Relatives continue push to get record-setting Lion Don Doll in Hall of Fame

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Brandon Doll never knew much about his grandfather.

Or at least not about his football life. Personally, the 36-year-old Oakland Raiders vice president of strategy and business development knew his grandfather, former Detroit Lions defensive back Don Doll, very well.

Don Doll, pictured in a game at Tiger Stadium, played for the Lions for four of his six NFL seasons.

Don was a bit of a goofball; secure in his own self-image; never let himself fall out of shape. He left USC’s backfield in 1945 to join the Marines and supplement the United States’ effort in World War II. Never drank, never smoked.

In the years since Don’s death in 2010, Brandon has gotten to know a different side of his grandfather — one archived by grainy black-and-white footage and sets of data sheets on Pro Football Reference. It started with a nudge from his great uncle, Denis Petersen, who realized long before anybody else in the family that Don had a case for belonging to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“For years, (Petersen) has been kind of sending one-off letters, and newspaper clippings, and little hits about my grandfather to the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Brandon said. “I was like, ‘Well, if Uncle Denis is doing this, kind of ad-hoc, Googling things on the internet, if I went a little bit deeper, what else would I be able to find?’”

He found a lot. Knowing that his great nephew had risen through the ranks of Oakland’s front office, Petersen had sent Brandon a large envelope containing every piece of information that he could find on Don, a manually assembled database by which Petersen had started his own campaign. On a night during the early stages of the Raiders’ relocation process, Brandon, stuck on a project, finally opened the envelope that had been sitting on his desk for weeks.

“I start going through this stuff, and I’m like, ‘Holy smokes,’” Brandon said.

He stayed at the office until 4 a.m., returning for work, equipped with a PowerPoint presentation, at 8 a.m.

These were the facts: Despite playing just six seasons, Don’s 41 career interceptions top any six-year stretch among Hall-of-Fame defensive backs; he intercepted a pass in 58 percent of his games and averaged 6.83 interceptions per season, NFL records that still stand today; he’s tied for the single-game interception record with four; and he’s the only player in NFL history with three double-digit interception seasons.

He showed team president Marc Badain the presentation. Badain immediately dialed a committee member whose interest was piqued by Brandon’s pitch. That was in February 2016. Brandon has turned up the heat on his campaign in the years since, but as Don’s career grows further distant in the rear-view mirror, his odds of being selected are doing the same.

“The Pro Football Hall of Fame maintains a really high standard of excellence and integrity, but at the end of the day, it’s still a process by human beings,” Brandon said. “My goal has really just been, getting compelling information in front of people making the decisions.”

Don Doll played college football at Southern California.

The league’s Hall of Fame selection process allows a player to remain eligible for up to 30 years after retirement. After that, they become eligible for selection as a senior member — a list of 200 players that’s trimmed to one or two nominations, decided on a rotating basis, by a senior selection committee. Don has made it as a finalist — a list of 10 potential inductees — just once, in 2017.

“A few years ago, he wasn’t even on the ballot,” Brandon said. “So it’s really just kind of been me, leveraging different relationships that I’ve built in the short time I’ve been in the league, and kind of making sure that the story gets in front of the right people."

Doll's wait will be extended another year, at least. This year, for the NFL’s 100-year anniversary, the league has made available a whopping 10 spots for senior members. The nine-person selection panel will vote on senior candidates on Feb. 1, the eve of Super Bowl LIV in Miami. 

He was not among the 20 senior player finalists released Thursday.

“This (was) his best shot, and maybe his last shot,” said Brandon, before the list of finalistss were released. “Time is definitely not our side on this thing, given that, most of the people who knew who my grandfather was, knew how great and productive of a player he was, aren’t around.”

But there was a reason why the four-time Pro Bowler’s family found out about his prominent football career by way of newspaper clippings and Google. Don was, by all accounts, grounded. He loved the game, played it hard, but it didn’t define him.

