Category Archives: Commentary

Five Years Gone But Never Forgotten – Wonderful Wayman Tisdale

May 15 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest human beings to ever walk the earth.  We lost Wayman Tisdale far too early at the age of 44, but his spirit and love for life stays with us today.

I first met Wayman when he was an awkward teenager at Booker T. Washington High School, yet to develop all the gifts he had been granted.  What a pleasure it was to be able to have a front row seat as he developed into one of the best basketball players in the history of college basketball and as he became one of the greatest ambassadors the state of Oklahoma could have.  His musical talents, which actually were far more developed in his youth than his basketball skills, also became a primary part of his professional life.

Talking to Wayman at OU media day in 1984.
Talking to Wayman at OU media day in 1984.

Although he didn’t have the type of NBA success he may have wanted, Wayman took another road and became a well-respected and much loved jazz musician, working with some of the top performers in the industry.  His smile remained as broad as the ocean and his handshake as strong as his love for his family, his state and his music.

The last time I had a chance to visit in depth with Wayman came just a year before his passing.  He had survived cancer’s first attack and had not yet seen the relapse that was to come.  As always, his spirit was infectious and his grace was immeasurable.

There haven’t been too many bumps in the road for Oklahoma basketball all-time scoring leader Wayman Tisdale.  Since he was a freshman in high school, Tisdale has traveled a fairy tale path – from prep superstar at Tulsa Washington to three-time All-American at Oklahoma, the Olympic team, a decade long pro career and into a post-retirement career as a top-selling jazz musician.

But this past spring, Tisdale experienced one of the few setbacks in his life.  Last may, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and while doctors were doing X-Rays to determine the damage to his knee, they found a cancerous cyst in his fibula.   Following removal of the cyst, Tisdale had to cancel his music tour and start chemotherapy to treat the cancer.  Once again, it appears Wonderful Wayman has come out on top.

“Everything is great.  I’m pretty much done with the treatments and back out on the road,” said Tisdale. “So I’m feeling great and everything is pretty much behind us.  I had to curtail my touring most of the summer but I was able to go back out this winter.”

Tisdale just completed a Christmas Jazz Cruise in January to Aruba and Curacao and his latest CD, Way Up, debuted at #1 and spent 30 weeks in the top 10 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts.

He still has the infectious smile, the outgoing personality and the easy going nature that made him a fan favorite in Norman while he was becoming the most decorated player in Sooner history and helping to build a budding dynasty for coach Billy Tubbs.  Tisdale was the first player to be named first team All-American as a freshman, sophomore and junior and he holds virtually all of the Oklahoma scoring records.

“It was a long shot when I first went there.  I had a lot of people trying to tell me not to go to Oklahoma, but that didn’t matter to me,” Tisdale said. “What mattered is that I was going to get to play as a freshman and pretty much get the program handed over to me and you just can’t find that anywhere else.”

Tisdale exploded on the college basketball scene and brought OU to prominence
Tisdale exploded on the college basketball scene and brought OU to prominence

 

It was instant stardom for Tisdale, who averaged 24.5 points as a freshman and 25.6 for his three year career.  He led the Sooners within a game of the Final Four on two occasions and built the foundation for Tubbs’ teams that would later on make it to the NCAA championship game.  And he was the leading rebounder for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Gold Medal basketball team coached by Bob Knight.

From there, Tisdale became the number two overall pick in the NBA draft behind Patrick Ewing and went on to a 12 year career with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns that saw him average over 15 points a game and score almost 13,000 points.  In the latter stages of his career, Tisdale released his first musical effort, Power Forward, and showed his teammates and the world that he was serious about a career in jazz after basketball.

He had played the bass in his father’s Tulsa church as a youngster, but when he began to grow and basketball became his calling, Tisdale put music on the back burner.  He still played from time to time, with many people considering it a hobby or a novelty.  However, Tisdale was just as serious about music as he was about basketball.

“Ninth grade, I started sort of excelling in basketball and had to put the bass down then.  Never really put it down completely,” said Tisdale. “I just never really did practice as hard on the bass until maybe my eighth or ninth year in the league, I really got serious about it.”

