Tommy McDonald is one of my favorite players of all time.
It's not because of what he did on the field. While the numbers say he was a very good football player (when he retired in 1968, he ranked sixth all-time in receptions, fourth in receiving yards and second in touchdown catches), I wasn't alive when he played, and today, you can barely find grainy YouTube videos of him, beyond some black-and-white footage from his days at Oklahoma. No, the reason I consider McDonald -- whose death at the age of 84 was announced Monday -- a personal hero is because of the speech he gave when he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 1998.
Holy lord, this was a thing of beauty.
Most Hall of Fame speeches are touching. Players talk about their upbringing. Maybe a former coach who pushed them. Or maybe they talk about the love of their life. It really can range. McDonald, whose 12-year career as an NFL receiver included seven seasons with the Eagles and shorter stints with the Cowboys, Rams, Falcons and Browns, had an enthusiasm for life and never took himself too seriously. His speech -- delivered with Ric Flair-level enthusiasm and peppered with the Catskills-esque humor of someone appearing on a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast -- demonstrated this in the extreme.
McDonald took his Hall of Fame bust and tossed it like it was a Nerf football, much to the dismay and amusement of onlookers. He went for classic putdowns and dad humor that flirted with the boundaries of good taste. (Sample line: "Move over, Ronald McDonald, there's another McDonald in Canton!") Watching the over-the-top speech -- it also featured McDonald dancing to the Bee Gees, which he played on a portable boombox that he'd brought onstage, and ended with him vigorously chest-bumping the other members of his class -- one might wonder if it was for real. But, as former players who knew him well would assure me whenever I had the chance to ask about him, that was Mr. McDonald: a ball of energy who soaked up life. (Yes, I took to calling him Mr. McDonald out of deference and respect, similar to the way Dom DeLuise referred to Dean Martin as "Mr. Martin" in those famed "Cannonball Run" gag reels, God love him.)
McDonald got me. Anybody who could go out there and make a warm-hearted mockery of the Hall of Fame proceedings was my kind of guy. He seemed like a long-lost uncle even before I had a chance to meet him. When I sought him out during enshrinement weekend at Canton, Ohio, about 10 years ago, I was not disappointed.
The main hotel used for the event housed a conference room with helmets for the Hall of Famers to sign. And if you were lucky, you could grab a few moments with some of the all-time greats as they strolled the halls. When I saw McDonald, I whisked him into an adjoining conference room and got down to business. What inspired that speech?
"Well, Adam," McDonald said -- oh my God, we were becoming best friends! -- before pausing and grabbing my arm. "Whoa, tiger. I'm glad I didn't have to play against you back in the day!"
Humblebrag aside, Mr. McDonald explained that he wanted to enjoy the moment. He wasn't sure if the call to the Hall was ever going to happen, and when it did, he was determined to have some fun. Besides, if he didn't use humor, he explained, he would have instead broken down and cried. I get that.
When I went to the enshrinement ceremony the weekend that I met him, there was McDonald, giving a chest bump to nearly everybody as they were introduced. I mean, here was a guy in his late 70s chest-bumping guys like Marcus Allen, Richard Dent and the like. It was amazing.
Mr. McDonald loved football, and he didn't care who knew about it. I loved him. And each year I went back to Canton, I made sure to spend some time with him. His wife would be by his side and smile as he recounted stories from his glory days with the Eagles and Rams. "Oh, you're from Los Angeles, tiger? Let me tell you about ..." Being around him was always a good time, like listening to an endless iTunes playlist of stories on shuffle, with no repeats. He would just drop one new hit after another.
As the years went by, McDonald stopped going to the Hall of Fame ceremonies, and you would kind of get a pit in your stomach, thinking about his absence. As I sit here myself trying to use humor to keep from breaking down, I will remember the fun and the stories that he shared.
Godspeed, Tommy; I hope St. Peter is ready for a chest bump as you enter the pearly gates.