In 1978, Byron Donzis walked into a Houston hospital looking for Dan
Pastorini, the Houston Oilers’ prized quarterback who was laid up with three
broken ribs from a recent game. Donzis was wearing a trench coat and
carrying a large bag. He was accompanied by an associate wielding a baseball
They sweet-talked their way past the nurses and into Pastorini’s private
room. The quarterback thought the two strange men must have lost money on
the game and had come for revenge.
Instead, Donzis instructed his friend to smack him across his rib cage as
hard as he could with the bat. His buddy hit him four or five times but
Donzis didn’t flinch. When he pulled back his coat to reveal a garment that
looked like a life jacket, Pastorini was agog.
“I said, ‘I’d like to have one of those,’” Pastorini recalled telling
Donzis. A few days later, the National Football League star donned Donzis’
“flak jacket” in a big game and led his team to the playoffs.
The flak jacket became standard gear in the NFL and the greatest success in
Donzis’ prolific and sundry career as an inventor-entrepreneur.
Donzis, 79, who died Jan. 4 in Landrum, S.C., after a stroke, turned his
ideas into useful products in fields as diverse as sports equipment,
cosmetics, floristry and medicine. “He just wanted to know how things worked
and what he could do to make things better,” said his wife, Martha Gibson
His name appears on more than 35 patents, according to the U.S. Patent and
Trademark Office. His inventions include a prefabricated tennis court,
inflatable running shoes, stadium seats with solar panels and an X-ray
machine for detecting leaky oil pipelines.
Like many inventors, he had more ideas than successes and lost a number of
“It’s almost a curse,” Sue Shaper, a Houston intellectual property attorney
who represented Donzis for many years, said Thursday about the personality
of inventors. “They see so many things and they can’t pursue them all. Byron
was a paradigmatic inventor in that sense.”
Before the flak jacket, Donzis developed running shoes with air chambers
inflated by a built-in pump and acquired a patent on the system in 1972. Two
decades later he successfully sued sports shoe maker Reebok for infringing
on his patent when it marketed its “Pump” sneaker.
Donzis also discovered the wrinkle-reducing capability of a chemical
compound called beta-glucan, which he marketed to leading cosmetics
companies, including Estee Lauder and Mary Kay. Licensed under the name
Nayad, it won favorable reviews: Vogue magazine described it as “a superstar
natural ingredient of the ‘90s.”
He once dismissed his inventions for lacking “any social relevance whatever”
and said his real motivation was finding a cure for cancer. Although that
goal eluded him, he was an early and important benefactor of the Sunshine
Kids Foundation, a Houston-based nonprofit that supports children with
Donzis was married twice but had no children.
Born in San Antonio on March 5, 1932, Donzis graduated from high school in
1949 and dropped out of Southern Methodist University after one semester.
After serving in the Army, he found work on a pipeline.
“In those days, no one was paid until the project was finished,” Donzis told
The San Antonio Express-News in 1999, and he needed a paycheck. Desperation,
often the mother of invention, led Donzis to his first Thomas Edison moment.
To speed up construction, he invented an X-ray system that quickly found
leaks and flaws in the pipeline. He secured the patent in 1963.
The tennis boom in the 1970s led to his next major inspiration: a tennis
court made of wood and foam that could be built far more quickly than a
traditional court. It seemed like a brilliant idea until the cold
temperatures of winter made the foam shrink. Lawsuits from customers
bankrupted him, but he rebounded as a carpenter and made good money building
backyard decks.
In the late 1970s, he spent some time at an Army laboratory in
Massachusetts. The Army was looking for ways to protect pilots from
blunt-force impact. Donzis’ solution was a super-lightweight vest that
inflated and deflated instantly, like a car air bag.
After leaving the Army lab, he moved to Houston and was struggling to gain
attention for his protective jacket when he heard about Pastorini’s injury.
Pastorini recalled that the prototype was fabricated from a Navy SEAL life
jacket, with an outer layer of Kevlar. “It was a little bit rustic,” he
Donzis had no regrets about his unorthodox demonstration in the quarterback’s
hospital room. “People will consider you off the wall. If that bothers you,
don’t be an innovator,” he told The Dallas Morning News in 1994. “That’s
part of the badge you wear.”
The jacket caught on with other players and soon the NFL gave Donzis a grant
to produce more of them, which he later made with foam. He went on to make
other protective items, including thigh and neck pads, shoulder harnesses,
helmets and knee guards. He made a flak jacket for James Garner after the
actor fell off a mechanical bull during a movie shoot and broke several
Donzis once said that the only gear he wouldn’t make was a cup protector,
quipping that he would never submit that part of his anatomy to the bat