“I got harassed a lot by (my teammates), you know.  But I knew what I wanted to do, I was focused and didn’t let a lot of people deter me in what I wanted to do.  Sometimes I went overboard because I was spending so much time doing it, but other than that, it was all out of the love.”

The big lefthander released two CDs that were critically acclaimed before he decided to retire after the 1997 season.  Now, Tisdale was making the transition from basketball star that happened to play music to full-time musician.  How was he perceived in his new world?

“Pretty much from day one, they really embraced me on the music side,” said Tisdale. “I guess my sound is so different and so new that it kind of took off right away when they heard my playing. It just been a blessing to come from one world into another and be pretty much successful, so I don’t take that for granted at all.”

Wayman Tisdale OC Pavilion 05 Amy Rogin

“I always wanted to do it and always aspired to do it, and I knew what kind of work it was going to take after being successful at basketball, knew that I was going to have to work just as hard or harder to make it in music, so why can’t I?  That was the theory I used and it just came about.”

“It took lots of discipline.  I listened a lot, too. I listened to a lot of advice.  I bumped my head a lot of times, too, but even though I bumped my head I still took the advice and kind of just went from there and things just started to fall in place after a while.  There’s no substitute for hard work and that’s what I’ve been taught and done the whole time.”

Tisdale has released seven solo albums to date.  In 2002, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and received the Legacy Tribute Award. He was also nominated by the NAACP as “Outstanding Jazz Artist” for its 2004 Image Awards.

Honoring Wayman with a lifetime achievement award at the Oklahoma Sports Headliner event
Honoring Wayman with a lifetime achievement award at the Oklahoma Sports Headliner event

He has also kept a connection to his home state, commuting from his farm home near Tulsa to his business interests in Los Angeles.  Tisdale and his wife, Regina, have four children and his Tulsa home includes a stocked pond so he can indulge in another passion – fishing – while helping in the garden and horseback riding with his son. Outside of the home, Tisdale regularly takes Tae Bo with Billy Blanks, calling it his new addiction and the best workout since playing in the NBA.

“We’re back home and enjoying the farm life and I’m traveling probably more now than ever,” noted Tisdale.  “Things are just moving right along.”

For a couple of years, Tisdale returned to OU to do color commentary on Sooner basketball television broadcasts, but his music success forced him to give up that job.  He still takes a keen interest in the program.

“My schedule is just really busy, pretty much all year round now, so I wasn’t able to do it.  I really enjoyed doing that.  I loved that,” said Tisdale.  “The program is kind of rebuilding now and it’s getting to where it needs to be.  It still has a long way to go, but it’s a good start and they’ve got some good foundation to do it with.”

A big part of that foundation is freshman center Blake Griffin, who some are touting as the second coming of Tisdale.  Even though Tisdale was the first OU player to have his number retired, he agreed to allow his number 23 to be reinstated so that Griffin could wear it this year.  Griffin is off to a great start, but still has a long way to go to reach the numbers that Tisdale compiled, even though Tisdale hopes the 6-10 youngster can reach those heights.

“I’d rather that he be better than me.  I know that he’s gonna be a great player and I’m going to be wishing him all the best”, said Tisdale. “We need to get him to average about 10 or 15 more as a freshman.  But he’ll be alright.”

And while Tisdale is doing just fine in his latest career, he still would like to stay involved in the sport that gave him a chance to reach a national audience and he took the opportunity to lobby for yet another job.

“You know, I’m interested if the Sonics come to Oklahoma City, I’m definitely interested in working in some capacity”, Tisdale said. “Not as a coach or anything but front office work. Community relations.  I think I’d be good at that.  My face would look good on that.”

It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since the smiling youngster from Tulsa showed up on OU campus and put Sooner basketball on the map.  Tisdale plans to keep moving and putting a smile on the face of everyone he touches.  As far as he’s concerned, that’s just part of the plan.

