At the end of practice two days before the season, Tommy McDonald, the Eagles' Little Boy Wonderful flankerback (see cover), showered and dressed and headed his red convertible across Philadelphia to the Old Original Bookbinder's for lunch. " 'It's a great place," he said. "Stan Musial eats there when he's in town. And Kirk Douglas. Sometimes we get together. Kirk's a great football fan. People say I look like him. Some say I look like Paul Newman. I've got to ask Kirk sometime if anybody ever tells him he looks like Tommy McDonald." As McDonald drove down Market Street, people called out to him and he responded genially. "Hey, Tommy, catch one for me Sunday, baby!" "Whattayasay, Tommeeee!" The simple crosstown drive became a one-car processional. Recognition was made less difficult by the cherry-red color of the convertible and the 72-point type on the door panels proclaiming TOMMY McDONALD, directly above a lesser plea for PhilliesCigars, which provides him the car and $250 a week in return for small favors. He says the sign on the door makes him self-conscious.
"Have you seen the commercial I do for Phillies?" said McDonald, driving with two fingers and puffing jerkily on a Cheroot ("I never inhale"). "I'm on this great big pinto, in a cowboy suit. I advise everybody to go out and buy a cigar, and 'be sure and tell 'em Tommy McDonald sent you!' Then I ride off like crazy. People ask if it's really me riding that horse. I tell 'em youdamnright. I'm from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I learned to ride a horse before I learned to catch a football."
His record as a cigar peddler on horseback is unavailable, but McDonald caught 64 passes last fall for 1,144 yards and 13 touchdowns, the best composite record in the National Football League. Twice an All-America back at Oklahoma, he has been used almost exclusively as a pass catcher during his six years as a pro. He has scored 51 touchdowns in all, some of his most brilliant coming in October 1959, when he played with a broken jaw. He scored four times against the New York Giants (once on an 81-yard punt return) and three weeks later made two more touchdowns and set up another with a 71-yard reception, as the Eagles, after trailing the then Chicago Cardinals 24-0, came back to win 28-24.
"I love to act, to perform," he said. "It's easy for me to get the right expression for a cameraman. You know, cocking an eyebrow the right way and all. There's a lot of acting to catching passes. Especially for a little guy like me. I roll my eyes and fake and feint and play possum. I think if I wasn't playing football I'd want to be an entertainer. I guess that's why I do some of the crazy things you read about. I enjoy breaking people up, making 'em laugh. This is a serious old world most of the time. One day after a game I came running into the dressing room yelling 'I'm in love, I'm in love!' and dived head first into a basket of dirty towels."
October 7, 1962
McDonald is without peer in the NFL for mock drownings in the whirlstspool bath and for fanciful leaps and skids on the practice field. At Highland High in Albuquerque he had a magical way of producing ice cubes in the huddle.
His war whoops ("iieeeeeeeee!") were the delight of Norm Van Brocklin, ex-Eagle quarterback and now head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, who was also a frequent target of his snowballs in the shower room. This is all good clean fun to McDonald, and he is resentful when people take it otherwise. "It really gets my dandruff (sic) up when some writer says, 'Is Tommy McDonald a kook?' or 'Is Tommy McDonald flakey?' " Tommy McDonald says.
At Bookbinder's, a seafood emporium near the Delaware riverfront, the owner's son met McDonald at the door. "Hey, Tommyboy," he chirped. "Wait'll you see our new hostess. Just your type. Mmmmmmmmmmuuh!" He turned offhandedly to Tommy's companion. "Oh, the dolls this guy comes in here with! A different one every time. And gorgeous. Gorgeous. I think he's better catching women than he is catching footballs." McDonald expressed only mild interest and punctiliously introduced his companion around. He sat down and ordered a shrimp cocktail, a shrimp salad sandwich and coffee. "I never seen this guy take a drink," said the owner's son. The owner came and said Stan Musial was in and that Tommy could catch him later at the game. McDonald said he hadn't been to a baseball game in two years but maybe he would, "just to see old Stanley."
McDonald talked about his hands. "Look at them," he said. "See this thumb? I lost the tip of it trying to take a motorbike up a high curb. Funny story. Dad wanted me to be a baseball player real bad. This was back in Roy, New Mexico, population about a thousand but a great little sports town. Anyway, my Dad figured I wasn't growing fast enough—I've been hearing that all my life—and said he'd buy me a motorbike if I'd stay in the eighth grade another year to be with kids my size. So I stayed back and got the bike, and blooey! there goes the thumb. I never did find a class where the boys were my size.
