Donnie Walton always thought he would wear navy blue and gold. Instead, he will never be forgotten in orange and black.
Before becoming Oklahoma State’s star shortstop, earning all-conference honors and helping make Stillwater a host site for NCAA Regionals, Walton was touring the OSU campus when a question pestered his mind.
He stopped and turned to his mother, Michelle.
“Mom,” he said, “do they even want me here?”
Entering his freshman year of college, Donnie planned to join his father, Rob Walton, who had been the head coach at Oral Roberts for the past nine seasons. But when Rob, an OSU alumnus, accepted the job as the Cowboy baseball team’s pitching coach under Josh Holliday, his son had to decide whether he would follow.
In June of 2012, days after Rob made the switch, the Walton family toured the OSU campus.
Rob and Michelle assumed Donnie would want to play for his father again.
But as Donnie hesitated while taking in Stillwater, Michelle froze. He took official visits to Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Baylor and Kansas, all of which had plenty of interest in Donnie, who had recently finished his time as a shortstop at Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa. OSU was new to him.
“This kid who knew so many schools wanted him kind of doubted himself when we moved over,” Michelle said.
Four years later, Donnie is entrenched as the face of a program he never thought he would be a part of.
His image is found on bus stop ads around Stillwater. He leads the Cowboys in batting average. Before, during and after games, his name is the first children call from the stands.
Tuesday, he and the Cowboys will face ORU at J.L. Johnson Stadium, the same ballpark Donnie practiced at as much as he could growing up. He envisioned a college career with the Golden Eagles, his dad as his coach.
But he has found that, and everything he wanted, in Stillwater.
“I didn’t even visit here; now, I spent four years here,” Donnie said. “It’s kind of weird to think about. It was a crazy ride at the beginning, but it’s definitely been awesome ever since I stepped foot on this campus.”
When they took over the program, neither Holliday nor Rob Walton knew what the Cowboys’ roster looked like, unaware of whether a spot in the middle infield was open.
“I don’t care,” Donnie told Rob. “I want to go. If I’m not starting, I’ll find a way to get better and get in the lineup.”
Rob did not pressure Donnie, who retained the ability to go where he wanted. But Donnie wanted to play for his dad.
Rob, like his father, knew the power of choice with his children.
Although Rob’s first collegiate scholarship offer was for soccer, the same sport his father played professionally in Scotland, he pursued baseball, his passion.
He allowed his children to do as they chose.
His oldest, Davis, was an offensive tackle at the University of Tulsa. Cassie, his youngest, is a volleyball player at Stillwater High School.
Donnie was the only one who chose baseball.
“He never pressured me,” Donnie said. “‘If you love something,’ he said, ‘put 100 percent effort into it.’ Basketball, football, soccer, whatever it was, he didn’t pressure us to do anything. Baseball was just my first love. Loved to going out on the field and being at ORU all the time. It was my first love.”
That shared love allowed him to follow his father.
“I never could’ve envisioned it being this great of an experience,” Holliday said. “I don’t think there’s many coaching father-son relationships where dad coach their sons that could’ve worked out as well as this did.
“I think the coolest part’s just seeing them sit on the bench together at times, whether it’s laughing and celebrating a good moment or sometimes just sitting there talking about a struggle. You can tell that’s a father and son.”
Rob and Donnie, as father and son, have plenty of similarities, as do Donnie and Holliday.
They grew up on the diamond thanks to their fathers, whom they chose to play for. They were integral parts of the Cowboys’ success during their careers. They were switch-hitting infielders whose names are sprinkled throughout lists of OSU records.
Within a couple of weeks of playing for Holliday, Donnie knew the program was changing, he said. He saw how the players bought in. He saw a passion ignited.
It had flashes of what Rob saw when he played at OSU from 1983-86, when the Cowboys made four straight College World Series, and Holliday, with his father, Tom, an assistant, was a bat boy for the team.