“I think everybody’s life is orchestrated.  We’ve just got to follow the blueprint”, said Tisdale.  “I feel that I’ve been dealt a pretty great blueprint and it’s just been a blur for me.  It hasn’t stopped going since before I got to OU.”

Sadly, there would be no storybook ending to Wayman’s story. Shortly after this interview, the cancer returned with a ferocity that required the amputation of his leg.  Still, Wayman battled back through rehabilitation, but the signs were there that this was a battle he would not win.  Eventually, he succumbed to the disease.

His memory lives on with the Wayman Tisdale Award, given to the top NCAA freshman each year.  And his wife Regina battles on, still cherishing her husband’s memory and struggling to deal with such an enormous void.  We share her memories and we, too, still can’t believe that he’s gone.

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NBA or YMCA? – The Dumbing Down of Pro Basketball

Of course, things were always better back in the day and you come off sounding like an old fuddy duddy when you bemoan the fundamentals (or lack thereof) in today’s NBA.  But the real basketball purists – Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith –  have had enough. And so have I.

The comedy of errors in the last minute of Oklahoma City’s win over the L.A. Clippers was mind-boggling, especially since a number of them were committed by arguably the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul.  We’ve come to expect unorthodox plays from The Human Torch, aka Russell Westbrook or Dum Dum Number One, according to the Chuckster.  However, when CP3 (Dum Dum Number Two) pulls not one, not two, but THREE bonehead plays in the final minute to help lose the game, it’s time to reflect.

Throughout the years, new things come into vogue.  For a while, it was headbands – still championed by Lebron James and the resurrected Al Harrington.  Then it became shooting sleeves.  And now, apparently, it’s fouling guys taking three point shots. There have been an unprecedented number of fouls committed on out-of-range shooters in the playoffs and an equally unprecedented number of three-and-one plays as well.

Last night, Paul may have flicked Westbrook’s elbow on a likely unmakeable three, but the bigger sin was even coming close enough to get called for a foul. Repeat after me.  You should never foul a jump shooter.  Especially when he is five feet beyond the arc.  You deserve whatever happens when you do.

And I’m not even going to get into the Reggie Jackson bail out, when he ignored the obvious dish opportunity on a three-on-one break and tried to be the hero.  Why Matt Barnes was reaching in made no sense, whether or not it was the worst call in playoff history (Doc Rivers) or if it was the proper call per the suddenly read by everyone on the planet NBA rule book (highly unlikely). It was a stupid play all around.

 

Some people consider the Thunder-Clippers matchup a great series. Right now, I consider it a battle of half wits, which is better than no wits, I guess. The winner of the series?  The team that doesn’t go completely brain dead down the stretch like both have done in games four and five.

Looking Back – The Discovery of Jermaine Gresham

The football recruiting trail is littered with the bones of prospects who never reached their potential, but you always like to go back and look at the ones that seemingly rose from obscurity to make it big.

Former Sooner and current Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham is one of those.  Blessed with size and speed, Gresham rose from a dirt poor background to become one of the top receivers in the game.

But in late 2005, Gresham was just a tall basketball star that was starting to become a major football recruit without much fanfare. It all started with a video, in the days before the Internet had taken over recruiting and it culminated with OU getting a major star. And when I spoke with him, he was not used to all the attention that was starting to come his way. Let’s take a look back at the emergence of Ardmore’s Jermaine Gresham.

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For a town of just under 24,000 residents, Ardmore has turned out its fair share of major college football prospects.  And most of them have been skill position athletes.  But none have possessed the overall God given talents of the latest recruit on the national radar, Jermaine Gresham.

At a shade over 6-6 and currently weighing 232 pounds, Gresham has recruiters ready to beat a path to the Carter County town this fall.  In high school, he has played wide receiver and even some defensive back, but college coaches project him as a tight end in the mold of Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey or Kellen Winslow, Jr.  Like Gonzalez, Gresham excels in basketball, having scored 39 points in the opening round of the 5A State Tournament this season.  He averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game this year, leading his team to a runner-up finish. Even though he is good enough to play basketball at the D-1 level, Gresham says he plans to play football.