"I think catching passes is judgment, mostly. I've got good vision; good peripheral vision. I think sometimes I can see things the defensive back doesn't see. I watch for him to make his move—you've got to study the guys in this league—and if he's a fraction late compensating for mine, then I've got him beat. When you've got the jump, size doesn't matter.
"And I go for the ball, I don't wait for it to come to me. Vision and reaction. When I was a kid I'd lie on my back on the floor or in bed, throwing things up in the air—nails, pennies, rubber balls, anything. Then I'd close my eyes and try to catch them. Instead of passing things at the table, we'd pitch them. Mom made us draw the line at mashed potatoes. The best thing, though, is a ping-pong ball. It does weird things. If you can catch a ping-pong ball you can catch anything."
The owner's son picked up the luncheon check. Teammates estimate that McDonald, with a ready roster of doting restaurateurs, can eat on $5 a week in Philadelphia.
"You don't mind if we make a few stops, do you?" said McDonald, returning to the convertible. He drove to the Eagles' offices for his allotment of Sunday game tickets, then to the Phillies factory where he checked the slick proof of his latest ad (McDonald peering from the middle of a pileup, eyes wide like Betty Boop, a smile on his face and a cigar in his smile).
At his haberdasher's, McDonald outlined the virtues of his new black mohair jacket, the one without a lapel and with one pearl white button. "I've got one like it in rust color I wear to the Latin Casino," he said. "It's great for twisting. A lot of times I do the twist instead of knee bends when we're warming up before a game. Did I tell you about the big brawl we had in Pittsburgh last year? All of a sudden I'm squared off with this big guy—Ernie Stautner, it was. So I break into a twist, and so does he. Boy that really broke 'em up."
At a bank building, McDonald squeezed the convertible between a car and a truck—"See what I mean about good judgment?"—and told his companion he was about to meet Pat Gallagher, the future Mrs. McDonald. "We're getting married," he said. "Nobody knows it yet except us and Sonny [Jurgensen, the Eagles' present quarterback]. He's standing up for me. Her folks are Catholic and they don't approve. They're great and like me fine, but I'm divorced."
He sat, studying the steering wheel. "Everything has worked out so well," he said. "The people in this town are wonderful. There's a man I know. Ike Fiel. Half his head was shot away in the war and now he can barely talk. Comes lo the games and they wheel him up on the sidelines. He wears my jersey with No. 25 and when I do something good he says, "That's my boy.' " Tears brimmed in McDonald's eyes. "Sometimes I can't understand my good fortune. 'Why me?' I ask myself. 'Why me?' It's bewildering."
That night at the ball game, when Musial came to bat, McDonald leaned to the edge of his seat. "Stanley!" he yelled. "Hey, Stan. Stanley! Whata ya say we go to the Latin Casino tonight!"
The next day he and Pat Gallagher drove to Audubon, Pa. and got married.
There are, by reasonable estimate, three Tommy McDonalds—the Player, the Wag and the Man. Each is an appealing fellow. None of them has an enemy.
McDonald the Player is a blend of sheer talent and sheer gall. "You've got to stamp on the little squirt in the huddle like he was a Japanese beetle," says a teammate. "All he yells is "Throw it to me, Sonny, throw it to me. I've got this guy beat.' If he had his way nobody else on the team would get a chance to catch the ball." McDonald is 5 feet 10, only 172 pounds but 150% confidence. "There are worlds of people with potential physical abilities greater than McDonald's," says Coach Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma, for whom McDonald played three full seasons. ' "About his only real advantages are quickness and extraordinary determination."
""McDonald catches every ball that hits his hands, and some he shouldn't catch," says Van Brocklin. "He's not the fastest, but when he comes out of his fake he comes out running, without losing a step." Van Brocklin used to ignore McDonald's pleas for attention in the huddle until that propitious moment when suggestion and circumstance were equal. "'I used to have to shut him up; the other receivers were getting their noses out of joint. But he had a very high percentage of success on plays he brought back to the huddle."
With the emergence of his closest friend, Jurgensen, as Eagle quarterback, McDonald last year began to quiet down in the huddle. "I think he's finally got the word that one or two of us, myself included, disapprove of having two quarterbacks calling plays," says End Pete Retzlaff. He added with a laugh, "So what he does now is run back ahead of us and talk to Sonny before we get into the huddle."
There are two recognized ways to defend against McDonald: play him light (close) and he'll run around you to make the catch. Play him loose (or deep) and he'll cut in front of you to make the catch. But when you are able to stick with him step for step, as Night Train Lane of the Lions sometimes does, and you have the predictable height advantage, then presto! he still makes the catch. He has the balance of a gymnast and as Tom Brookshier, the Eagles' All-Pro defensive back, says, "The little rat is strong as a bull." In an exhibition basketball game last winter, he picked up the 275-pound Jim Parker bodily and spun him over his shoulders, then set him down light as you please. He has never been critically hurt. "I relax," McDonald says, "when I'm hit by a guy I can't run over, which is most anybody in this league."
