Don Manoukian, a storied Reno athlete, member of the original Oakland Raiders, pro wrestler and longtime business and civic leader in the Truckee Meadows, has died.
He was 80 and died Tuesday in a Reno hospital after a brief illness. He was a pioneer in professional wrestling as “Don the Bruiser,” said longtime friend Pete Lazetich.
“He was a master,” Lazetich said. “He set the tone for Hulk Hogan, all the guys that came after him. He was one of the first, original Oakland Raiders.”
Known for his stocky build, quick wit and sense of humor, Manoukian was a favorite to emcee benefit events for numerous causes.
“He could put a twist on even the most pressing story and have a funny ending to it,” said his sister, Jackie Powers. “Tom Lauderback, one of his Raider teammates along with Tom Flores and Jim Otto, said Don was not only an original Oakland Raider, he was absolutely an original. I think that describes Don perfectly.”
Standing only 5-foot-7, Manoukian was a star football player and track and field athlete for Reno High School in the mid-1950s.
“He was one of the best football players that we have had there,” said Dick Trachok, the longtime University of Nevada coach and administrator, who coached Manoukian at Reno High. “And he threw the shot put and discus in track. And on top of that, he was a first class guy.”
Manoukian really wasn’t 5-7, Lazetich said. “He always claimed to be 5-7 but we knew different. How many guys you know who were 5-5 and played in the National Football League?
“On his 70th birthday, he benched pressed 300 pounds,” Lazetich said.
Former University of Nevada, Reno football Coach Chris Ault remembered Manoukian as “one of a kind.”
“The mold was thrown away (after him),” Ault said. “He was a classic and probably had the most infectious personality that you would ever want to be around. His personality, the charisma, everyone in Reno would have Don be the emcee at their functions. He was just always one of those guys who made you feel at home and made everybody feel good. So he will certainly be missed.”
Trachok said Manoukian had tremendous leadership skills along with talent as an athlete.
“I remember when he was in high school, It was the first time we went to Vegas and we won the game,” Trachok said. “And after the game, I thought the coaches would like to step out for a minute and so Don said, ‘Hey, if you guys want to go out, don’t worry. Everybody will be in their room at the designated time.’ He sort of took care of that.”
Manoukian went on to attend Stanford on a football scholarship. In 1957, he was voted the outstanding lineman in the East-West Shrine Game, an all-star game featuring top players from around the country.
“There were always great stories about Don at Stanford,” said John Sande, who also went from Reno High School to play football for Stanford. “He was just an outstanding person and I just loved the guy. He was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known.”
Manoukian played only one season for the Raiders, in 1960, the team’s first season of existence in the old American Football League. He earned second-team all-pro honors as a guard. At the same time, he worked as a professional wrestler and decided to stick with wrestling as a career because it paid more than football.
He wrestled under the name of Don the Bruiser, and took on a “heel” persona, antagonizing fans as the bad guy in appearances across the country and in the Far East.
“His famous line in Texas, was to say, ‘If there was a back door to the Alamo, there wouldn’t have been a Texan killed,'” Trachok said. “He was a bad guy down there.”
The “heel” personal was strictly an act, though.
“He was a first-class guy,” Trachok said.
Manoukian spent nine years on the pro wrestling circuit before returning home to Reno for good. He spent the past 49 years as a real estate broker and was involved in numerous business ventures, including restaurants, and, more recently, a partnership in a premium vodka company. He was active in the Elks Club and other civic organizations.
Manoukian is survived by his son, Dirk; daughter-in-law, Molly; grandchildren, Jake and Kate; sister, Jackie Powers and brother, Noel.
Services are pending.
– Ray Hagar and Guy Clifton
NOTE: Featured photograph courtesy of SLAM! Sports.