A desire to compete and a love for athletics of all kinds drove Don Koonce to stay immersed in sports from his youth to his final days promoting Cumberland County sports via the radio.
Koonce, 71, died unexpectedly last week, barely a month out from the start of another high school football season. His radio crews from DKSports, Inc., were preparing to broadcast the games of Terry Sanford and Cape Fear High Schools.
Like his brothers, the late Calvin Koonce and Charles Koonce, Don was a star athlete at the high school level. Charles Koonce called his brother Don “one of the most outstanding athletes to come out of Cumberland County. He excelled in baseball, basketball, football and golf.
“He was a true athlete at heart. He always played to win.’’
Don Koonce once led Cumberland County high school basketball in scoring and qualified for the prestigious North and South Amateur golf tournament at Pinehurst.
But it was baseball where he made his biggest mark. He earned a scholarship to North Carolina State University and left after one semester to get a rare spring training tryout with the same New York Mets team his brother Calvin played for. Impressed with what they saw, the Mets signed Don.
He spent six years in the minor leagues, rising as high as the AAA level while playing mostly in the Virginia Tidewater area with teams affiliated with the Mets, Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos.
His career record was 27-34 with a solid 2.63 earned run average and 44 saves.
It was his connection with the Detroit organization that helped lay the groundwork for Don’s successful bid to bring minor league baseball back to Fayetteville. He was a force behind the creation of the Fayetteville Generals and the construction of J.P Riddle Stadium.
After parting ways with the Generals, Don spent several years as a Major League Baseball scout. He eventually joined his brother Charles, veteran local radio personality Lloyd Foster and his son Dave Foster in creating Mid-South Sports, Inc., in 1990. It focused on broadcasting Friday night high school football and other county sporting events.
Some years later, Don branched out on his own and created DKSports, Inc., which currently covers Terry Sanford and Cape Fear High School football in the fall. He also created a weekly WFNC Monday night talk show, "The Sports Page," with former Terry Sanford quarterback Trey Edge and veteran high school basketball coach Bill Boyette.
In recent years, Don has been involved in teaching young baseball players one-on-one, especially those with an interest in pitching. “There are a number of young guys in the ranks right now at various age groups that will pay tribute to the fact that he was the guy that got them started,’’ Charles said.
Edge has spent countless hours over the last several years traveling with Don to cover games and working with him in the radio booth or at courtside. Edge said he feels the competitive spirit never leaves a serious athlete. He thinks Don enjoyed radio because it gave him a chance to continue experiencing the highs and lows of the game.
“You experience the game as it’s happening, and you get to know the players and coaches,’’ Edge said. “I think that was attractive to him and kept that sports fire fueled. But then it got to the point where he was doing something for the community. Getting high school athletes publicity for the things they’ve done is a great thing.’’
Edge said Don was an incredible storyteller and would often tell about star players he’d competed against or scouted. “In the booth, he was always happy, always had a smile,’’ Edge said. “He wanted to put out a good product.’’
That product provided a valuable service to an important part of the Cumberland County population, the military community. Vernon Aldridge, student activities director for Cumberland County Schools, said the presence of the military in Fayetteville made Don’s coverage of high school games important.
“Often times parents get sent overseas, and kids may not be from North Carolina,’’ Aldridge said. “Don being on the radio allowed people deployed and family members in other states to keep up with their children (via internet live streaming of games). It’s a great asset for Cumberland County Schools.’’
Neil Buie, regional supervisor of football officials for the Southeastern Athletic Officials Association, played against Don from the time the two were about 8 years old.
“There was no greater advocate for sports in Cumberland County than Don,’’ Buie said. “His passing will leave a hole in the sports community and Cumberland County.’’
Terry Sanford assistant coach Bill Yeager, who has spent 50 years in this county as a high school athlete and coach, said Don always tried to put young athletes first. “He cared about this community,’’ Yeager said. “He was a good man. He’s going to be missed.’’
Terry Sanford principal Tom Hatch said Don always had positive things to say about the student-athletes both at Terry Sanford and in the community. “He did a great job covering football and baseball here (at Terry Sanford),” Hatch said. “Don was a great man.’’
Edge said that most of the sponsors for the DKSports, Inc., broadcasts for this fall were already in place before Don’s untimely death. “I would absolutely keep moving it forward under the name DKSports, Inc., to honor Don,’’ Edge said. “Our hope is, come Aug. 23, we’re on the air broadcasting high school football and (that) every Monday night Bill (Boyette) and I are doing 'The Sports Page.'’’
Left to right: Bill Boyette, Don Koonce and Trey Edge at the July 2017 announcement of the debut of "The Sports Page" weekly talk show.