Interestingly enough, Gresham has caught the attention of every major college football program in the country without going through one of the standard rituals that put most recruits on the map.  The soft-spoken star has never attended any school’s summer camp and doesn’t plan to do it this summer, either.  Instead he will work at the high school and re-take several classes to try and improve his overall grade point, hoping to reduce the score he needs on the ACT test.  He took the college entrance exam for the first time in April.

Rivals.com, one of many recruiting sites that engulf the Internet, fueled his nationwide discovery. They posted video of Gresham in action and later traveled to Ardmore to see him in person, and they have now ranked him in their top 100 prospects for 2006.  They currently list 10 schools in the running for his services, including Oklahoma.

Traditionally, OU has had a tough time with the nationally touted recruits from Ardmore.  In the late 80s, Rafael Denson was a highly sought running back who chose Oklahoma State over Oklahoma, and in the 90s, wide receiver Taj Johnson left the Sooner State to sign with Miami, later transferring to San Diego State.  The Sooners may have their work cut out for with Gresham, too, who says he is “wide open” in the recruiting process and will probably not commit to any school in the fall.  He did ask his coach to take him to an OU spring scrimmage, possibly a good sign for the Sooners.

Gresham eventually cast his lot with the Sooners and became a star
Gresham eventually cast his lot with the Sooners and became a star

Gresham claims to have no allegiances to any team, saying he’s just a fan of the game.   Hundreds of letters have been pouring in to his mailbox, and his high school coach, Mike Loyd, says a number of scholarship offers have already arrived.  OU and OSU, along with LSU, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa State have made that step, while schools like Notre Dame, Miami, Ohio State and Michigan are also hot on the trail.

One school that Gresham was looking forward to hearing from was National Champion USC.

“It’s kind of surprised me that I haven’t heard anything from them.  Everybody else has stepped in”, said Gresham.

Several days later, the first correspondence from the Trojans arrived.

This is heady stuff for a 16-year old whose coach thought he was just a basketball player when he arrived at Tigers’ workouts a few years back.  Gresham changed that perception with 27 catches his sophomore year, and 56 more last season.  Those who have seen him in person or on tape marvel at his grace and agility.  And he has decent speed for his size, running a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash.

Gresham is also modest in evaluating his own talents.

“I’m not fast, but I’ve got pretty good hands.  Kind of like a T.O. (Terrell Owens)”, says Gresham, in a non-boastful manner. “But I watch everybody and try to pick up things I can use.”

What is frightening is that Loyd believes Gresham has only scratched the surface of his ultimate ability.  Loyd should know a little about what it takes to make it as a big-time college football player.   He played quarterback professionally for six seasons and coached junior college powerhouse Northeastern Oklahoma A&M from 1990-1995, leading the Norsemen to the 1991 National Championship.  There, he produced a number of receivers who went on to star in the major college ranks and NFL, among them former University of Tulsa star Chris Penn.

Loyd says Gresham at this stage is ahead of any receiver he ever coached at NEO.

“Jermaine is athletically better than all those guys.  His upside is incredible,” said Loyd.  “He’s just now started working in the weight room and he’s starting to enjoy that.  He’s strong in the bench and squat and I guarantee he can play at 245 pounds next year, easily.  I can’t think of a receiver I’ve ever had with more potential.”

“Number one, he’s a good guy. He works hard, is fun to coach and fun to be around.

He has a chance for a bright future. He’s wide open.  I’ll sit down and talk to him about the process. He’s just 16 years old and all of this can be overwhelming.  I don’t know if he knows how special he is.”

To make sure that Gresham is prepared for the onslaught of recruiting advances that will intensify as the year develops, Loyd frequently sits down with his star player to map out a strategy for the recruiting process.  He also brought in a couple of former OU stars to talk to Gresham about what to expect as schools try to entice him to join their programs.

