By Gary Herron
For Enchantment Sports/Courtesy Rio Rancho Observer
Over the course of a 40-year career in the media, I’ve interviewed countless athletes, most of them of
high school age.
Naturally, when you have the opportunity to interview successful collegians and professional athletes, those times and words linger longer.
I’ve also “rubbed elbows,” so to speak, with some non-sports celebs: Michael Douglas, Carole King, the late Bill Daily, Groucho Marx’s son Arthur, Bo Diddley, Michael Bolton, David Copperfield and George Lopez. (I confess the last three were via telephone.)
Thus, I can’t remember entire conversations – most of the interviews have been preserved on cassette tape – of the baseball hall of famers I’ve chatted with, including Bob Feller, Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Ferguson Jenkins and Mike Piazza.
I’ve had fewer chats with football hall of famers, basically Brian Urlacher, Ted Hendricks. Jim Kelly and a local legend that passed away Sept. 24 at the age of 84: Tommy McDonald.
Ironically, during my epic 2018 vacation, when I visited the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, I took photos of just three famers’ busts: John Elway, Urlacher and Tommy.
Here’s some of the information Highland High alum Gary Spitzberg sent out in a mass emailing shortly after hearing of Tommy’s passing:
- The HHS member of the Class of 1953 was born in Roy, N.M., on July 26, 1934. The cause of death has not been determined at this time, but he did deal with dementia-related illness.
- He grew up in Roy. His father held him back in the ninth grade with the hopes that he would grow some, which never happened. The family moved to Albuquerque his sophomore year and he attended Highland High School, where he was a three-sport letterman: football, basketball, and track. He excelled in all three sports. At 5’9″, he wasn’t the biggest of athletes. … He was so quick and fast. A coach saw him and let Bud Wilkinson at the University
of Oklahoma know. His senior year in track, he had five first-place finishes.
- He got a scholarship to OU and played in 47 games for Wilkinson; during his college career, he/the team never lost a game. In 1957, he got drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he played seven years, setting several team records. He played for three other teams in his 12 years as an NFL wide receiver. He was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1985; in
1997 he was inducted into the National Federation of High Schools Hall of Fame; in 1998, he was elected into the NFL Hall of Fame.
My chance to speak to this great came when I was doing some freelance work for Varsity Sports Magazine, preparing an issue for a fall release that featured previews on the metro area prep teams and a handful of features; McDonald was among them.
I spoke to him by phone, impressed not so much by his numerous football feats but by how much he wove in his faith. Thus, when the story came out, that was in there. The final two paragraphs, I recently dug out (from a floppy disk!), read like this: “Healthy and happy a half-century after his days with the Sooners ended, McDonald says, “I’m big on God because I think God has gotten me into the right place at the right time. I always wore a cross.”
He thinks that’s what helped him stay healthy: “I didn’t miss any games at college, only three games in professional football. It was all so unbelievable.”
One night, I received a call from Tommy – he thanked me for the story, but literally cried when he thanked me for including how much his faith had meant to him. I remember thinking, “Geez, I made a hall of famer cry.”
How can you forget that?
I never will, and think of him even more often since his passing.
Thanks, Tommy, for taking those two times to talk to me – and thanks for sending me some autographed items.
Gary Herron, the sports editor at the Rio Rancho Observer since 2000, has been covering prep sports in the metro area since 1979. He has also worked locally in radio and in a TV newsroom on the assignment desk; he is a baseball hobbyist and the author of four books, including “Fifty years at The Pit” (UNM Press 2018). And he has also worked as an official scorer for Pacific Coast League ballgames played in the Duke City, amassing more than 1,000 Albuquerque Dukes games and more than 450 Albuquerque Isotopes games.