One of the key players for the Oklahoma Sooners during their 47-game winning streak was running back Tommy McDonald. From 1954-56, McDonald and the Sooners went 31-0. During his tenure at Oklahoma, McDonald was a two-time All-American and finished third in the 1956 Heisman voting. He went on to play 12 years in the National Football League with the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998. ESPN Classic's Phillip Lee recently got in touch with McDonald.
Phillip Lee: What are you doing these days?
Tommy McDonald: I'm enjoying life. It is fantastic. It is absolutely marvelous. The big guy upstairs has always let me be at the right place at the right time. I get up in the morning, click my heels, salute my wife and that's it.
PL: Do you play golf or do any activities?
TM: I'm not a good golfer, but I like my team to have a good time. I'd rather that they have a good time and I just entertain them. Whoever hits a good shot, that's great. We play best ball and they'll use mine seven or eight times out of the 18 holes. That's it and Sunday's I bend my knees for the big guy.
PL: What is Tommy McDonald Enterprises?
TM: It's a company that did portraits and plaques. I did portraits for the Heisman winners. I don't paint them myself. I have two artists who work for me and they do all the painting. I'm sorta retired now. It was a great business. We've done portraits for schools that include Oklahoma, Nebraska and Maryland. We also used to do it for the baseball all-star game. It was a fantastic business.
PL: How did you get into the business?
TM: By chance, I lucked into it. A guy did a portrait of me. In the old days, the club would furnish you with pictures so you could send it out to fans. So I sent a picture out to this guy. After one of my games, I come out of the dressing room and this guy is standing out there with a box, about 16x20 and he pulls a painting. It was fantastic. He tells me that he wants me to have it because he's a big fan of mine and he appreciated me sending him out an autographed picture. I wanted to pay him for it, but he wouldn't let me. I pulled out a picture of my wife from my wallet and asked him if he could do portrait of her because her birthday was coming up in a couple of months. I said he had to let me pay him and he said OK. The portrait was magnificent. Then I thought about it and of all the rings, watches, trophies and silver trays, nobody gives something like (the portraits). I'm telling you it was a gold mine. Hey, what guy is going to throw rocks at his own portrait? Nobody is going to hate himself. It just blossomed into a great business.
PL: If you didn't go into the portrait business, what would you have done?
TM: I don't know what I would've done after I had gotten out of professional football. My father was an electrician and I know I didn't want to go back to being an electrician, although I do think I owe an awful lot to my father for being an electrician. He used to make us put in outlets and do things like that in the home -- it made my hands, my fingers and my wrists so strong. I think I owe an awful lot to my father. When you twist a screwdriver and put in a screw, it really strengthens your arm. When you're parallel to the ground and you're stretching out to catch a ball that may be a little bit too far for you, it really helps having a strong wrist and fingers to hold on to the ball.
PL: You were a running back in college, but became a receiver in the pros.
Worth the wait
For Tommy McDonald, getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a dream come true. The eight months of waiting were excruciating.
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TM: When I was at Oklahoma I was a running back, but (Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson) still had certain plays to send me out. I made some long catches. It was great that I had the opportunity at Oklahoma to do that because when I got up to the Philadelphia Eagles, they had so many halfbacks and they were short on receivers. Well, Bill Stribling got hurt in my rookie year in the eighth or ninth game and they put me out there in his place and I caught a 61-yarder and a 25-yard touchdown. So the offensive coordinator comes up to me after the game and says, "I think we've found a spot for you."
PL: Talk about coach Bud Wilkinson.
TM: I would have to put him in the same category as Vince Lombardi because he was not only a great, great motivator, but also an excellent "X and O" guy as far as calling plays plus he could judge talent. He had a keen eye for talent just like Lombardi did. Wilkinson was ahead of his time. Now, he wasn't a passing coach because he got into the pros and he was out of his game. And you know what? I have never seen that man raise his voice at anybody and I have never seen that gentleman grab a player by his jersey and start shaking him or something like that. The only way he would do anything was to call you into his office and if he wanted to dress you down or anything like that, he would do it by himself and with the door shut. Now it never happened to me, but I know a lot of players that it did happen to. The great thing about Wilkinson was that he would not embarrass you in front of the other players. He wasn't a show off. He was also a great motivator. In my senior year, we had just beaten Notre Dame 40-0 and then we had to play the University of Colorado. We weren't up for it that much, but they were up for us. They had us 19-6 at halftime and we wound up beating them 27-19 because of the talk Bud Wilkinson gave to us at halftime in Colorado.
PL: What kind of speech was it?
TM: He came in there and shut the door. He just stood there and he looked as if he was ready to jump into a jersey. He said, "It has taken Oklahoma so many years to build that reputation up and you are letting that reputation down. You are letting it down. That jersey on your back. You have let that jersey down against Colorado today. It has taken so many great players ahead of you to start this streak and to get this streak going. Everybody wants to be the team to beat us. And you are letting every one of those ballplayers who have played in that jersey down. Now what in the heck are you guys going to do about it? Are you going to show these people in the stands that you deserve to be in that jersey? You earned it. You have not earned it this first and second quarter. Please let me see you go out there and show me in the third and fourth quarters that you deserve to be in that jersey. Go. Go get them." And that's what we did. I don't think we even opened the door. I think we ran right through the wall.
PL: What did he say afterwards?
TM: After the game, he came in and said, "Guys, I think I have said enough today. I'll talk to you on Monday or Tuesday in the meeting room." On Monday in the meeting, he told us that he was so proud of us and we were family. He said, "This is my family and I am so proud of you guys. I am absolutely lost for words. You showed me something on Saturday that has probably been the greatest experience of my life, seeing you behind 19-6 and you came back and you ran them in the ground. It has been the greatest experience of my coaching career up to this point. I want to compliment each and every one of you. You have reached down and told yourself that this is for pride. This is what winning is all about." It was marvelous.
PL: Do you think the 47-game winning streak will ever be broken?
TM: I don't see how. Oklahoma did have a string of 31 wins before that. That just goes to show you that Wilkinson was such an outstanding judge of talent. It really points to Bud what a marvelous coach he was. What other coach has ever had a winning streak of 31 games and then a 47-game winning streak. It really shows that this guy has a magic wand.
PL: When you think that you were undefeated in your college career and went 31-0, what goes through your mind?
TM: It makes me realize how fortunate I was. When I graduated from Oklahoma, I really didn't think anything about it. But after I got to the Eagles and we won four games my rookie year, I got to thinking that my college career was pretty special.