By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
One of the most dramatic plays in the history of Tiger Stadium doesn’t appear on any of the renovated football cathedral’s three massive high-definition video screens today. The emerging star behind it has all but disappeared from the annals of the program’s illustrious history.
The story of Rusty Domingue began like so many others that came before or since. An impoverished youth blessed with enough athletic talent to play their way out of the ghetto. Only before he could cash in, he experienced a dramatic fall from more befitting the end of a gangster flick.
This fall marks the 40th anniversary of Domingue blocking what would have been a game-winning field goal to seal an unlikely 6-6 tie with No. 1 Nebraska to open up the 1976 season.
Later that same night and little more than a mile away, his life came crashing down around him in the span of a Tigerland bar fight. Personal demons he’d carried long before arriving in Baton Rouge boiled over into drunken bloodshed. Domingue himself was too immature to realize it at the time, but his football career and personal freedom were forfeit the moment his blade plunged into Richard Connelly’s chest.
But that’s not how the story ends.
Domingue has spent most of the nearly four decades that’ve passed since his incarceration walking a pious path in search of redemption. And to find salvation, he’s traveled to some of the most hellish places on earth in service to a cause he’s devoted his life to.
His work has taken him to war-torn nations besieged by disease, famine, natural disasters and even genocide. But the root of his ‘trouble,’ as he calls it today, can be traced back home to the bottom of a bottle.
ACT I: Searching for a way out
RUSTY DOMINGUE GREW up poor in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Port Arthur, Texas, but his family hailed from the heart of creole country. His father was born in Rayne. His mother in Broussard. His grandparents, who didn’t speak a lick of English — only Cajun French — lived in Lafayette all their lives.
“Whenever we’d visit they’d give me chocolate milk because they knew I liked it,” Rusty remembers, “but we couldn’t communicate with each other. It was kind of bizarre.”
Those trips back to Louisiana were a welcomed reprieve from a difficult home life. Both of Rusty’s parents worked hard. His father moved to Port Arthur in the first place to take a lucrative piping job. His mother made her money as a beautician.
Still, the family lived in abject poverty. As he tells it, his parents worked hard from Monday through Friday, but once quitting time rolled around, they drank even harder. He’d go entire weekends without seeing either of them as a child, left alone in a cramped, dilapidated house to roam the streets and fend for himself.
Other times his parents would take him along for the ride. Almost half a century later Domingue vividly remembers the sight of seeing his father beat a man unconscious with a pool stick one night in a drunken fracas that erupted out of Cajun line dancing. Rusty was just an eighth grader at the time. [su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]“I wanted to get away from where I lived, so I was going somewhere. I wasn’t staying. I was just happy to be gone, to be honest with you. It was a rough place. Still is a rough place. A lot of blue collar people. A lot of fighting and drinking and craziness. That’s where I learned all that. It’s all I knew.” – Rusty Domingue on his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas[/su_pullquote]
When his father died, Rusty sold his car for $10,000. The house they’d lived in barely fetched him nine grand. “That’s how bad it was,” he says. “The guy next door didn’t have any windows in his house. It was bad back then, and it only got worse.”
Athletics have long been an escape route for impoverished youths, but the motivation to participate for Rusty, whose parents weren’t athletes of any kind, rung much simpler than that even. Also equal parts ironic and tragic, given his father’s line of work.
“My house had no shower, so if I played athletics, I could take a shower at the school,” Rusty says. “So I played everything. Began running track in ninth grade. That’s when the coach noticed him and asked him to come out to the football team.”
Domingue was blessed with a large frame and began weight training well before graduating on to Thomas Jefferson High School, so by the time he became an upperclassmen, he’d developed into one of the fiercest linebackers in all the Lone Star State.
All the traditional in-state powers came calling: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and TCU, just to name a few. And with NCAA regulations permitting it at the time, he took official visits to see all of them on the respective school’s dime.