McDonald, however, is sometimes intrepid to a fault. He runs pass patterns as though he were exploring uncharted territory. On the sidelines Coach Nick Skorich blanches when he sees McDonald suddenly break a pattern. Compared with the exacting Retzlaff, McDonald doesn't run patterns at all. Often, in his great desire to catch the ball, he hooks into somebody else's ground when he is supposed to be acting as decoy. Van Brocklin found this distracting—"he made me throw interceptions"—but learned to take the occasional bitter with the surfeit of sweet. Jurgensen says that it is all in getting used to him. "You've got to watch him close, learn to anticipate his moves." But this is something that not even Jurgensen can always do.
A second deficit, by some accounts, is McDonald's bent for ribbing defensive halfbacks. "He's a heckler," says Ben Scotti, ex-Washington Redskin corner-back who now plays with the Eagles. " 'What's the matter, out of shape, Scotti?' he'd say when he caught one on me. 'Is that as hard as you can hit?' He made faces at me from the huddle." Last year Scotti gave McDonald one of his worst days as a receiver—two completions—but in the next game with Washington, McDonald caught the winning touchdown pass in the final 16 seconds. As they came together in the end zone, McDonald loosed an indelicate "Haw, Haw!" Scotti, naturally, jumped him.
McDonald the Man is often pensive and thoughtful and not the least irresponsible. His affluence is staggering: $17,000 with the Eagles; endorsements and promotion money from Phillies and McGregor Sportswear; real estate holdings with his father, Clyde, in Albuquerque; directorship of an Oklahoma City suburban bank. He is very close to his family. The elder McDonalds and his brother Clyde Ray wore out three automobiles driving to Norman, Oklahoma on football weekends to watch him play.
McDonald was small from birth, asthmatic as a child, but his father's athletic ambitions for his sons soon awakened in McDonald the great energy that has marked his young life. As a boy in Roy he would clomp around in the shoes of star athletes who visited the house. In class he would become so possessed with energy he would walk on his hands across the desks. "His teachers were very wise," says Mr. McDonald. "When they saw he was building up to a bursting point, they'd send him out on the basketball court to work it off." His father made him run to school and his mother made him eat his oatmeal "or get his jaws boxed." Church was a habit. He played basketball, baseball, ran track and was a football star from the time he was in junior high school. Mr. McDonald is convinced Tommy could have made the big leagues as a ballplayer. Clyde Ray, whose own athletic career was shortened by an auto accident, is just as sure he could have been a probasketball player. His football coach in Albuquerque said he was sure of only one thing concerning McDonald: he despised sitting on the bench.
At Oklahoma, McDonald was used principally as a running back. He also threw a good running pass and played defense. "He had too much talent for us to use him just to catch passes," said Bud Wilkinson. It was Wilkinson who first convinced McDonald he was "big enough for the college game, and it was Wilkinson who suggested that the Eagles "use him properly. Get him out of harm's way, out on the flank, and he'll do fine." McDonald's respect for Wilkinson is awesome. "I kept my mouth shut around that man."
There have been few disappointments in the McDonald history. It reads like Tommy in Wonderland and the only thing that seems to add realism is his divorce. He married Miss Oklahoma, Ann Campbell, in 1957. They parted three years later.
McDonald has an abiding pride in his abilities, and a small man's complex about his failures. When he misses passes he becomes inordinately upset. "The only time I ever saw him cry was after a game we'd won when he didn't catch his share," says Van Brocklin. The day Scotti held him to two completions, McDonald declared: "I'm washed up. I'm too old [he was 27]. Another afternoon like that and I'll retire." He is perplexed by slights, real or imaginary. When Dave Baker, an ex-Oklahoma teammate, fractured his jaw with an elbow swipe in a game in San Francisco three years ago, McDonald said in wonder, "I can't hardly believe Dave would do that...he's always been a good churchgoer." He still can't understand why the Albuquerque Letterman's Club passed him up as guest speaker in favor of Paul Hornung.
The fact is, of course, that slights rarely come his way. The other day he made a date to appear at Wanamaker's Department Store for the sale of his book, They Pay Me to Catch Footballs, but he forgot practice would carry him past the scheduled appearance. When he arrived, an hour late, he was still in uniform, dirty, unshaved, unbathed. But he was there, just as he had promised. He made a little speech. He sold and autographed 141 books. He made some more money. He made a lot more friends. The store was jammed.