NOTE: This article was posted on behalf of Rich Grella by Mike Minard
It’s always a shock when a young person passes away, but this was different. This was Donnie, and he was only 28.
I first encountered Donnie in 1987 at a non sanctioned Citizens race in East Liverpool. It was a 24 mile road race that was held in the rain. Starting in town, you climbed one mile out of the river valley. At the top it flattened out, with your first turn of the day going left. I managed to stay with him up the hill. Not known to us, the flat area had been recently paved and the asphalt oils were mixing with the rain. When he and I turned left, our bikes didn’t. We both went sliding down the road, along with hopes for winning. Donnie was able to straighten and remount his bike before me, and off he went. I was close behind, watching his bike pull away with handlebar tape streaming in the wind. Donnie finished 4th and I finished 5th. I found out later that he had ridden to the race from his home in Columbiana.
A few weeks later I went to Salem for another Citizens race. I signed up but withdrew over safety concerns. I walked off the start line. The organizers allowed me to keep the T shirt, and I stood on the sidewalk to watch. My friends Dennis Besselman, Paul Cook, Dan Brosovic and Bob King were in the race, a 30 mile road race finishing back in town. They later said I was the smartest one for not racing.
Anyway, the finish ended in a bunch sprint, with a young rider sneaking up on the outside. Almost to the line, he was pinched into the curb and crashed, big time. After the dust had settled, I went looking for this young rider. I found him being attended to on a sidewalk by a paramedic. Introducing myself, I asked him some general questions. When I asked his age he said ”sixteen”. When the paramedic turned his head, Donnie mouthed ”fourteen”. He had lied to enter the race, yet was there at the finish. I was very impressed. We exchanged phone numbers and stayed in contact, mainly at other races. I encouraged him to get a USCF racing license because I saw a lot of potential in his riding ability.
Later that summer before an evening team training ride from KSU-Stark, Donnie’s dad pulled in and dropped him off. This would be the first of many rides and races for the Sirak Financial/Pancho’s Southwestern team. Donnie helped fill out the best junior squad in the Ohio/West Virginia district. Comprised of young riders like Rick Parr, Lance Miller, Matt Kelly, and Steve Mahaffy , they were a force to be dealt with. Within a two year period of time they claimed four district medals, with Donnie taking two in the time trial and one in the road race. I will never forget the look on Donnie’s face at the district road race in Clarksburg ,West Virginia . After I had finished my race, I looked for him to ask him how he finished. With a wide eyed look, he replied “I won”.
During Donnie’s high school years we raced and trained together, often going to races together. Donnie had a penchant for crashing. I remember him breaking both wrists and having them placed in casts. I thought his season was finished, but two weeks later he was back racing. When the team stayed at motels, he slept on the floor for free, to save money. To make money, he painted the outside of my home. In 1990 we travelled to Richmond, Virginia to stay with a cycling friend of mine to watch three stages of the Tour Dupont and do some rides between stages. I remember him listening over and over to a cassette tape with Whitney Houston singing “One Moment in Time” during our trip. His focus and determination are things about him I will never forget.
After the 1992 season I stepped away from racing bikes, as I had started a family and changed jobs. Life changed and Donnie and I drifted apart. His life had also evolved after graduation from high school and he quit competing for awhile. Before his passing he was employed by UPS as a delivery driver and training to resume racing again. Sadly, it was not to be.
Donnie was quiet and shy around a lot of people, but he and I never had a problem carrying a conversation. We had a sort of big brother/little brother relationship. He let me call him Vinny, like his mom did. Sometimes he would confide in me, and ask for my advice. Being mindful of his parents, I always tried to advise him in the proper way. I can still envision his Opie Taylor-like smile and how he would greet me with “Hey”.
I still have the T shirt I received at the Salem race where I met Donnie. Discolored, thin, and frayed, I still pack it with my gear when I go to a race. Sometimes I wear it under my jersey, and sometimes it stays packed away. In my own way it symbolizes Donnie. I take it along, and feel he is riding along with me. When I wear it to race, I always think how much fun we had racing together, and I wish we were still. If I could turn the clock back, I would ask for one moment in time, so we could do one more bike ride and I could say a proper good bye.
Donald G. Vignon March 3, 1973 - January 29, 2002