Update: A public viewing will be held for Tommy McDonald on Friday in King of Prussia. Details are below.
Tommy McDonald, the exuberant, epoxy-handed flanker whose game-breaking speed and irrepressible spirit made him the most popular member of the NFL-champion 1960 Eagles, died Monday. He was 84.
The announcement of his death came in a statement from David Baker, president and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which inducted Mr. McDonald in 1998. Mr. McDonald had been suffering from dementia-related illnesses for some time, but the cause of death was not yet known.
"Tommy McDonald lived life like he played the game of football," Baker said. "He was charismatic, passionate and had fun. He was such a character. Heaven is a happier place today."
Boyish, blond, and perpetually smiling, Mr. McDonald at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds was at the time of his induction the smallest player in the Hall. But he was also among the toughest. The last player to perform without a face mask, he rarely missed a game and made a habit of popping immediately to his feet after a particularly hard tackle. When NFL Films ranked pro football's all-time tough guys, the ex-Eagles receiver was No. 12.
"I don't like to let some big guy think he can hurt me just because I'm small," he explained in 1964. "If he gives me his best lick and doesn't cave me in, he gets a little discouraged. I get a kick out of proving there's a place for a runt in pro ball."
Mr. McDonald caught 84 touchdown passes in his 12 NFL seasons, seven of which he spent in Philadelphia. After general manager Joe Kuharich infuriated this city's fans by trading him in 1964, he played in Dallas, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Atlanta.
His best seasons and 66 of those TDs came here, where as the favorite target of Norm Van Brocklin and Sonny Jurgensen he twice was named a first-team all-pro. In 1961, he led the NFL in both TD catches (13) and receiving yards (1,144).
"Tommy McDonald played the game with a passion and energy that was second to none," Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement. "He will be remembered as one of the most exciting players ever to play his position, but what really separated him and made him so unique was the infectious personality and charisma that he brought to his everyday life. He had a genuine love for this team, for the Philadelphia community, for the fans, and of course his family. He was a man of character, both on and off the field, who exemplified all the qualities that we hope to represent as an organization. He was a champion, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, and one of the most genuine individuals I have ever met. On behalf of the Philadelphia Eagles, I would like to express our deepest condolences to the entire McDonald family."
With speed, enthusiasm and a unique style — besides spurning a face mask for much of his career, he always played in short sleeves–– Mr. McDonald was the favorite of Franklin Field's sellout crowds. And it was there that his two most memorable moments occurred.
On Oct. 4, 1959, one week after he'd broken his jaw and had it wired shut, Mr. McDonald caught touchdown passes of 33, 55 and 19 yards and scored on an 81-yard punt return in a 49-21 rout of the New York Giants.
A year later, in the second quarter of the Eagles' 17-13 victory over Green Bay in the NFL title game, he caught a 35-yard scoring pass. Hit as he reached the end zone, he slid into a snow bank and was hoisted to his feet by dozens of delirious fans.
In college, the New Mexico native was one of only a handful of players who never lost a game. He was a two-time all-American running back at Oklahoma, and his Sooners teams went 31-0 in three seasons (1954-56) and captured two national championships.
Mr. McDonald won the 1956 Maxwell Award as the nation's outstanding player and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. But despite his accomplishments and physical gifts, his size scared off several NFL clubs.
>>PHOTO GALLERY: Tommy McDonald through the years
It wasn't until the third round of the 1957 draft that Philadelphia chose him with the 31st overall pick. The Eagles, who had selected running backs Clarence Peaks and Billy Ray Barnes in the first two rounds, quickly converted Mr. McDonald into a wide receiver and kick returner.
"Being a running back helped me tremendously," he once said of the transition. "It taught me how to get to the end zone."
Before retiring in 1968, he amassed 495 receptions for 8,410 yards and was a six-time Pro Bowler. When the Hall of Fame finally called in 1998, Mr. McDonald marked his induction with one of the most enthusiastic, heartfelt and bizarre acceptance speeches ever.
Using a boom box for accompaniment, he joyfully danced, joked, screamed and careened around the stage. At one point, he tossed his commemorative bust high into the air.
"God almighty, I feel good," he said.
Mischief and a reputation for speed
Mr. McDonald was born on July 26, 1934, on a small farm in Roy, a town of 300 on a grassy mesa in northeast New Mexico.
As an energetic, mischievous youngster with little interest in schoolwork, he liked to speed around town on a bicycle his electrician father had equipped with a motor. He crashed it one day and lost the tip of his left thumb, a handicap that didn't affect his ability to catch a football.
By 1950, when the family moved 200 miles to Albuquerque, he already had a reputation. When his father visited nearby towns, he often bet the locals that his son could outrace any of theirs.
"I earned Dad a nice piece of change that way," Mr. McDonald said.
