I started the rest of my first year, but didn't learn a great deal. Then, the following year, the Eagles signed the man who taught me what the game is all about.
Dutch Van Brocklin wasn't the most diplomatic guy in the world. He was friendly over a cup of coffee, but a hard man on the field. The first time I worked with him in practice and came back after running a pattern he just stared at me for a minute. Then he said, " McDonald, you're terrible. You may be the worst I ever saw. You need more than help. You may need donations." Funny man, Van Brocklin.
Dutch was working with all of us. He actually taught Pete Retzlaff how to catch a football. He made Pete work at receiving the ball in every conceivable position, and today Pete's a fine receiver with good hands.
We had to get used to the way Dutch threw. There was a big difference between his delivery and Sonny's. He threw a soft ball, Sonny threw hard. In that way Sonny is like Unitas and Bobby Layne and John Brodie and Billy Wade. Passers like Van Brocklin would be Eddie LeBaron. Y.A. Tittle and Otto Graham.
We were not a top team that year or the next, but we were developing that spirit, cohesion, togetherness—call it what you like—which can make a so-so team a lot better than it looks on paper. In camp one day in 1959 I was in the whirlpool bath and a lineman shoved my head under just for laughs. He weighed 280; I wasn't strong enough to shove his hand away. He didn't know that I could hold my breath a long time—something like two and a half minutes. I stayed under a couple of minutes, then let a little air out. When he saw the bubbles coming up he panicked. He grabbed me by the hair and hauled me out. I leaned over, real limp, and he hollered, "Tommy, speak to me!" It scared hell out of him, but everybody else had a good laugh.
Things like that pulled the club closer together. On the field I was getting a book on the defensive backs. I was learning that a good many of them talk to you and try to distract you. Some would give me the needle. Others would help me up after tackling me and say, "Nice catch, but don't work so hard."
The roughest back for me, whether he speaks or not, is Night Train Lane of the Lions. He's a wonderful guy personally and I like him, but he has so much speed you need five or six seconds to throw enough moves into him to get away—and you almost never get that much time. He plays you up close, maybe six yards away. Any time a back can play you that tight, you're in trouble. It means he has as much speed as you do, or more, on the deep passes, and is taking away the short ones. He can't afford to make many mistakes, playing in that close, but Night Train has so much speed he can outrun his mistakes. He is tall, too, and can jump like a jackrabbit.
When I am playing against the Giants and Erich Barnes is covering me, he will give me anything up front to make sure I don't get the long bomb on him. But when you catch one up front, he'll come in and really try to rack you up. figuring if he can sting you a little you won't want to catch the ball so much next time. You will be aware of him.
Johnny Sample, with the Redskins now, has real good speed, but he is not as tall as Barnes or Night Train Lane, and he will try to play you real short. He knows he can run with you, and he will depend on his speed to stay with you wherever you go.
Jerry Stovall of the Cards is a speedball, and so is Roosevelt Taylor of the Bears. They haven't been around as long as Night Train, though. You can do things to them that you can't do to him. Most of the defensive backs are fast, of course. A few aren't. Tom Brookshier, when he was with the Eagles, was one of the most amazing. If the receivers had known how slow he really was! But Tomcat was probably the best defensive back the Eagles ever had. He was tough. He really worked on the receivers. Just as the ball was snapped, he liked to sneak up and belt an end to mess up his pattern. After he's had a few of those belts an end starts to look for them. It takes something away, to put it mildly.