personable coaches around. When he got to Philadelphia, he entered an unapologetically judgmental environment. Every second, a player is at the team facility. He is watched, judged, and objectified. The organization is molding him to fit into a predetermined mold.

Credit: USA Today Sports

In college, his coaches celebrated what makes him unique as a player, and he thrived. In the NFL, the Eagles, despite having the best small back in NFL history on their roster, never gave Pumphrey the opportunity to showcase his ability. Each year, they brought in nine running backs to split time with Pumphrey as he was trying to make his mark. Brought in, supposedly, to be the replacement for an aging Darren Sproles, the Eagles never carved out a role for Pumphrey that mimicked how they utilized Sproles.

Despite these challenges, Pumphrey’s time as an Eagle was filled with positives. He formed a special relationship with Sproles that continues to this day.  Sproles even invited his “replacement” to train with him in the offseason. The offseason workouts were so strenuous Pumphrey would throw up during each and every one of them.

Of course, his highest point with the Eagles was winning a Super Bowl, bringing the first title to the City of Brotherly Love since the AFL-NFL merger was one of the more remarkable feats in modern sports history. Overshadowed by east coast cities Boston and New York for much of the past thirty years, Philadelphia improbably rode the arm of their backup quarterback to defeat Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. The city celebrated in style.

“That was such an experience,” Pumphrey said. “Philly fans are ridiculous. They are insane. To be able to experience the parade. I will never be able to experience something like that again. That was such a blessing to be able to experience something like that with the city and all the guys. To be able to bring the first Super Bowl there was crazy. I mean, I didn’t have a big part in it. I’m just happy for the guys that did. I’m happy they brought their ‘A game’ that day.”

Remembering Aztec Nation

Pumphrey’s career at SDSU without argument ranks among the best in college football history. He had 7,444 yards from scrimmage and 67 touchdowns. Only 17 players in NCAA history have had 1,000+ career rushing attempts. Among those, only Pumphrey and Ricky Williams averaged at least 6.0 yards a carry. Though he never expected to have the career that he did, even in high school, he knew what school he wanted to play for.

“I was in San Diego before,” Pumphrey explained. “My whole family is from San Diego. We moved to Las Vegas in like the 6th grade. I always loved playing in front of family. Coach Horton was the big reason why (I chose SDSU) because Coach Cooper, who is now the receivers coach, he was my high school head coach. I’ve known him growing up. He was a father figure to me. He had a connection with coach Horton because that was his college coach. Once that played out, I didn’t really listen to other college offers. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to San Diego State.”

Credit: AP Photo

Pumphrey’s recruitment started a Golden Age for SDSU football. His coming-out party was during the fourth game of his freshman year. On the road facing New Mexico State, SDSU fell behind 16-0 and was in danger of beginning the 2013 campaign 0-4. Star running back Adam Muema was ineffective, finishing the game with only 25 yards on ten carries. As he would throughout his career at SDSU, Pumphrey entered the game and completely took over. He rushed for 167 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns.

The following season he had a pair of 200+ yard performances on his way to a 1,867-yard season. His junior year was capped when Pumphrey passed for a touchdown in the Hawaii Bowl against Cincinnati. During his senior season, when he would rush for 2,133 yards, he had four 200+ yard games, including a 281 yards performance in a win over the Cal.

“I just appreciate you guys for this ride,” Pumphrey said when asked what his message would be to the SDSU faithful. “You guys always reached out to me from day one. Even when I was in Philly, you guys always supported me, and I just appreciate you guys so much. Hopefully, I can be part of Aztec Nation again, and maybe we can lead it to a championship one day. That’s my goal. Again, I appreciate you guys. I love you all.”

The Path Ahead

The average career in the NFL lasts about three year. Pumphrey’s stay nearly matched that. He was among the final cuts just before the start of his third season. His experience in the NFL, understandably, took some of the enjoyment out of the game. Playing in the XFL in 2020 brought it back until Covid put a sudden stop to his XFL career. Through it all, though, Pumphrey’s desire for football never dissipated. Despite having offers to play in the CFL, he is currently working towards a new outlet for his passion: coaching.

“I finally decided that I am going to hang it up,” Pumphrey said. “I’m looking at this next chapter in my life where I am currently in school right now finishing up my degree. Right now, I currently have four A’s and a B. Then, once I’m done with this semester, I’ll have two more classes.”

“Hopefully, I can get into coaching. I’ve been in talks with Coach Horton, who’s currently the running backs coach, as well as Coach Coop, as well as the compliance staff. Basically, we are working towards – maybe they’ll put me to work this fall.”

His role on the coaching staff is yet to be determined. While not officially a graduate assistant position, he will initially be working in a similar capacity as he learns what coaching is all about. As they did for much of his formative years, his former coaches, Horton and Cooper, are once again taking him under their wings. Pumphrey hopes to learn from SDSU’s compliance office in the coming weeks if joining the staff will be possible.

Credit: Go Aztecs

His time in the NFL has prepared him to be a terrific coach. With the Eagles, he was one of the smartest players on the roster, which was a big reason Philadelphia brought him back for a second stint with the team. Using his knowledge of NFL schemes, Pumphrey one day sees himself as an offensive coordinator.

For now, his time as a player will make him a valuable addition to the staff should the opportunity arise. He has both the incredible success on the field to catch the ears of the players he leads and a wealth of personal experience to balance both the realities of the preparing for the NFL and of treating his players with respect, dignity, and honesty.

“I’m just going to be straight up with them,” Pumphrey added, “‘You just have to go in there and treat everything like a job in a sense.’ That’s what I learned in the NFL, like everything is literally a job. I see them bring players in every single day at your position and try to work them out. Every day you’re fighting for a spot. They don’t want to pay you. They want to pay someone else who is going to get it done. A younger guy that’s a version of you. I would tell my players, at all times, ‘you have to treat practice like the games.’ Coaches always try to say that, but it’s really the truth at the next level. ‘I would rather you do it now so when you get to the next level. It’s already instilled in you.”

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Following this semester, Pumphrey will be two classes shy of earning his Bachelor’s degree in Social Science. He has plans to pursue a Master’s in business. He sees himself at SDSU for the foreseeable future reuniting with the fans and the program he put on the map. It remains to be seen how successful Pumphrey will be in this next chapter in life, but if anyone would know what type of coach he will be, it would be his former head coach.

“Donnel was a great player that played with intelligence and great passion,” Rocky Long said this week. “He will be an outstanding coach.”

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