In high school, he set state scoring records in football and basketball. In his senior year, he also won five gold medals at the state track meet — finishing first in the 100-yard dash, 220, low hurdles and a pair of relays.
"I was always fast," he said. "With a favoring wind, I would occasionally do the 100 in 9.7 seconds."
Still, only New Mexico and Southern Methodist initially offered him an athletic scholarship. But when an Oklahoma basketball coach saw him play in an all-star football game, he recommended that the Sooners' football coach, Bud Wilkinson, sign him.
As an Oklahoma running back, Mr. McDonald was a big part of both the Sooners' 47-game winning streak, still the longest in college football history, and an offense that twice led the nation in scoring. He had a combined 33 touchdowns as a junior and senior.
Though Oklahoma relied heavily on the run, Wilkinson added a few options in 1956 that employed Mr. McDonald as both a receiver and passer.
"I would have to put [Wilkinson] in the same category as Vince Lombardi," Mr. McDonald once said. "He was not only a great, great motivator but also an excellent `X and O' guy."
Mr. McDonald said he thought his stature would exclude him from pro ball until he saw Doak Walker playing flanker for the Detroit Lions.
"After that, I thought maybe I could live out there," he said
When Eagles coach Hugh Devore asked Wilkinson for an assessment of the draftee, the Sooners coach said, "I don't think Tommy is big enough to make it as a running back. But, man, he'd make one excellent flanker."
As an Eagles rookie, he sat until wide receiver Bill Stribling couldn't play in Week 9.
"This is it," Mr. McDonald said to himself. "I either show something here or screw the whole thing up."
He showed plenty, catching touchdown passes of 61 and 36 yards. Over the next four games, Mr. McDonald caught nine more passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns. By 1962, he was on Sports Illustrated's cover, touted as having "the best hands in pro football." That same year, he authored a book, They Pay Me to Catch Footballs.
Never a precise route runner, Mr. McDonald simply outraced many defensive backs.
"Tommy doesn't have to run a pass pattern against a defensive back," Van Brocklin said. "He just beats him."
He played with a flair and enthusiasm that were unusual in that buttoned-down football era. Often, after touchdowns, he danced and leaped into the arms of his quarterback. Van Brocklin said he frequently had to shut him up in huddles. And he once showed up to a book signing in uniform.
"He was from another world," said Jurgensen, a close friend.
Tommy and Ray
That and the big plays made him beloved by Eagles fans such as Ray Didinger, the future sportswriter who decades later would champion his idol's Hall of Fame case and write a play about their relationship, Tommy and Me.
The two met at training camp in Hershey when Mr. McDonald allowed the young fan to carry his helmet.
"He got so used to seeing me that he'd pick me out of the crowd," Didinger recalled. "He'd say, `This little guy is my guy.' And he'd hand me the helmet."
Didinger and many other Philadelphians cried in March 1964 when Kuharich traded his hero to Dallas for three players.
Mr. McDonald still had something in the tank and with the Rams in 1965 had a career-best 67 catches. He added another 55 a year later but by 1968, at age 34, he was finished. At the time, he was No. 2 in touchdowns among receivers, No. 4 in yards, No. 6 in receptions.
Retirement was difficult for the hyperactive ex-football star. He and wife, Patricia, raised four children in King of Prussia, and he founded a successful business providing portraits for athletes and others. And he was an enthusiastic endorser for all sorts of Philadelphia-area companies.
But none of that was a sufficient outlet for the enthusiasm that bubbled inside.
"God only gave that kind of energy to one person," he once said. "And that's Tommy McDonald."
All that energy came pouring out in Canton on Aug. 24, 1998, when after 2 ½ decades of frustrated waiting, he finally was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A jubilant Mr. McDonald danced to disco music, chest-bumped other inductees, told a few wince-producing jokes about his wife and, at times, could barely catch his breath.
"I was the only one who knew what he was planning to do. He didn't tell his family," Didinger said. "For four months, I tried as hard as I could to say, 'Tommy, you don't want to do this. Just get up there and read a speech like everyone else.' We went back and forth, and finally I said, 'Tommy you're going to look like an idiot.' That was painful for me to say. Then he told me why he wanted to do it and I understood. He goes out and does what he does, and it was CNN's play of the day. The audience really liked it. He pulled it off."
Though the Eagles have never retired his No. 25 jersey, Mr. McDonald was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame in 1988.
"I was always in the right place at the right time," he said more than once. "I never lost a game in college. Then I arrived in Philadelphia, where they had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. I stayed healthy. I missed only three games in my career. Life's been awesome."
A public viewing for McDonald will be held at Mother of Divine Providence Church on 333 Allendale Rd., King of Prussia, on Friday, Sept. 28 from 4 to 8 p.m.