With the emergence of his closest friend, Jurgensen, as Eagle quarterback, McDonald last year began to quiet down in the huddle. "I think he's finally got the word that one or two of us, myself included, disapprove of having two quarterbacks calling plays," says End Pete Retzlaff. He added with a laugh, "So what he does now is run back ahead of us and talk to Sonny before we get into the huddle."
There are two recognized ways to defend against McDonald: play him light (close) and he'll run around you to make the catch. Play him loose (or deep) and he'll cut in front of you to make the catch. But when you are able to stick with him step for step, as Night Train Lane of the Lions sometimes does, and you have the predictable height advantage, then presto! he still makes the catch. He has the balance of a gymnast and as Tom Brookshier, the Eagles' All-Pro defensive back, says, "The little rat is strong as a bull." In an exhibition basketball game last winter, he picked up the 275-pound Jim Parker bodily and spun him over his shoulders, then set him down light as you please. He has never been critically hurt. "I relax," McDonald says, "when I'm hit by a guy I can't run over, which is most anybody in this league."
McDonald, however, is sometimes intrepid to a fault. He runs pass patterns as though he were exploring uncharted territory. On the sidelines Coach Nick Skorich blanches when he sees McDonald suddenly break a pattern. Compared with the exacting Retzlaff, McDonald doesn't run patterns at all. Often, in his great desire to catch the ball, he hooks into somebody else's ground when he is supposed to be acting as decoy. Van Brocklin found this distracting—"he made me throw interceptions"—but learned to take the occasional bitter with the surfeit of sweet. Jurgensen says that it is all in getting used to him. "You've got to watch him close, learn to anticipate his moves." But this is something that not even Jurgensen can always do.
A second deficit, by some accounts, is McDonald's bent for ribbing defensive halfbacks. "He's a heckler," says Ben Scotti, ex-Washington Redskin corner-back who now plays with the Eagles. " 'What's the matter, out of shape, Scotti?' he'd say when he caught one on me. 'Is that as hard as you can hit?' He made faces at me from the huddle." Last year Scotti gave McDonald one of his worst days as a receiver—two completions—but in the next game with Washington, McDonald caught the winning touchdown pass in the final 16 seconds. As they came together in the end zone, McDonald loosed an indelicate "Haw, Haw!" Scotti, naturally, jumped him.
McDonald the Man is often pensive and thoughtful and not the least irresponsible. His affluence is staggering: $17,000 with the Eagles; endorsements and promotion money from Phillies and McGregor Sportswear; real estate holdings with his father, Clyde, in Albuquerque; directorship of an Oklahoma City suburban bank. He is very close to his family. The elder McDonalds and his brother Clyde Ray wore out three automobiles driving to Norman, Oklahoma on football weekends to watch him play.
McDonald was small from birth, asthmatic as a child, but his father's athletic ambitions for his sons soon awakened in McDonald the great energy that has marked his young life. As a boy in Roy he would clomp around in the shoes of star athletes who visited the house. In class he would become so possessed with energy he would walk on his hands across the desks. "His teachers were very wise," says Mr. McDonald. "When they saw he was building up to a bursting point, they'd send him out on the basketball court to work it off." His father made him run to school and his mother made him eat his oatmeal "or get his jaws boxed." Church was a habit. He played basketball, baseball, ran track and was a football star from the time he was in junior high school. Mr. McDonald is convinced Tommy could have made the big leagues as a ballplayer. Clyde Ray, whose own athletic career was shortened by an auto accident, is just as sure he could have been a pro basketball player. His football coach in Albuquerque said he was sure of only one thing concerning McDonald: he despised sitting on the bench.
At Oklahoma, McDonald was used principally as a running back. He also threw a good running pass and played defense. "He had too much talent for us to use him just to catch passes," said Bud Wilkinson. It was Wilkinson who first convinced McDonald he was "big enough for the college game, and it was Wilkinson who suggested that the Eagles "use him properly. Get him out of harm's way, out on the flank, and he'll do fine." McDonald's respect for Wilkinson is awesome. "I kept my mouth shut around that man."
There have been few disappointments in the McDonald history. It reads like Tommy in Wonderland and the only thing that seems to add realism is his divorce. He married Miss Oklahoma, Ann Campbell, in 1957. They parted three years later.
McDonald has an abiding pride in his abilities, and a small man's complex about his failures. When he misses passes he becomes inordinately upset. "The only time I ever saw him cry was after a game we'd won when he didn't catch his share," says Van Brocklin. The day Scotti held him to two completions, McDonald declared: "I'm washed up. I'm too old [he was 27]. Another afternoon like that and I'll retire." He is perplexed by slights, real or imaginary. When Dave Baker, an ex-Oklahoma teammate, fractured his jaw with an elbow swipe in a game in San Francisco three years ago, McDonald said in wonder, "I can't hardly believe Dave would do that...he's always been a good churchgoer." He still can't understand why the Albuquerque Letterman's Club passed him up as guest speaker in favor of Paul Hornung.
The fact is, of course, that slights rarely come his way. The other day he made a date to appear at Wanamaker's Department Store for the sale of his book, They Pay Me to Catch Footballs, but he forgot practice would carry him past the scheduled appearance. When he arrived, an hour late, he was still in uniform, dirty, unshaved, unbathed. But he was there, just as he had promised. He made a little speech. He sold and autographed 141 books. He made some more money. He made a lot more friends. The store was jammed.