“I wanted to get away from where I lived, so I was going somewhere,” Domingue says. “I wasn’t staying. I was just happy to be gone, to be honest with you. It was a rough place. Still is a rough place. A lot of blue collar people. A lot of fighting and drinking and craziness. That’s where I learned all that. It’s all I knew.”
Perhaps it’s that idea that made an out-of-state offer seem so appealing. Domingue didn’t know much of anything about LSU when assistant coach Doug Hampley called to offer a scholarship. He’d never met head coach Charlie McClendon, much less stepped foot on campus.
But he knew Louisiana. All those trips to visit kin folk in Acadiana were among the happiest memories of a childhood permeated by alcoholism and violence.
So Domingue signed his National Letter of Intent to the Tigers, packed what little possessions he owned and took off for Baton Rouge for the first time. Football had been the escape Domingue desperately craved from his turbulent home life in Port Arthur.
What he failed to realize was the same demons that inflicted his parents — as well as their addiction — stowed away and followed him across the state line.
ACT II: Pride before the fall
THERE’S NO ATMOSPHERE in collegiate sport like Tiger Stadium when the nation’s No. 1 team comes to town, and it was no different with the mighty Nebraska Cornhuskers visiting to officially kick off the 1976 football season.
Though Vegas underdogs, the Tigers entered the game with an air of confidence thanks in part to a heartbreaking close call suffered in Lincoln the season before. Led by its ferocious defense, LSU played Nebraska tight but fell 10-7 with a muffed punt near midfield making the difference.
Domingue remembers the team laboring through a grueling Louisiana summer with a singular focus on finishing the job when Nebraska made its return trip of the home-and-home.
“We worked hard to beat them,” he says. “We had a good game plan. We were in shape from running sprints in 110 degree heat. But they were huge. That’s when we decided we needed to start doing year-round workouts. I had always worked out, but a lot of my teammates didn’t.”
Those who were in Death Valley that night describe an absolute trench war of a football game. Two iron-willed defenses lived up to their hype, making both yards and points preciously hard to come by.
Domingue played outside linebacker, and since he ran well enough to roam sideline to sideline with imposing size, he drew the unenviable assignment of shadowing do-it-all tailback I.M. Hipp, who finished his prolific college career as leading rusher in school history at the time.
He handled the daunting task with aplomb, containing the dangerous Hipp while finishing as one of the slugfest’s leading tacklers. Then he rushed around the edge and blocked the kick that should’ve etched his moment forever among those moments that live in hype videos and fan lore.
“We tied them, but it felt like we won,” Domingue says.
Practically the entire campus flooded into Tigerland to celebrate the draw as if it were a victory. The small strip of road known today as Bob Pettit Blvd., that bisects the two clusters of bars looked like Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, and Rusty Domingue may as well have been the Grand Marshal.
People bunched so densely together they bump shoulders while shuffling from one watering hole to the next. Any car that made the mistake of attempting to traverse the area found a stop-and-go trudge through the intoxicated masses.
One such driver was a 24-year-old LSU student from New Orleans named Richard Connelly. His gravest mistake a bad case being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It all happened so fast,” Domingue begins in a hushed, solemn tone. “Bad deal. Bad problems. I was walking across the street. Whether he bumped me with his car or I just thought he was going to bump me, I kicked his car and he got out. That’s where it started.”
Though Domingue was a seasoned brawler and larger than Connelly, he was also stone cold wasted, and Connelly held his own. It ended with a stabbing and Connelly being hospitalized in ‘satisfactory condition,’ according to the Associated Press story written at the time.
He continues: “It was my mistake, there’s no doubt, but this is where all that learned behavior comes into play. When I went to school, it was rough, and I had to fight just to stay alive. I made a stupid mistake, but the way I was raised, that was all I knew.”
Police detained Domingue and he spent the night in a holding cell until he got bailed out the following morning. He only recently found out that his aunt had actually posted the $5,000 bond to have him released from custody.