“I knew Josh, and I knew who he was as a person,” Rob said. “I think the most important thing is someone who wants to do a job and wants to do it the right way, and he wants to develop the person as much as the player. He invests in the whole person.”
The doubt Michelle saw on Donnie’s face in summer turned to joy by spring.
OSU played New Mexico to open the 2013 season, the first under Holliday.
The Cowboys took the opener 4-2. They won the second game 15-14 in 13 innings, scoring the final nine runs.
Michelle made the trip to see Donnie and Rob’s first games together. Donnie came up to her after the comeback, a smile streaked across his face.
“Mom,” he said, “that was so much fun.”
“Then, I just kind of knew he was going to be OK the rest of the way,” Michelle said.
Donnie’s initial fears of being unwanted disappeared quickly, as did his worries that his teammates would view him as a “daddy’s boy.”
With his play, Donnie silenced whatever critics there might have been.
“It’s nice to see him successful,” Rob said. “If he does, since I’m on staff, it takes a lot of pressure off him in the locker room. Guys really respect him because he’s played well, and it’s not due to having his old man here.
“It’s nice to see your kid smiling every day. I just enjoy watching him enjoy what he’s doing.”
What Rob will miss most about Donnie isn’t his smoothness at short, his calmness in the batter’s box or even their occasional chats on the bench.
It’s the low-maintenance attitude that makes him easy to coach.
He leads by example, always doing what is asked of him. He shows how to respond to baseball’s highs and lows.
He has started each of his four years as a Cowboy, playing second base his freshman season before three years as the captain of the infield. Twice named to the All-Big 12 First Team, he has a chance to become the first OSU player to earn the accolade three times. He is the program’s all-time and season leader in sacrifice bunts and is 12 hits from cracking the Cowboys’ top 10 in that category.
But he has watched his season end at his home stadium back-to-back years. Despite hearing from scouts he could be a high-round draft pick after his junior year, Donnie couldn’t save his draft stock from a broken bone in his right wrist. He followed in his dad’s footsteps coming to Stillwater, but he hasn't followed them to Omaha, Nebraska.
“The one thing I’ve learned is I can’t look ahead,” he said. “I’ll never regret coming here or anything like that. If I could do it all over again, I would. I love it here.”
Through his time as a Cowboy, Donnie has earned the admiration of young fans who make their way to Allie P. Reynolds Stadium, and it goes beyond the diamond.
He is three classes short of his sports management degree with a minor in coaching science, earning a spot on the Academic All-Big 12 First Team this season. He has helped with the Cowboys’ instructional camps. After games, children call from the stands, sometimes only to say hi, and he makes sure he greets them back, win or lose.
“I never thought about that, having little kids look up to me,” Donnie said. “My mom always told me, ‘You’ve got to start doing the right things because these little kids are going to look up to you.’ I was surprised about that, but I love it.”
When Donnie was a child, he dreamed of success with the Golden Eagles, but he instead experienced it with the Cowboys. He hopes there is more to come.
The New York Mets picked him in the 36th round out of high school, and the Milwaukee Brewers used their 23rd-round pick on him a year ago. Yet he will enter the MLB Draft for a third time in June. He does not care when or where he goes, he said.
He wants only to play.
“Pro ball’s been a dream of mine for a long time,” Donnie said. “Oklahoma State’s been my home, but I can’t wait to go out there for whoever picks me up.
“Baseball’s been my life ever since I was little. I don’t know anything else, pretty much.”
Although Donnie will be gone, no player is irreplaceable, Rob said, not even his son. Next year, another player will adorn the bus stops and media guides. Someone else will bat third in Holliday’s lineup. The children will cheer another name.
But whoever that name belongs to will have learned from one of the Cowboys’ best.
“I just hope the younger classmen looked at me as a good leader and know that I gave everything that I got,” Donnie said. “When I come back here, I want Josh to let everybody know that I gave it my all.
“I played for the front of the jersey, not the back.”
The jersey he never thought he would wear but fit him perfectly.