Football is quickly becoming America's National Pastime for a myriad of reasons. Some love the collisions while others prefer the big play. But what tends to draw the most admirers is the heart and determination of the players who aren't the biggest or the fastest. Players such as Tommy McDonald. As an Eagle, he set the NFL world on fire with his determination and moxie. His never-say-die attitude contributed mightily to leading his team to the 1960 NFL championship.
Tommy McDonald was born on July 26, 1934 in Roy, New Mexico, a town of just over 700 at the time. Seeking any advantage he could, his father insisted that he repeat the eighth grade so that he could have another year to grow. He started at quarterback as a freshman at Roy High School before transferring to Highland High School in Albuquerque. As a senior, he averaged over 20 yards per carry while setting the state scoring record with 157 points. Beyond the gridiron, he also set the city scoring record in basketball and earned five gold medals in the state track meet.
His life changed forever in an All-Star football game when Bruce Drake, the basketball coach at the University of Oklahoma, noticed him. He talked McDonald into taking a tour of the campus and connected him with Bud Wilkinson, the Sooners' football coach. Before he knew it, Tommy McDonald from tiny Roy, New Mexico had a football scholarship in hand to mighty Oklahoma.
After two years spent either toiling on the freshman team or learning the intricacies of the running back position, by the time he was a junior in 1955 Tommy McDonald was ready to make a difference in the Sooners' offense. Oklahoma entered that year riding a 19-game win streak and were searching for a long-sought national championship. Tommy McDonald contributed significantly to the Sooners' cause as he averaged 6.27 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground. He also proved to be a natural at the option pass and became the first player in school history to throw a touchdown pass in every game that season. Due in part to McDonald's greatness on the field, the Sooners went undefeated and won the national championship.
McDonald was more well-rounded the following year as he combined for 1,135 total yards, and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground and four through the air. The Sooners again went undefeated that year, winning their second consecutive national championship. In three years on the varsity, Tommy McDonald never experienced a loss. He placed third in the Heisman voting and earned the Maxwell Award when his college career came to an end and entered the 1957 NFL Draft as a coveted two-time All-American.
Despite the accolades, Tommy McDonald had to wait until the third round before getting drafted by the Eagles. He was a running back for much of the first half of the season until fate intervened. Starting wideout Bill Stribling went down with a knee injury and Tommy McDonald took his place, never looking back.
In those days, slot receivers were not in vogue. Standing 5'9" and weighing a lean 175 lbs, Tommy McDonald needed quick feet to avoid imposing defensive backs. Luckily he had that in abundance. Over the next three years, McDonald caught many cornerbacks flatfooted as he befuddled them with his nimble feet.
By 1960, he had become one of the game's best receivers and was in the middle of five straight Pro Bowl seasons. That year, he caught 37 passes for 801 yards and 13 touchdowns as his team trudged its way to the NFL Championship. On that cold, late December afternoon, the aging Eagles were faced with the daunting task of defeating the Green Bay Packers, a surging bunch that was destined to rule the NFL for the next decade. The Eagles were determined to hold off Green Bays' impending dynasty for one more year.
The Packers posted a 6-0 lead midway through the second quarter before the Eagles' offense woke up from its slumber. Tommy McDonald broke open the game with a 35-yard touchdown reception from retiring quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. Back and forth the game went, with neither team willing to give up an inch. Every play mattered. But despite their aches and pains, the Eagles prevailed 17-13. Impressed with his effort, Vince Lombardi stated after the game that "If I had 11 Tommy McDonalds, I'd win a championship every year".
Empowered by his new status as a world champion, Tommy McDonald recorded his best season the following year, leading the league in receiving yards (1,144), yards per game (81.7) and touchdown receptions (13). Despite the team's recent struggles in the standings, McDonald recorded his fourth straight season with ten or more touchdown receptions in 1962, earning his fifth straight Pro Bowl invitation. Two years later, the Eagles traded him to Dallas.
The Long, Winding Road to Canton
Even though he switched from flanker to split end, Tommy McDonald's transition to Dallas was seamless. In his lone season as a Cowboy, he recorded 46 receptions for 612 yards and two touchdowns. While those were decent numbers, the Cowboys traded him to the Rams the following offseason when they drafted Bob Hayes, an Olympic gold medalist as a sprinter.
At the relatively ancient age of 31, Tommy McDonald was in the twilight of his career. However, under the glow of the Southern California sun, McDonald's stats began to soar. He thrived on the West Coast, catching 67 passes for 1,036 yards and nine touchdowns, earning his sixth and final Pro Bowl invitation. It would be his last great year as a professional athlete. After spending one more year in Los Angeles, he played for two more years with two more teams, the Falcons and the Browns, before retiring following the 1968 season.
In retirement, he returned to Philadelphia where he owned an oil painting and plaque business. He spent his days doting on his wife and four kids while rabidly supporting his beloved Eagles, becoming a familiar presence in team activities and fan engagements. But despite his impressive stats, he failed to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For 30 years he waited for the call.
By 1998, famed Philadelphia sportswriter Ray Didinger had become impatient and led a campaign to get his childhood hero elected into the Hall of Fame. The scheme worked and that summer the crowd in Canton, Ohio was treated to one of the most unique induction speeches of all time. They saw McDonald dancing with a boombox lifted to his ear, chest-bumping other inductees and catching his bust just to test his catching ability. the crowd was in guffaws from start to finish. Tommy McDonald died on September 24, 2018 at the age of 84.