“You didn’t want to shake hands with him,” said Petersen, 72, who joined the family in marrying the sister of Don’s wife, Diana, during the 1980s. “He was a kidder, he liked to joke around.”

“You just liked him the minute you met him. He was that kind of person.”

Brandon joked that he found out about his grandfather’s 1952 Pro Bowl MVP, a much bigger honor then than it’s considered to be these days, by accident; Diana, who was married to Don for more than 60 years and turns 90 in January, still remembers her husband receiving the award while walking out of LA Memorial Coliseum, because Don hadn’t thought to stick around for the award ceremony.

“He was dressed, and we were walking up the causeway,” Diana said. “They came running up to him and handed it to him, very unceremoniously. He accepted it and went home."

Diana, Brandon and Petersen all admitted that Don would likely be embarrassed to learn the effort that Brandon was putting into his Hall of Fame campaign. In a twisted sort of fate, it’s reasonable to believe that his humility is what’s kept him out of the Hall of Fame, but also what’s led to his family pushing so hard for his recognition.

“I remember one time, scoring a touchdown in Pop Warner and doing the Deion (Sanders) dance afterward,” Brandon said.

“My grandfather afterward was like, ‘Really? You had to do the Deion dance? We kind of joked about it, but I do think he felt pretty strongly about it. He grew up in a different era. You weren’t playing for the money, you’re playing for the love of the game, you’re playing for the guy next to you.”

Don Doll was an NFL assistant coach for many years, including twice with the Detroit Lions.

One of Don’s coaching stops brought him back to Detroit, where he served as the defensive backs coach for a unit that included three-time Pro-Bowler and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

“I’ve always regarded him as one of the better Lions defensive backs of all time,” said LeBeau, 82. “His numbers were always up there, he just didn’t get to play that many years.”

Count that as another strike against Don’s case for the Hall of Fame. The length of his six-year career, while immensely productive, pales in comparison to most of the Hall’s members. But both during his playing and coaching days, it’s hard to find anyone with a more impressive prime. Having played under Don, LeBeau believed that his preparation was far ahead of the curve.

“He always had some very impressive statistical studies on the opponents that we were playing,” LeBeau said. “I just was always impressed with the way he prepared and the time he put into his job. That definitely prepared me to put the time that I put into my own job when I became a coach.”

Count that as another pro in Don’s case for the Hall of Fame. The problem, of course, is that Don’s length of career shows up on a stat sheet. The virtues that influenced one of the greatest defensive coordinators in NFL history — and allowed Doll to walk away from the game early and on his own terms — does not.

Don spent is sixth NFL season with the Rams. The following offseason, after one meeting with new head coach Sid Gillman, he decided it’d be his last.

“Don set all those records and he never got a raise. In fact, one year, they cut his salary because he didn’t intercept 10 passes,” Diana said. “He’s one of those people that likes to have things fair. … So when (Rams head coach) Sid Gillman didn’t really give him the time of day, Don decided that was it.”

Fifty-five years later, time is winding down on Brandon’s push. He’s spent a majority of the last few months reaching out to every member of the Blue Ribbon panel, hoping that the only thing preventing them putting his grandfather in the Hall is a lack of awareness.

As Brandon winds up for his final “Hail Mary attempt,” he’s often caught up in the consideration of whether his grandfather would even want this.

“The way I kind of rationalize it is, there’s a lot of Deion Sanders types out there, a lot of people who kind of self-promote,” Brandon said. “I look back at guys like my grandfather, and they’re the guys who made the NFL what it is today, and I think they should be recognized and honored for it.”

Besides, at this point, Brandon’s pursuit has become a full-fledged family affair, with everyone, particularly Diana, praying that the last-gasp throw connects.

Still, his grandfather’s disregard for personal accomplishments presents a degree of comfort in potential failure. Should Brandon’s toss to the end zone fall incomplete, he can rest easy knowing that if his grandfather was still around, he likely would have tried to intercept the pass anyway.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.