While Westerly has quite a long history of success on the football field, there is only one man born there who is known to have played in the National Football League. Although he did not play his career at Westerly High School, Don Panciera was always associated with Westerly, the town where he was born and raised.
After a stellar college career at Boston College and the University of San Francisco, Panciera went on to play in parts of three seasons in the National Football League, making him Westerly’s only known professional football player to date.
Donald M. Panciera was born in Westerly on June 23, 1927 to James L. and Westerlina (Campo) Panciera, both immigrants from Italy. From 1932 to 1943, he attended Immaculate Conception School, an experience which would profoundly impact his worldview throughout his life. As his wife, Patti, noted: “Don was very Catholic. He always had a rosary in his pocket and felt he wasn’t dressed without it. He was very religious and felt comfortable in a Catholic school.”
After the ninth grade, Panciera, already a standout football player, was recruited to attend and play for La Salle Academy in Providence, starting his sophomore year in 1943. Panciera continued to live in Westerly, taking the train to Providence on school days. Every night, he would not arrive home until seven or eight o’clock and on game days, it was much later.
Despite the challenges he faced playing for a school across the state, Panciera succeeded beyond all expectations at La Salle. With the Westerly native under center, the Rams won a share of the Rhode Island State Championship all three years he attended. In 1944 and 1945, Panciera received first-team All-State honors. While all three seasons were a success, the 1945 team stands out as one of the greatest in state history. That season, La Salle had seven shutout victories and outscored opponents 203-9.
The amazing season was capped off with a trip to New Orleans, where the Rams squared off against Holy Cross Prep, the Louisiana State Champions. The game was generally considered to be for the mythical ‘Catholic High School Championship,’ an unofficial designation for the best Catholic school in the country. The game ended in a 6-6 tie, a somewhat disappointing conclusion to a magnificent season.
As a result of his success on the gridiron, in 1999, Panciera was among those named by Providence Journal sportswriter John Gilooly to his list of the 100 most significant people in Rhode Island high school sports history in the 20th century.
After graduating from La Salle in the spring of 1946, Don Panciera was recruited to play both quarterback and defensive back for the Boston College Eagles. On October 6th, the Eagles secured their first of five consecutive victories when they defeated Michigan State, 34-20. After a close 14-12 victory over Villanova, the Eagles traveled to New York City to face off against New York University.
That game was decidedly less competitive, as Boston College crushed the Violets, 72-6. In addition to his passing duties, Panciera also kicked four extra points for the winners. One week later, the Eagles escaped with a 20-13 win over Georgetown after their Westerly-born quarterback tossed two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
After a loss against a strong Tennessee team, the Boston boys met Alabama, winners of the 1945 Rose Bowl. In that game, Panciera intercepted a pass on the 1 yard line with less than two minutes to play, sealing the 13-7 win for the Eagles. Largely because of their quarterback’s strong play, the Eagles and their finished the season with a record of 6-3 and were ranked sixth nationally in passing offense.
Following the 1946 season, Panciera and other BC teammates caused a minor controversy when they followed assistant coach Ed McKeever to the University of San Francisco. The departure of several players caused Eagles coach Denny Myers to accuse teams of “stealing” his players. Myers asserted that an unnamed player, presumed to be Panciera, was offered $300 a month and transportation for four vacations in exchange for coming to USF.
The claims were never substantiated and Panciera remained in San Francisco for two seasons. On the west coast, Panciera was given the opportunity to start at quarterback and defensive back immediately. At the time of his transfer, USF was a program on the rise. During his career, the Westerly thrower played with two future football hall of famers, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair.
Prior to Panciera’s arrival, USF went a meager 3-6 in 1946, but with him under center, they improved to 7-3 in 1947 and were even ranked #20 in the nation for one week. In 1947, the team was ranked seventh nationally in passing offense. The following season, although less successful in terms of wins and losses (the team went a lowly 2-7 in 1948), was still highly productive for Panciera, as the Dons were ranked fourth in the nation in passing offense.