By Peter Gleason
Tommy McDonald, who teamed with quarterback Norm Van Brocklin to help the Eagles win the 1960 NFL championship, has died. He was 84.
His death was announced by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Details were not disclosed.
McDonald and Van Brocklin combined on one of the most memorable touchdowns in franchise history, a 35-yard reception on Dec. 26, 1960 at Franklin Field, that helped the Eagles to a 17-13 win over Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in the NFL title game.
It was the team’s third championship and the only championship game a Lombardi-coached team lost.
“You can’t go any higher,” McDonald said in 2005 as the Eagles prepped for a Super Bowl appearance. “We were at the top of the hill looking down yelling, ‘Hello! Nobody expected us to be here.”
McDonald was a two-time All-American from Oklahoma who played 12 NFL seasons for five teams and was a six-time Pro Bowl selection. When he retired in 1968, he ranked second in league history in touchdown catches, fourth in yards receiving and sixth in receptions.
But the 5-7, 175-pound McDonald had to wait 30 years before becoming the smallest player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Oh, baby!” McDonald shouted in Canton, Ohio on Aug. 1, 1998. “Do I look excited, like I just won the lottery or the jackpot? Yes! I’m in the Hall of Fame!”
His induction speech was equal parts hilarity and histrionics. McDonald told jokes and tossed his 25-pound bronze bust in the air. He pulled out a radio and danced to disco music — all on the steps of the hallowed hall.
“Tommy McDonald lived life like he played the game of football. He was charismatic, passionate and had fun,” Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said. “He was such a character. Heaven is a happier place today.”
In seven seasons with the Eagles, McDonald had 287 receptions for 5,499 yards, with a per-catch average of 19.2 yards. He had 66 touchdowns in 88 games, and No. 25 went to the Pro Bowl five straight seasons (1959-63).
“Tommy McDonald played the game with a passion and energy that was second to none,” Eagles owner 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.”
He was traded to Dallas in 1964 and dealt the next season to the Los Angeles Rams. Determined to show he could still be a force in the league, McDonald had a solid season with a career-best 67 receptions for 1,036 yards and nine TDs and earned another trip to the Pro Bowl.
A running back at Oklahoma under Bud Wilkinson, McDonald was an All-American in 1955 and 1956. He never experienced a loss with the Sooners, winning 31 straight games, part of Oklahoma’s 47-game run.
In 1956, McDonald finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Paul Hornung of Notre Dame and Johnny Majors of Tennessee.
Amid rumblings he was too small to play in the NFL, the Eagles drafted McDonald in the third round in 1957.
He was used primarily on punts and kick returns early his rookie season, before being inserted as a flanker against the Washington Redskins midway through the year. McDonald scored two touchdowns, including a 61-yarder that late NFL commissioner Bert Bell reportedly called “one of the greatest catches I have ever seen in pro football.”
The next season, McDonald set a franchise record with seven catches for 237 yards receiving in a game against the Giants and went on to finish with 64 receptions for a league-leading 1,144 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Born in New Mexico, McDonald’s family moved from the small town of Roy to Albuquerque before his sophomore year in high school. He developed into a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and track.