Former Sooner tight end and recent Denver Broncos signee Stephen Alexander, heading into his ninth NFL season, recently traveled to Ardmore to give Gresham an idea of what the process is like and what schools will expect of him at the D-1 level. Alexander also talked to the youngster about getting his academics in order and about what kind of attitude college coaches would be expecting. The Chickasha native was accompanied by another former Sooner teammate, J.R. Conrad, who is now a coach with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the Arena II football league.

Gresham quickly became a favorite target for OU Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford
Gresham quickly became a favorite target for OU Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford

All of the attention is apparently having an impact on the young receiver.  Gresham has started to become more serious in his workouts and is starting to build his body in a way that will meet college coaches’ expectations for the move to tight end.  Loyd says Gresham reminds him of a bigger Ryan Humphrey, the former Tulsa Washington two-sport star who was a top tight end recruit by many colleges but chose instead to play basketball and is now in the NBA.

“Jermaine is like Ryan in that he is not a skinny basketball type guy out there.  He’s a football player that also plays basketball”, noted Loyd. ”He has big legs and broad shoulders. He’s going to get much bigger.”

Gresham has always been a marked man on the gridiron, drawing double and sometimes triple coverage.  Despite that, his coach plans to get him the football as much as he can this fall, especially on the short routes, where Gresham can use his size and agility to make yards after the catch.  On the hitch pattern, Loyd says you can expect Gresham to run over his share of cornerbacks, too.  He has averaged over 12 yards per reception on that particular pattern during his career.

Opposing teams won’t be the only ones zeroing in on Gresham this fall.  The nation’s top programs will be vying for an opportunity to have him make one of his five official visits to their campus, but so far, he isn’t giving any hints as to how his top five list will shake out.

“I’m not going to commit early.  I’ll take all my visits and weigh my options”, said Gresham.  I’m just living my life.”

He made that visit to USC and to Miami, but eventually settled on OU, where his Mom could see him play.  After a slow start his freshman year, he exploded with more than 100 catches and 25 touchdowns in his next two seasons.

Gresham showed his athleticism with this TD catch in the BCS title game against Florida
Gresham showed his athleticism with this TD catch in the BCS title game against Florida

The injury bug, which had continue to follow him to college, prevented him from playing his final season and he elected to turn pro, becoming the 21st overall selection in the 2010 draft.  He signed a contract worth $15.85 million dollars, making those hardscrabble days growing up in south central Oklahoma a thing of the past.

Gresham made an immediate impact on the Bengals offense
Gresham made an immediate impact on the Bengals offense

His pro career has flourished, despite more injuries, as he joined fellow Sooner Keith Jackson and another Hall of Famer, Mike Ditka, as the only tight ends to catch 50 or more passes in their first three NFL seasons.  After back-to-back Pro Bowl selections, Gresham saw his workload diminish in 2013 as he split time with rookie Tyler Eifert, but at 6-6 and 261 pounds, he remains one of the most feared targets in the league.

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Whose Dynamic Duo is Better? – This Series May Settle The Question

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There are a pair of Batman and Robin’s on the court for the Oklahoma City Thunder – L.A. Clippers NBA Western Semifinal series and the argument rages on as to which duo is numero uno.

On one side, Blake Griffin, third place in the NBA MVP voting, alongside Chris Paul, perennial all-star and arguably the top point guard in the NBA.

On the other side, league MVP Kevin Durant and all-star human dynamo Russell Westbrook, who may be closer to the Human Torch than Robin.

In game one of the best of seven Monday night in Oklahoma City, the combined numbers were fairly close but in the Clippers favor. Griffin and Paul combined for 19-of-30 shooting, 8-0f-9 from three-point range (all Paul), 9-of-12 from the line (all Griffin) for 55 points, seven rebounds and 15 assists. Durant and Westbrook combined for 18-of-33 shooting, 4-of-10 threes, 14-of-18 from the line for 54 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

Chris Paul hit his first seven threes on Monday night

Chris Paul hit his first seven threes on Monday night

The big difference in the game was the fact that the rest of the Thunder players combined to score three fewer points than Durnat and Westbrook combined, along with the fact that nobody covered Paul or the rest of the Clippers from three-point range as they hit a whopping 15-of-29.

