Whatever Don Carlson was asked to do, he would do it to the best of his ability.
Carlson, a member of the McMinnville High School Sports Hall of Fame class of 2014, is not above admitting that sometimes his best wasn’t good enough.
“We were playing Springfield in a (football) playoff game my junior year,” Carlson recalls. “And I had never played defense. (McMinnville coach Don Mabee) started me at defensive halfback or cornerback.
“First play of the game, the Springfield quarterback faked a handoff. I came up, and the next thing I see is (the Millers’ receiver) going by me down the field.”
Carlson, a 1959 Mac High graduate, was more natural with the ball in his hands anyway. He played quarterback for Mabee and the football team and point guard for the Mac basketball team under coach Eldore Baisch. In the spring, he played all over the baseball field – outfield, infield, pitcher – and excelled everywhere.
“He didn’t do anything flashy. He was just very solid and always there in a position of leadership,” says Larry Phillips, a high school classmate of Carlson’s and an MHS Sports Hall of Famer. “He just did everything right. When he called plays or when he passed the football, it was just done the right way. He actually made it easy for the rest of us because of how solid he was.”
Carlson was born in Greeley, Colo., and moved with his mother, Nellie; father, Elmer; and brother, Gene, to McMinnville when he was six years old. He and Gene, two years Don’s senior, attended McMinnville public schools and played on Grizzlies sports teams together. Gene, standing four inches taller than the 6-foot-1 Don, played along the lines in football and was a forward in basketball.
Don Carlson earned his teammates’ trust early on, leading the Mac football team to Tualatin-Yamhill Valley League titles his sophomore and junior seasons. He was a two-time all-TYV League selection and earned second-team all-state honors after throwing for 935 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior. (The Grizzlies finished the 1958 season with a 7-1-1 record, just missing out on a third straight state playoff berth.
“He is an excellent field general, a fine passer, a good competitor, and one of the most ‘heady’ quarterbacks in the state,” Don Mabee told the News-Register in its Oct. 30, 1958 edition.
In the winter, Carlson shifted over to the hardwood and played point guard for Baisch’s McMinnville teams. He was a part of three OSAA Class A-1 state playoff teams, though ankle injuries limited him in two of those playoff appearances. He earned all-TYV honorable mention as a senior.
“We didn’t have a star,” Phillips recalled. “We didn’t have a Charlie Sitton. We had five guys that just played our hearts out.”
The 1958-59 McMinnville basketball team advanced to the Class A-1 state tournament, held at Eugene’s McArthur Court. The Grizzlies fell to North Bend High School in the first round, 62-47, before dispatching Bend High School, 54-47. Carlson, who wore glasses when he played, took an elbow to the eye against the Lava Bears and missed a quarter receiving medical attention. McMinnville’s run in the state tournament came to an end against Medford High School, 81-61, in the consolation semifinals; Carlson was second among his teammates with 14 points.
Carlson was a two-time all-TYV League selection in baseball, and posted a batting average of .383 and a slugging percentage of .660 during an outstanding senior season. On the mound, he posted a 2.77 earned-run average, striking out 33 in 39 innings pitched. However, the McMinnville baseball team finished 4-9, winning one game in TYV play.
Linfield was a natural college choice for Carlson – his father, Elmer, was the school’s business manager – and he played football and baseball for the Wildcats. Linfield baseball coach Roy Helser led the team to a Northwest Conference championship every year of Carlson’s attendance, four of 14 such titles won during Helser’s tenure. As a senior, Carlson posted a 0.68 earned-run average in 26 1/3 innings of relief pitching, which stands today as the second-best ERA mark in Wildcats history.
After graduating from Linfield, Carlson pursued a Master’s degree from Syracuse University and moved to Portland, where he worked in municipal government until his retirement from full-time work in 2005. His visits to McMinnville are infrequent, but his memories are fond.
“It was a nice place to grow up,” Carlson said.