I had gone from an undefeated national champion college team to a staggering professional team, and in my first couple of seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles I was staggering, too. I had been a running back at Oklahoma. Switching to flanker back in the pros, I had to get the hang of a receiver's cuts, feints and speed shifts. I also had to prove to the big boys that they couldn't run me out of the league.
The Eagles won only six games in 1957 and 1958. Then Dutch Van Brocklin lighted a fire under us, and we won seven in 1959. As the 1960 season began we all had faith in Dutch, but we hadn't signed many draft choices or made any trades, and we'd have been as cracked as the Liberty Bell if we had predicted a championship.
Our first game was with the Cleveland Browns. They murdered us by a score of 41-24. After the game I went into the dressing room thinking, Oh, Lord, is this going to be another one of those years? Everybody is in good shape for the first game and enthusiastic about the new season. Winning the opener can give you quite a lift. But losing to the Browns the way we did, I figured we had the staggers again.
And then we won seven in a row. Van Brocklin was great, and because of him we came from behind to win four or five of the games. Dutch would analyze the defense in the first half, then rip it apart in the second. The next time we played Cleveland they had us 15-7 at the half, and we beat them in the last few seconds when Cheewa—Bobby Walston—kicked a field goal. That was the year we played the Giants back to back and came from behind to beat them in both games.
The second Giant game is a good example of how well Dutch could adjust to a surprise defense. In the first half the Giants kept him on his back by blitzing. He hadn't been blitzed all year because everybody in the league knew that he would kill you if you tried it. But we weren't ready for it and they really shellacked him.
At half time Dutch, Buck Shaw, Charley Gauer, the receivers and the No. 2 quarterback, Sonny Jurgensen, all got together and started figuring out how to break up the blitz. The best weapon against it is a short pass to the tight end in behind the linebacker—a lookie. Another is a hitch to the spread end or the flanker, where he takes four steps, then looks back, and the quarterback hits him fast. A little safety-valve pattern with the halfback swinging out usually works pretty good, too. Another way to beat the blitz is with the quarterback dropping back real fast, and, since the defensive halfbacks are going to be playing your end or your flanker tight, your man has a good chance to out-run the defensive halfback on a fly.
We used all of these things and knocked the Giants out of their blitz. Of course, you have to know just when to use each one. You have to size up the defense in a split second and be quick with audibles, and Van was a master at this.
Maybe a half or three-quarters of a pro football game is played on audible signals today. The quarterback will go up to the line of scrimmage and see that the defense has changed radically. If he's good, he'll call an audible signal for a new play into the weakest spot of the new defense. We used a color system on the Eagles for calling audibles. Van would call out a color when we went into the huddle, and that would be the live color. If we came up to the line and he wanted to change the huddle call, Van would sing out the same color. That meant the next series of numbers he called would be a new play. If it wasn't the same color, we could forget the next numbers because the play called in the huddle was going to stand up.
If Dutch called the live color and then said "two two," that meant a hand-off to the halfback into the line, the first "two" being the back and the second "two" the hole. If he said "two eight," that meant a sweep on which I had to crack-back on the linebacker. If we were going to use a pass play off an audible, it was a number over 50. Since the Eagles have been pretty well shaken up by Joe Kuharich, the new head coach, I'm sure all of the signals have been changed.
I didn't like the 28 call much, because I'm not big enough to throw a crack-back block on a linebacker. The linebackers weigh 220 to 250, and when I block on one I have to hit him way down around the shoelaces. Otherwise I'm like a fly bouncing off a window pane.
We had a movie of me on a crack-back on a 28 call in my second year when I hit a linebacker chest high. He didn't even break stride. He ran right over me and left cleat marks on my chest that I had for a week. The linebacker was Galen Fiss of Cleveland, and after that I hit them real low.
The linebackers hate the crack-back because they get it low from the blind side and never see it coming, and they get hurt. I remember one game we played against Green Bay when they beat us 49-0. The play was a quick pitchout to Timmy Brown, and I had to crack-back on Dan Currie. Dan was coming hard after Timmy, and he wasn't looking for me. I hit him just right—knee high—and cut him down.
When the play was over he was lying on the ground, and he couldn't imagine what had hit him. He was holding his knee and hollering: "Cheap-shot artist!" But he didn't know who had done it until Ron Kramer, coming out on the field to help pick him up, said, "That wasn't a cheap shot, you idiot."
"Who did it?" Currie hollered.
I came over to him and said, "Are you all right, Dan? I didn't mean to hurt you." Then he really hollered.
He said, "Was that you, McDonald? I'll never live this down. The littlest runt in the game takes my leg off!"
I really felt bad about hurting Dan—he was a real good friend of mine—but pleased that I had finally knocked somebody down in this league.
