DEKALB – Northern Illinois University Intercollegiate Athletics lost one of its top post-World War II quarterbacks when Don Fortunato died at age 81 on June 30.
A Chicago Taft High School product, Fortunato filled the bill for coach George “Chick” Evans’ Huskie pro formation attack in the late 1940s. As a senior, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Fortunato led NIU in passing (66-of-164 attempts for 1,214 yards and five touchdowns), averaging 18.4 yards a pass, and finishing No. 4 among College Division passers in 1948.
"'Fortch’ had these huge, strong hands. Just massive,” Fortunato’s QB successor, Hall of Famer Bob Heimerdinger said. “The ball looked like this little thing in his hands. He had a great arm, threw a tight spiral. I was just a freshman, playing halfback.
“After every practice, ‘Chick’ had the wide receivers and backs just run deep patterns,” Heimerdinger added. " 'Fortch’ would throw these bombs. Missiles. They came down like shells with the point [of the ball] first. Sometimes they hurt. He was so strong, so solid that [NIU track and field coach] Carl [Appell] had him throwing the javelin in track his senior year.”
“One year we played a preseason game against the Aurora Clippers (semi-pro) team. When we got to the field, everybody was asking, 'Where’s Fortunato?’ ‘Which one is Fortunato?’ He was the show. Everyone on the team looked up to him. If there was one thing I learned that year from him it was the leadership at that [QB] position,” said Heimerdinger, who eventually earned First-Team Associated Press Little-All-America honors in 1951. "‘Fortch’ displayed a lot of confidence.”
Honored on the 1940s All-Decade Team during the Northern Illinois grid Centennial celebration in 1999, Fortunato was enshrined into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1981. A three-season Huskie letterman (1946-48), he was named First-Team All-Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and nominated for All-Mdwest as a junior. In his sophomore campaign, Fortunato led the Huskies to an 8-2 record after transferring from the University of Illinois.
Part of the fabled Huskie “Pony Backfield” with Hall of Fame peers Bob Brigham at fullback and Floyd Hunsberger at halfback as a senior, Fortunato signed a free-agent contract with the NFL's Chicago Cardinals in 1949, he returned to NIU as an assistant coach and then taught at (now) Glenbard West High School.
Fortunato also was a giant in the business world. He co-founded the Balcor Corporation – one of the largest real estate firms in the country – and led Fidelity Mutual in sales for 20 years.
He was survived by his wife, Lynne, and three children. The funeral services were July 6. Memorials may be made to the American Cancer Society, 820 Davis Street, Suite 400, Evanston, IL, 60201.