Hall of Fame Exuberance in a Small Package

Sports people are not good at knowing how to act in public.

Watch them and, routinely, they don't know whether to try to act humble or proud, reclusive or open, self-confident or shy. Confusion over how to carry themselves in public - especially while receiving an award and often while performing - is why we have a cacophony of behavior.

That's why it was inordinately fun to see Tommy McDonald, a six-time Pro Bowl pick during his 12-year NFL career between 1959 and 1968, be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, last weekend.

There was no confusion in his mind how to act. Rather, Tommy McDonald was focused on being Tommy McDonald. He was true to himself and true to what he is.

And that's why, at Canton, he was a perfect buffoon. He overflowed with unrestrained glee and irrational exuberance. That's Tommy. It was wonderful.

In a time when too many athletes try to act too cool, even way cool, McDonald was uncool.

Understand that McDonald is qualified enough to be elected to join the best of the boys, although his is not a legendary name like colleagues Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Red Grange.

While he caught 495 passes for 8,410 yards, just a cleat mark short of 17 yards per catch, several Hall of Fame receivers have far loftier numbers including Charley Taylor, Don Maynard, and Raymond Berry. And current NFL star Jerry Rice is already by far the best of them all. But McDonald had one memorable catch, a 35-yarder in the 1960 Championship Game in which his Philadelphia Eagles, on the strength of his reception, beat Green Bay, 17-13. No surprise. After all, during his career 1 out of every 6 catches he made was for a touchdown.

Still, for anyone to hang up these numbers is evidence of excellence. But for McDonald to do it, at 5 ft., 9 in. and 175 pounds in a game in which size often counts more than anything else, was laudatory.

Maybe because McDonald defied the size odds, he just couldn't contain himself.

He screamed into the microphone at Canton, "God Almighty, I feel good." He visited with his father, whose ghost he claimed was there with him. He danced and high-fived and chest-bumped and fell down and tossed around the bronze bust he was presented.

"Do I look excited?'' he asked at one point. Yes, Tommy, a trifle.

Two fellow inductees shed tears: anthony Munoz, a Cincinnati Bengal and one of the best offensive tackles ever, presented by his son, and Paul Krause, an extraordinarily tough free safety for Minnesota and Washington, emotionally overcome when talking about the near-fatal car accident involving his wife 2-1/2 years ago. McDonald shed inhibitions.

It was, on one hand, somewhat embarrassing to watch McDonald and listen to him, like watching an off-key performer attempting to render the national anthem. Booing would be poor form but cheering a betrayal of truth. Yet, when so much is contrived these days in the public arena, genuine expression is extraordinarily welcome. McDonald gave us that.

It was Robert Frost who wrote a poem in 1942 titled, "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length." Frost, gratefully, had many better days. Still, it describes McDonald's day. Tommy McDonald, who starred at Oklahoma in the mid-1950s, knew this would be one of his best-ever days - and that it wouldn't last. So he acted accordingly.

He seized the moment by its throat. And it would take a very cold heart to say he shouldn't have.

He could have taken his rightful place among this year's five inductees, behind Munoz, Krause, Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, and Miami Dolphin center Dwight Stephenson. If you're choosing sides among this group, the first pick would be tough but the last pick would be easy: McDonald.

Yet, happily, he didn't choose to assume his rightful place. He stole the show because his heart was so overflowing with joy and gratitude that containing himself was not an option. Not a person objected. McDonald was 17 again and he acted accordingly.

He was playing with the big guys one more time and the pleasure was all his.

Some 260 years ago, Charles Wesley wrote advising folks to "raise your joys and triumphs high." Tommy McDonald did that in Canton, in a blaring celebration of his good fortune and a blasting demonstration of what it looks like to feel good. Mighty good.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail is: looneyd@csps.com

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