Griffin and Paul work more in tandem, feeding off each other’s offensive and defensive actions and knowing how to complement (and compliment) each other. Griffin sensed early in game one that Paul had the feeling, so instead of posting up and calling for the ball, he came high and set screens to get Paul free.

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“When somebody’s got it going like that, you just try to stay of the way as much as possible, but also help keep that fire going,” said the Oklahoma City native Griffin.  “In the second half, we were moving the ball so well, but it all started defensively. We just tried to stay out of his way and let him do what he was doing.”

For Paul’s part, as Westbrook put it, “He wasn’t doing anything crazy.  He was just shooting threes.”  Paul didn’t go out looking to have a big offensive game, but  as just took what he was given.

“It wasn’t like I was coming down and making unbelievable shot,” said Paul., “It was because the court was open and I had two defenders on Blake. He puts so much pressure on the defense and BG is such a great passer.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers described Paul this way.

“He’s just very, very smart .  He sometimes gets in the way with that because he’s thinking so much, but today he was in a great place,” said Rivers. “He played free without thought but when we needed him to, he did it.  I thought his intuition was phenomenal.  He knew we needed a good start and he got one for us.  That’s why he’s just who he is.

After playing a controlled game in the first round series finale against Memphis, Westbrook reverted somewhat to his Jekyll and Hyde ways, hitting most of his shots, but committing some unforced turnovers, six of them to be exact.  Durant missed some chippies that he would normally convert and both he and Westbrook were part of the Thunder’s total defensive collapse.

By the time the Thunder made enough contact with the Clippers to pick up their first team foul, L.A. already had 32 points and there was just over a minute left in the opening quarter.  Durant knows the defense must tighten up.

“We have to get more physical,” said Durant. “I’m not talking about hard fouls, I’m talking about jamming the lane, fighting through screens and not letting guys run free.  We just have to be more physical.”

 

Coach Scott Brooks and his MVP must figure it out before Wednesday night
Coach Scott Brooks and his MVP must figure it out before Wednesday night

It’s not often that you are treated to these type of combos matched up in one series.  If the Thunder’s stars can rally back in game two Wednesday night, the debate on which duo has the o

 

 

 

 

Mike Gaddis – Dreams Unfulfilled and a Life-Saving Gift

Of all the stories in Sooner running back history that begin “If only he had stayed healthy…” the saga of Mike Gaddis’ career is one that is still talked about by OU fans today.  And in terms of the game of life, it’s one that has a happy ending.

Coming out of Midwest City’s Carl Albert High School in 1987, Gaddis was one of the most highly recruited runners in the nation.  At 6-0, 217, he was the prototypical tailback, having rushed for over 3,700 yards and 53 touchdowns in his prep career.   Gaddis grew up as an OU fan and the Sooners had the inside track except for one thing – they ran the wishbone.  So Gaddis jockeyed between his feelings for Oklahoma and the chance to be the next great tailback at USC.

“Bobby Proctor was my recruiter and he used to come pick me up when I was down there for track meets and bringing me over to watch spring practice and give me the grand tour.  Made me feel like I was really a big man,” said Gaddis.  “But even though I was an OU fan, I really wanted to play tailback.  I didn’t want to be a halfback, so USC was in the picture and it really came down to those two schools and the difference was coaching.”

“USC had just hired Larry Smith from Arizona, brand new coach, I didn’t know who he was.  Everything was the same except for the coaches for me.  Obviously, Switzer had been there forever and I signed with OU. And I never looked back after that.”

But Gaddis’ OU career almost ended before it began.  Tiring in early fall workouts, doctors soon discovered what was characterized as a “blood disorder” after running a series of tests.  In reality, Gaddis’ was experiencing kidney problems, even though the coaches and doctors didn’t tell him the whole story.

“They talked to my mother about it and my mother kind of kept me out of it.  Because at that time, to me, I felt perfect.  I didn’t feel any problem.  I felt normal,” Gaddis said.   “Said they wanted to redshirt me, which I was upset about.  I thought I could play that year.  So I sat out that fall.”