Not knowing what else to do, he strolled into the team’s regularly-scheduled meeting later that afternoon as if nothing had happened. The entire team hadn’t gone out that night, but word of what happened quickly swept through the ranks.
“It’s a good thing it didn’t happen in this day and age, because then it really would have been a circus,” says Charles Alexander, a running back on that ’76 team. “Everybody was in shock because Rusty Domingue was not a bad guy.
“We’re both from Texas, so I got to know Rusty pretty well. It was just something that happened that I know he regrets.”
Upon arriving, Coach McClendon summoned Rusty into his office to give him the bad news. He’d tried to convince the school president to reconsider, but a string of football player arrests in the preceding years had tied his hands.
“Coach Mac told me they wanted to make an example of me because some LSU players had gotten into trouble before I’d ever been there,” Domingue says. “And I was so immature at the time I didn’t even get it. Now I get it, but then I didn’t.”
They’d allow Domingue to remain enrolled at school and continue attending practice, but he walked out of that meeting knowing full well he’d never play for LSU again.
What he didn’t yet realize is he’d played the last down of his football life.
ACT III: The Trials of Russell James Domingue
A BROKEN HAND suffered playing pickup basketball turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Domingue. It postponed the trial for a year, which allowed him to finish out that academic semester and complete another. In the interim, claiming he’d felt great remorse for what he’d done, he began attending services at the chapel on campus at the behest of a friend. And over time he bought in.
The severity of it all hit hardest when the indictment came down. He’d face three charges. The most serious of which was attempted first-degree murder, which carried a of 50-year prison sentence. Another was attempted manslaughter, which was 10-12 if found guilty.
“That was rough,” Domingue recalls of the trial. “Real rough. It was real, buddy. I sat in there for three days and left feeling like I’d played a football game. I was sore. My legs were hurting.”
The case came down to a question intent and motive. The jury came back with attempted manslaughter. The judge gave him the weekend to get his affairs in order before returning to court on Monday to be sentenced.
Domingue was sentenced to five years, the first two of which to be spent in a penitentiary founded by Elayn Hunt that specialized in high-IQ offenders. He’d then go to an adult confinement home before serving the remainder of his time on probation.
“Most of those people were psychos,” Domingue says. “They had IQ all right, but they were loony tunes. Me cellmate was terrifying. I remember him telling me that if someone came in, I was supposed to grab their legs and he was going to beat them to death. I wasn’t going to fight him. It was a rough place.”
Prison is a lonely place, particularly for a violent offender who doesn’t get along with him cellmate. Domingue slows his cadence and points to his watch each time he references ‘doing time.’
He remembers spending most of it sitting alone reading a bible in his cell. Contemplating scripture in hopes of restarting a life that had veered dangerously off course.
Far from the first inmate to find religion on the inside. And like almost every one of them, he sat in silence and prayed every day to get out. To be set free.
But unlike 99.9 percent of those other cases, his prayers were seemingly answered. After some six months of incarceration, prison guards dressed in riot gear rushed in and secured the facility with dogs, shackles and loaded weapons.
They were shutting the prison down, and the entire prison population was being transferred to the dreaded Angola to serve the remainder of the sentences.
All expect for two.
“The guard called out ‘Rusty Domingue,’ and told me and another guy that we were free to go,” Domingue says. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was kidding at first. Then I thought to myself, oh man, the scripture works. That sucker works.
“I didn’t even know what to do, so I stayed there that night in the prison with nobody there. I had nowhere to go. They left me there. The next morning I called and someone came and got me. And I’ve never been back since.”
ACT IV: A new calling
IF EARLY RELEASE was a stroke of good luck aided by good behavior, the fact Domingue was quietly re-admitted to LSU to finish his degree is a full-blown miracle. It certainly wouldn’t have been possible in today’s internet age of social media. Instead he was able to move into Kirby Smith Hall and attend classes in relative anonymity.
