Donzis is an inventor. Just that. He is 47 years old, with a high school diploma, and he has been inventing for the past quarter of a century. He got his first patent—for an X-ray device—when he was toiling on an oil pipeline in the middle of Texas. "That's where I learned to be innovative, out there with nothing around you," he says. "When something breaks, you've got to figure out how to fix it. That's why I'm so excited about the period just ahead of us, because all these crises are going to have the advantage of forcing Americans to think for themselves again. The dependence on government is going to have to slack off, and we're going to have to be more self-sufficient. Innovations are going to become fashionable again. The wrong people—like athletes—are getting all the ink now, but the media are going to start to praise the innovator. Wait. We're about to enter the most exciting educational period in history."
Donzis, you should be cautioned, is something of an optimist. But then, why shouldn't he be? On April 21, 1976 he was dead broke. The foam tennis court he had invented had developed problems (not of his doing, incidentally), and, as a consequence, various spoilsports had sued him into bankruptcy. That day Donzis was left with the minimum that Texas law allows: his house, his tools, his truck and his dog, a bulldog name of Gus. In liquid assets Donzis had $5.16.
And how do you define an optimist? An optimist is a guy with $5.16 to his name who gets up the next morning and, first thing, goes to purchase a plant, cash-and-carry. Donzis thought this was one way to put a brighter face on things, and so he picked out one in his price range, 59�. While Donzis was waiting to pay, he heard another customer inquire of the florist if he knew anyone who could build her a deck. Well, the foam tennis courts had been built on decks, and so Donzis spoke up, and by that afternoon he and Gus were back in business.
To make a short story shorter, within the year Donzis was grossing $400,000 building decks. He had 37 carpenters in his employ, but he was bored to tears because he preferred to invent things rather than construct dandy decks for the gentry of suburban Houston.
Donzis especially wanted to get back to work on his inflatable running shoe. He had started that project in 1972 because he had gained 42 pounds after he had gotten interested in baking. So he had taken up tennis and jogging in order to lose the 42 pounds, and that had led, perhaps inexorably, to inventing foam tennis courts on the one hand and inflatable shoes on the other. It was his tinkering with the latter that, in turn, got him interested in all kinds of inflatable sports gear and led to the fateful visit to the unsuspecting Pastorini.
"Football equipment hasn't changed since the turn of the century," Donzis says. "The problem is that it wasn't profitable to prevent injuries, and so there hasn't been any money available. As early as 1903 air-inflated football equipment was designed—now those people must have really been bright—but the materials weren't there for the job."
The basic material of the Pastorini jacket/vest is nylon, coated with urethane. What makes it crunch-resistant is a valving effect that helps cushion blows by spreading the impact. Still, notwithstanding the favorable publicity he has received, and despite the support and blessing of the NFL, Donzis has attracted little real interest from sporting-goods companies. Fortunately, the league has been a magnificent angel for Donzis—but even the NFL won't get involved in his helmet research because injury suits are so rife in that area.
Indeed, the whole question of what pro football will be like in 2000 may be moot if more sophisticated safety devices and insurance umbrellas aren't created. Just as municipalities now subsidize the game by building great coliseums, so may it be necessary for the Federal Government to create some kind of insurance pool, which will encourage manufacturers to risk making more advanced (and safer) protective gear.
No mad scientist of an inventor, Byron Donzis (right) clearly has a hand in the present as well as an eye for the future. The seven-ounce, bulletproof, inflated flak jacket that Donzis produced last season to protect the battered ribs of Houston Quarterback Dan Pastorini (below right) proved to be so effective that many NFL players will wear similar vests in 1979. This summer Donzis custom-designed a shoulder-harness unit for Baltimore Quarterback Bert Jones, who missed 13� games in 1978 because of a shoulder separation. Some 25 teams have placed orders for such Donzis designs as an inflated undercushion for shoulder pads. Donzis also has designed and developed a complete set of lightweight, inflated, Lexan-shielded pads—modeled below by Houston Defensive End Elvin Bethea—that are being tested under the aegis of the NFL. In all, Donzis' armor weighs 10 pounds less than the standard pads now in use in the NFL. "The outer surface of the new equipment is designed by using 'bananas' [see shoulder pads] shaped to the contour of the body," he says. "The air inside the nylon-coated urethane acts to absorb all secondary shock. I may be over-engineering these things right now, but I'm shooting for an injury-free sport."