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After three seasons of college football, Don Panciera made the decision to take his game to the professional level. In the spring of 1949, the Westerly native was drafted into both the National Football League and their upstart rivals, the All America Football Conference. In the NFL draft, Panciera was selected in the fourth round, 41st overall by the Philadelphia Eagles. In the AAFC draft, he was selected in the sixth round by the New York Yankees.
Ultimately, Panciera chose to sign with New York, where he started all 12 games at quarterback for the Yankees. With the Rhode Islander under center, the Yankees went 8-4 in the regular season, securing a spot in the playoffs, where they lost their only game, 17-7. Despite the movement necessitated by a professional football career, Don Panciera retained his deep connections to his birthplace.
On January 2, 1950, he married Miss Gloria Bruno at Immaculate Conception Church in Westerly. At the end of the 1949-50 season, the AAFC was absorbed by the NFL, however, the New York Yankees were not taken in by the league and most players were divided between the New York Giants and New York Bulldogs. Those whose rights were not purchased, including Panciera, were entered into a dispersal draft involving the 13 NFL franchises.
It is clear that the Philadelphia Eagles still saw talent in Panciera, as they drafted him for a second time, this time in the seventh round. Unfortunately, by the time he signed with the Eagles on June 26, 1950, the team already had three other quarterbacks on their roster. Although there was speculation that he would make the team as a defensive back, Panciera was cut by the Eagles before the season got underway.
After being cut by the Eagles, Don Panciera found himself at the University of Connecticut, where he was pursuing a degree in physical education. His time on campus was short, however. On November 6, 1950, Panciera announced that he had signed with the Detroit Lions, who called him for assistance after losing five of their first eight games on the season.
The Lions determined that Panciera would be ideal to fill their need at defensive back, especially considering they had future hall of famer Bobby Layne as their starting quarterback. In total, Panciera played four games for the Lions, where he secured a single interception.
Initially, Panciera was signed once again by the Lions prior to the 1951 season, however, on August 11, he was cut loose from the team. After his release, Don sat out the remainder of the 1951 season. In July 1952, his career was reinvigorated once more after he signed a contract to play quarterback for the Chicago Cardinals. Panciera found his way into eight games with the Cardinals in 1952. Unfortunately, he was less than successful with the Cardinals, completing only 36.5% of his passes and throwing 9 interceptions to his 5 touchdowns.
In spite of his sub-par performance, the Cardinals signed Panciera to a contract in July 1953. However, he was no longer with the team by August 17th, when he made his way up north to sign with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Don Panciera’s stint in Toronto was brief, playing only one game for the Argonauts at quarterback and defensive back. On September 22, the team released him from his contract. In his last attempt at a career in professional football, Panciera signed with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the CFL and after playing in one pre-season game, he was released for the final time.
Don Panciera hung up his cleats after playing parts of five seasons in professional football. For the 1955 season, he served as player-coach for a team from Fort Devens in central Massachusetts. This experience would begin the former quarterback’s foray into coaching. From 1956 to 1958, he served as an assistant coach at the University of Dayton and in 1959, he returned to Chestnut Hills to serve in the same capacity for Boston College. In 1960, Panciera returned to his home state, serving as assistant coach at the University of Rhode Island for one season.
In 1960, Don Panciera found a new passion in automobiles. For seven years he served as a district manager for General Motors. In 1967, he was granted a franchise, Panciera Chevrolet in Wakefield, which he owned and operated for 31 years before retiring in 1998.
According to his wife, Patti, Panciera attributed his success in business to his football background. She recalled: “He used to say he owed his success in business to what he learned from sports. He had a strong work ethic, was a workaholic and was fiercely competitive.” In 2008, Panciera was inducted into the Rhode Island Interscholastic League Hall of Fame.
On February 9, 2012, Don Panciera passed away in Westerly at the age of 84. Many who knew the man personally look back on his life fondly and while he will be remembered as the only known man born in Westerly to ever play in the NFL, he will also hold a legacy as a native son who lived his life doing what he loved.