While back on campus, he resumed regularly attending church services at the chapel on campus. Upon graduating he moved to Dallas and enrolled in bible college. It took him two years to earn a degree in practical theology and begin making connections in the community.
His life changed with one phone call from Dr. Jere D. Melilli. The founder of the Christian Life Fellowship and its affiliate school, Christian Life Academy, offered Domingue a job within his ministry.
“I think he was in search of his own personal identity and purpose in life,” Melilli says. “He’d been a star in football before his world came crashing down around him, but he began to see that shouldn’t be the end of his life. That it really was the beginning of it.”
While in that position he began a college group at LSU called ‘Living Waters’ that took mission trips every summer to places like Africa or Peru. A dip of the toe into the work that’d come to dominate the rest of his life.
“He was quite a mentor to them,” Melilli says. “I was always excited to see him leading the kids the way he did. I think he began to see a purpose for his life beyond prestige and making money. Way beyond the material success that goes with secular pursuits.”[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]“I think he was in search of his own personal identity and purpose in life. He’d been a star in football before his world came crashing down around him, but he began to see that shouldn’t be the end of his life. That it really was the beginning of it.” – Pastor Jere D. Melilli on Rusty Domingue [/su_pullquote]
Amid the countless overseas ventures, one sticks out in Domingue’s mind as a pivotal moment. A friend from bible college called and asked Rusty to meet him in India for a gathering he was hosting. It’d be the first of many trips to the massive subcontinent that now sits near and dear to his heart.
Domingue bought a ticket for himself and took connecting commercial flights from Baton Rouge to Rome. He fell ill in Rome, and by the time he landed in Bombay (Mumbai), he was sick as a dog in 106-degree heat.
Air travel is clearly not Domingue’s favorite part of the job. He gestures to his watch when speaking of day-long flights in much the same motion as he did when describing ‘doing time’ on the inside.
From there he boarded a prop jet to Udumalpet, a town in the Tirupur district of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, his final destination.
“I arrived and the man I was there to see had 27,000 Indians sitting in the dirt listening to him preach,” Domingue says. “I was shocked by the scope. I looked at all those poor people sitting in that dirt and realized that was what I wanted to do.
“Then I went back to that same town the next year and held my own meeting. Spoke to a massive crowd through an interpreter. I built a church there. Now I’m building a bigger one because they outgrew it. Great place. Even better people.”
ACT V: The complicated relationship of faith, money and fame
I HAD NO idea what to expect when Rusty Domingue agreed to meet me for lunch and speak on the record. The cliff notes of his life garnered through background research alone outlined the kind of personal transition that fascinates people in the business of telling stories. To the best of my knowledge, I’d never interviewed anyone who stabbed another human being before — and if I had, I’m positive I never asked said subject questions about it.
Honestly, the greater apprehension came from the idea of sitting down with a devout servant of God who, from a distance, boarders on fanaticism. The website for Domingue’s ‘Blue Flames Ministries,’ which is how I reached him in the first place via email, uses phrases like ‘crusade evangelism’ and ‘converts’ throughout its mission statement. Unnerving rhetoric to someone who, weddings and funerals aside, probably hasn’t stepped into a house of worship of their own volition in more than a decade.
Sammy’s Grill in Prairieville is absolutely slammed with the noon lunch rush flowing in. Typical for a gorgeous Friday afternoon in April, the heart of crawfish season. There’s a line forming just to get on the waiting list for a table by the time Domingue arrives 15 minutes later. He’s wearing a black 3/4-sleve shirt buttoned off at the forearms and jeans. Two pairs of sunglasses hang from his crew neck and faded green wedges are on his feet. His southern drawl hasn’t grown any less thick with decades of world traveling.
The hostess asks if we’d like to take the two vacant stools at the end of the bar. Otherwise, she says, there be a bit of a wait. Rusty declines the bar seating and needles the hostess a bit as to why the restaurant’s back dining room isn’t open.
