Obituaries

Tommy McDonald, Hall of Fame receiver for the Eagles

NEW YORK — Tommy McDonald, the undersized but speedy and durable Hall of Fame wide receiver who helped propel the Philadelphia Eagles to the 1960 NFL championship, died Monday. He was 84.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the death on the its website. Details were not disclosed.

At 5 feet 9 inches and 175 pounds, Mr. McDonald was a star running back in high school but doubted he was big enough to play major college football. He nonetheless became an All-American with an unbeaten national-champion Oklahoma team, and then he wondered if he could vie with burly pro players.

Advertisement

But Mr. McDonald played for 12 years in the National Football League, and when he retired after the 1968 season, his 84 touchdown receptions were the second-highest in league history, behind the Green Bay Packers’ Don Hutson, who had 99.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Mr. McDonald was famously tough. He was one of the last NFL players who refused to wear a face mask, fearing it would obstruct his vision, and he missed only three games to injury in his first 11 seasons. He caught three touchdown passes and ran a punt back 81 yards for a score against the New York Giants in 1959 while playing with his jaw wired shut a week after he had broken it.

He also had relatively small hands and had lost the tip of his left thumb in a motorbike accident as a teenager. But he had a knack for holding on to the football and honed the sensitivity of his fingertips by rubbing them on something rough and biting the nails to get the blood flowing.

He was voted to six Pro Bowls, five times as an Eagle and once with the Los Angeles Rams. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

Mr. McDonald caught 13 touchdown passes, averaging 20.5 yards per reception, in the 1960 regular season. Then came a matchup at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field in the NFL title game against the Packers, whom Vince Lombardi was molding into an NFL dynasty.

Advertisement

With the Eagles trailing favored Green Bay by 6-0 midway through the first quarter, Mr. McDonald caught a 22-yard pass from quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, then hauled in a 35-yard touchdown throw on the next play. The Eagles went on to a 17-13 victory, capturing their first league championship in 11 years.

Van Brocklin, who had been a brilliant passer with the Los Angeles Rams and was closing out his Hall of Fame career as an Eagle, tutored Mr. McDonald and other receivers in the art of running pass patterns.

“We would go over all the moves: outs, corners, posts, hooks, pitchouts, centers, crosses, everything,” Mr. McDonald said in a 1964 article for Sports Illustrated. “When we made mistakes, Van would run the patterns himself.”

Van Brocklin had thrown to such star receivers as Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch with the Rams. “But if I had to pick one guy to throw the ball to with the game on the line, I’d pick McDonald,” he was quoted as saying by Ray Didinger in “The Eagles Encyclopedia” (2005). “I knew somehow the little bugger would get open and catch the football.”

Mr. McDonald led the NFL in touchdown catches, with 13, and in receiving yards, with 1,144, in 1961, when Sonny Jurgensen took over as quarterback following Van Brocklin’s retirement.

Advertisement

The Eagles traded McDonald to the Dallas Cowboys in 1964 for a kicker and two undistinguished linemen, but he had a lot of football left in him.

After one season with the Cowboys, Mr. McDonald went to his sixth Pro Bowl in the first of his two years with the Rams, then played for the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns, retiring after the 1968 season. He amassed 8,410 yards in receptions for 17 yards per catch.

Thomas Franklin McDonald was born on July 26, 1934, in Roy, Okla., a cattle-ranching town. His family moved to Albuquerque and he excelled in high school football, basketball, and track.

Bud Wilkinson, the Oklahoma coach, took a chance on Mr. McDonald and installed him at halfback. He played on three consecutive unbeaten Sooner teams and was a consensus All-American as a senior in 1956, when he ran for 853 yards, an average of 7.2 yards a carry, and 12 touchdowns. He also caught 4 touchdown passes.

“He figures any play that doesn’t go for a touchdown is a failure,” Wilkinson told The Daily Oklahoman.

Mr. McDonald finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. But he had to wait until the third round of the 1957 NFL draft before the Eagles selected him.

And he had to wait 30 years before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

‘‘Oh, baby!’’ Mr. 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 hysterics and histrionics. Mr. 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 David Baker said. ‘‘He was such a character. Heaven is a happier place today.’’

After leaving football, he owned a business in which artists painted portraits on commission; athletes and businessmen were frequent subjects.

For all his achievements, Mr. McDonald knew his limitations.

“The biggest thing I have learned is not to struggle with the big boys,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated. “Whichever way a tackler wants to take me is the way I am perfectly happy to go. I fall like 175 pounds of spaghetti.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.