I understand that back in the late '40s and early '50s there were quite a few head-hunters in the league, but there aren't many now, and most of them are rookies who learn better pretty soon. On the Eagles, if we spotted a head-hunter, we had what we called a gang bust-up and everybody took out after the head-hunter. When that play was over, he was more than likely on the ground hunting for his own head.
But as we got into the 1960 season we were not hunting head-hunters. We were beginning to sniff the first Eagle championship in 11 years. And we won it with what was probably the third-best club in the Eastern Conference. The Giants and the Browns, if you went down the rosters man for man, probably had better teams. But we had Van Brocklin and a spirit that no one else could touch. We had guys like Chuck Bednarik, who played both ways in four games and was great even at the age of 35.
Once we got on a train going to Washington for a game with the Redskins, and Chuck was walking ahead of me. I looked like a pygmy behind him. A couple of little old ladies were sitting in one of the chair cars when we came through, and one of them stopped Chuck.
"Excuse me," she said. "I have seen so many great big men come by here in the last few minutes. What is going on?"
"We are pro football players," Bednarik said. "We are going to Washington to play a game, ma'am." He was very polite.
She looked at me and smiled and said to her friend, "Isn't that nice? This man is taking his son with him to see him play."
I don't think I ever felt any more pressure than I did before the championship game with the Packers that year. Most people thought we had been lucky to win in the East, and they didn't give us much chance against the Packers. But we had confidence and we had Charley Gauer, who was coaching the offense and is one of the smartest men in football. For the championship game, Gauer came up with the maneuver that actually won the title. He noticed in movies of the Packers' games that one player always loafed coming down under a kick-off. I mean he never put out. That left a hole in one side of their defense. So Gauer designed a kickoff return where we sent two blockers after the next man inside of the loafer to widen the hole. The Packers scored on us late in the game to go ahead. Then they kicked off, and Gauer's play worked perfectly. Ted Dean shot through the hole and returned the kickoff 52 yards to set up what turned out to be the winning touchdown.
We had noticed, too, that Hank Gremminger, the back covering me, played me to the inside on slants and really worried about the inside. I caught a touchdown on him early in the game on a play to the inside and then out again when Gremminger committed himself and started to move with me.
Dutch retired after that year. I think he got a pretty bad deal because Bert Bell had persuaded him to play for the Eagles in the first place by telling him he would be the next head coach. Then the club backed down.
After that, age and injuries and bad luck caught up with the ball club. Sonny Jurgensen replaced Dutch and did a wonderful job, but he got hurt in the Playoff Bowl game in Miami after the 1961 season, and it took him a while to come back. Then he was hurt again in 1963, and King Hill took over. King is a good quarterback, but the coaches used me as a decoy instead of throwing into double coverage the way Van Brocklin and Jurgensen did. I remember in one game against the Giants I came back to the huddle after a play and said, "King, they've got a new boy in at the corner on my side and I can beat him deep." So King threw to me deep, and I caught the ball behind the new corner man for a touchdown. The same pattern was open all afternoon, but they were doubling on me, and King never threw it again.
I suppose the biggest shock of my life was finding out that I was going to be traded to Dallas. After my third or fourth year with the Eagles, I figured I was in Philadelphia to stay. The other boys would say, don't buy a house because as sure as you do you'll be traded. But I bought a house anyway and some other real estate in Philadelphia and made plans to go into business with some people there. The last thing in my mind was that I might be traded away from the Eagles.
Of course, Jurgensen was traded, too—to the Redskins. I was a little luckier than he was in the way I got the news. He walked into a delicatessen and a guy came up to him and said, "I hear on the radio that you're being traded to Washington." That was the way he first heard about it.
But at least Kuharich called me before it was announced. He asked me to come down to the Eagle office. He had said in the newspapers that he was going to call in each Eagle player and get his viewpoint on why the team had done so badly, so I thought that was what he wanted. I was mistaken.
"We have been offered a real good deal by another club," he told me, "but we are going to have to give up one of our players, and nobody will talk to us about anybody but you."
"Do you mind telling me who is so interested in me?" I asked him.
"All of them," he said, "but we have come to some pretty good terms with the Dallas Cowboys."
When he said that I thought, who is the coach, and then remembered: Tom Landry. I had played for Landry when he coached in a Pro Bowl game on the coast, and I was very impressed by him.
"Do you mind telling me who they are offering?" I asked, and he told me the three players the Cowboys were giving for me.
"How do you feel about it?" he said.
"I don't like it," I said. "It's not that I would mind playing with Dallas, because I think they are a coming ball club. But I've been in Philadelphia seven years. I've worked for a cigar company for two years, and now I have a TV show and a radio show, and I've just bought a home and invested in other real estate around here. I don't want it."
Then I figured if I was going to be traded, I would be better off with, say, the New York Giants or the Washington Redskins, because I could at least keep my cigar job. I didn't think I could if I went to Dallas.