He later tells me hadn’t had a drop of alcohol since the night of his infamous ‘trouble,’ as he then refers to it. “It just wouldn’t work for me. I know my personality, and I’ve got that aggressiveness still. It’s not healthy. That’s why I haven’t had a drink since.”
For conversational purposes, which is the primary motivation as opposed to a meal, waiting is ideal. Rusty says he’s only scheduled to be in the country for little more than a month while he finishes renovating his family’s house.
He’s just returned from northern Mexico, where his ministry opened up an orphanage some time ago. He tells me the area has become a perilous cartel battle ground in recent months because of its location on a road often traveled by narcotics traffickers and Federales alike on the way to the boarder. His tan and the expansive iPhone camera roll he scrolls through for show-and-tell corroborates his story.
The upcoming itinerary include a trip to Africa in late June to visit and preach at two campuses of the Healing Place Church, centered right on Highland Road in Baton Rouge, he helped found. He’s spent enough time in the jungles, deserts and rain forests of the world to require only a vaccine for Yellow Fever — “that’s the incurable one” — before such a trip. He speaks of diseases like the Zika Virus and Malaria with a level of familiarity most Americans would apply to strep throat or a sinus infection.
From 1996-1998, Rusty moved his wife Denise and two children Jessica and Caleb — Josh, their youngest, wasn’t yet born — to Kenya to serve as missionaries. Both of the eldest children, now in their 20’s, have followed in their father’s footsteps since. Jessica, now 25, is the college director for Healing Place. Caleb was a four-sport star at Christian Life Academy before playing safety for Missouri Southern State.
“I didn’t want to raise my kids the way my parents raised me,” Rusty says. “That’s not a way to live. But at the time I had no idea because it was all I knew. Everybody drank, and assume everyone did. You assume that’s how everyone is. Then I grew up and realized that’s not how people live.”
The travel schedule gets even more hectic in the fall, with trips budgeted to visit churches Blue Flames is building in Cuba and then Spain. He says he’s been operating in Cuba for decades on a religious visa, but expanding into Europe is a brand new development for his ministry.
Domingue estimates he’s erected right around 100 churches worldwide, and his stated big-picture goal is only to continue growing that number.
“That’s over 25 years,” Domingue says. “I should have built 10,000. I’m a low-level person. I could have employees, but I don’t. I’d rather be by myself.”
He does so by accepting donations through the ministry and using the money to finance the construction of churches and pay congregants to build their own house of worship. This both keeps the labor cost low and allows the members to work.
Given his compelling backstory alone — football star turned prisoner turned preacher — Domingue could have become a high-profile televangelist along the way. He’s a charismatic speaker with a proven track record of overseas missionary work. Devout, yet approachable. If not television, surely a book deal.
Rusty says the only way he’d ever publish his testimonial would be from his deathbed. In fact, he says he prayed for days wrestling with whether to reach out to me at all after his webmaster forwarded him the email I’d sent through website.
There is was. The opportunity to ask the question I’d been fascinated by ever since I started working on this piece.
But if more exposure means more donations, and more donations mean more money to help people, than why not?
“The biggest problem for a successful preacher is success,” Domingue explains. “It’s a trap. The more you tie money into it, the farther you get from reality. Some people don’t live in real reality. It’s a different world. It’s like a religious Hollywood. And some of them can handle it and stay on message, but others can’t.
“I wouldn’t want to put myself in that boat. I’ve got enough problems. And I don’t need the publicity. God knows what I do.”
That mantra explains why Domingue doesn’t take it personally when his iconic field goal block doesn’t appear among the other historic highlights on the Tiger Stadium Jumbotron.
Why he feels no ill will toward the program that shunned him. Instead, only gratitude to the University for allowing him to come back after his release and complete his degree.
“Oh, I have regrets about it. I wish it would have never happened,” he says. “I regret doing it. I hate it. But I did it and I have to live with it. I’m just thankful it’s all worked out for me.”