So I said, "Do a lot of other ball clubs know you are willing to trade me? Like the Giants or the Redskins?"
"I've talked to them," he told me.
"Then you can give me a straight answer," I said.
"Well, we have sort of finalized this deal," he said. "We think we are going ahead with it."
So I said, "You mean it is already a deal."
"Close to it, yes," he said.
"I don't even know why you bothered to call me in here," I said. "You're going ahead with it whether I say yes or no."
"We just wanted to get your viewpoint," he said.
I went home and tried to analyze the trade. When I thought it out, I could see that I was the obvious one to go. You can find a receiver quicker than you can a running back like Timmy Brown or a quarterback like Sonny Jurgensen, and they couldn't trade Retzlaff because Pete was 32 or 33, and he probably had only a season or two left. That left McDonald. I knew it wasn't because of a feud with management. I had never had much trouble talking contract with the Eagles, and I didn't even know the new owner, Jerry Wolman, or Kuharich.
The contract bit had come up every year, and I would talk it over with Vince McNally, the Eagles' general manager. Usually we would agree pretty easily. The only time we had a real argument was in 1963, when I went to camp without signing. Jurgensen and King Hill did the same that year. By the way, if you go to camp unsigned, you're crazy if you scrimmage or play in exhibition games, because if you get hurt you're on your own and the club doesn't owe you a thing.
After I got to camp I told McNally I would wait a week, and if he did not have the contract I wanted by then, I would leave. I got as far as the lobby with my bags packed when Nick Skorich, the coach Kuharich replaced, saw me and sent for McNally, and we got it settled there in camp. After that Sonny and King walked out. Maybe they got the idea from me. But this had all blown over and, as far as I knew, no one held any resentment.
I started talking to the Cowboys the day after the trade was announced when Tex Schramm, their general manager, called me. We didn't get down to terms for about six weeks or so, after I had been to Dallas twice.
By now I was 29 years old, with maybe four or five years of good football left in me. Schramm told me Don Meredith, the Dallas quarterback—and a real good one, from what I have seen of him—did sort of a little dance in Landry's office when he found out that they had traded for me as well as for Buddy Dial, the Steelers' fine split end. I thought I might do a little dance myself in Dallas one of these days, with Dial to catch, too, and Meredith to throw, plus the good running the Cowboys have.
I began to like the idea of the trade. Trades sometimes do a lot for a ball player, and it was obvious the Eagles weren't going anywhere for one or two years. I was being traded to a contender. It can give you a lift to be traded up, because you respond to the quality of the team you are with.
Schramm and I did some more talking about contract terms. It is hard to say, "Look, I am a great football player and you know it, so I want a big contract." But you have to forget false modesty because you are not talking just for yourself. Other people are dependent on you.
So, while I know I am not Jimmy Brown or Jimmy Taylor, I know, too, that neither one of them can break up a game any quicker than I can. I mean you get six points for a long pass that scores just like you get six points if Brown breaks loose for a long run. And there are more long scoring passes than there are long scoring runs.
We kicked that around, and then Schramm and I got to the stage that reminds me a little bit of the pickoff play we used on the Eagles. You have to go as close as you can to the line between what you can do and what you can't. The football pickoff is very much like a basketball pickoff, where one guy gets in the way of a defender while he is trying to follow another guy and picks the defender off the man he is trying to cover.
In pro football the pick works well inside the 20. Say my defensive back is inside me, running with me, and I'm crossing deep with Retzlaff, who has a defender on him, too. Where we cross, I may be in the way of the guy covering Retzlaff and force him to break stride or something and that lets Pete go free for a minute. That's when the pass is thrown.
You can't touch the defensive back once the ball is in the air, but except for grabbing him you can do almost anything you want to before it is thrown. But if the referee thinks you hit the defender intentionally to free another receiver he will throw the flag. The pickoff isn't legal, even if we try to make it look that way. This is something you try to use down in the end zone or inside the 20-yard line because it is pretty tough down there, and crowded, and you can pick off someone for sure.
We used it on the Eagles, the Cowboys use it some and the Giants use it a lot. A team is crazy not to use it because it can get you six big ones.
The dealing with Schramm reminded me of it a little because it is a question of who can outwait who. If you wait too long and hit the defensive back you get a penalty, but if your timing is perfect and you force him to break off from the man he is covering you get a score. So with Schramm and me, it was a question of waiting. Then we met again and sparred some more. I tossed in the idea of trading me east if we couldn't come to terms. As I had told Kuharich, it would be easy for me to play for the Giants or Redskins and keep my old jobs. Schramm wasn't buying that. "If you don't play for Dallas this year," he said, "you won't play for anyone."
The waiting came to an end a couple of weeks ago. I signed a contract that I am happy with. Now if somebody will throw the football this way, I'll try to catch some passes for Big D.