The real story of Gaddis’ illness also wasn’t made known  to the public.  Rumors began circulating among the media and fans that Gaddis was just out of shape and not ready to play and that the health issue was a smokescreen to take the heat off of such a highly recruited player.  Many doubted Gaddis would ever contribute at OU.  It took a while before he proved them wrong.

Cleared to play in 1988, Gaddis started slowly before breaking into the lineup midway through the season.  He had his official coming out party in the annual Bedlam Game in Stillwater, matching OSU Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders stride for stride as the Sooners took a 31-28 victory.  Gaddis ran for 213 yards that day, Sanders 215.

Mike Gaddis had his best days against Oklahoma State
Mike Gaddis had his best days against Oklahoma State

“That was a special game because, number one, I was in a car wreck that week and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play.  So driving up there on the team bus, they still hadn’t really cleared me to play,” said Gaddis.. “We get there and I’m feeling pretty good and the juices are flowing, so there’s no way I’m not playing.  And the option game was just incredible that day.”

It was to be the first of three great games Gaddis would have against the Cowboys, a team that he wanted to punish each time he went on the field.

“Being from Oklahoma, you know what that game’s about and a lot of those kids you play against in high school, so there’s a lot of trash talking throughout the year and lot of trash talking for me with the coaches,”  Gaddis said. “It was personal.  Because I remember how hard they recruited me and then when I ruled them out, they said I couldn’t play.  So I took it personal. I always got up for that game.”

In case you forgot, here are highlights of Mike Gaddis at OU

 

Despite the flashes of brilliance, there were times Gaddis had to come out of the game for a breather, something he thought was normal, but something that was actually a product of his condition.  He found that he couldn’t be the kind of workhorse back that some expected him to be.

“And I didn’t really understand back then and didn’t think about it much.  But I could only carry the ball probably 20-25 times.  Anything over that, I just couldn’t do it.  Physically, I was just done,” said Gaddis. “And it would take me a day or two days to recover.   Everybody else was going out Saturday night, but not me.  I’m going home and I’m crashing. ‘Cause I’m exhausted. I’m in bed all Saturday night, Sunday I drag myself out to go to the meetings, but I’m exhausted until Monday.  But that was normal for me, so I didn’t think anything of it.”

Coaches and fans were excited about Gaddis finally reaching his potential after the sensational finish to the 1988 season, but things were about to be turned upside down in the off season.  Switzer was forced to step down and the Sooners were suddenly on NCAA probation that kept them off of television.  Several players exited in the aftermath and the start of the 1989 season was in turmoil. Following a 6-3 loss at Arizona, it was up to Gaddis to start turning things around.

He ran for more than a hundred yards against Kansas in a conference opening victory, then destroyed Oklahoma State with a 274-yard performance, the fourth-best in Sooner history.  Up next was Texas and Gaddis was ready to start thinking about his Heisman Trophy chances as the Sooners prepared for the annual Red River rivalry.  Sports Illustrated had written a story about him being the best back that no one had seen because OU was banned from television, and he was geared up to make his mark against the Longhorns.

Gaddis had more than 130 yards at halftime but what started out as potentially one of the best running days by any Sooner against the Longhorns turned into a nightmare early in the second half.

“I take a pitch around the left and I’m getting ready to go 80.  I mean it just opens up and that’s going to put me over 200 yards for the game, I’m going to have a 1,000 yards for the season by the end of the game, and I’m thinking, I’m getting ready to win this trophy, that’s why I came here to win a championship and win the Heisman.  I’m Billy Sims. That’s who I grew up wanting to be,” said Gaddis.  “And then boom, just like that –  I put my foot in the ground, my knee gives out, next thing I know I’m rolling on the ground looking up at the sky wondering what in the heck just happened to me.”

Gaddis' Heisman dreams were dashed on the Cotton Bowl turf
Gaddis’ Heisman dreams were dashed on the Cotton Bowl turf

“And even then, when they took me to the sideline, I just felt like it was a sprain.  So I’m like, tape the sucker up and let me get back in there.  Obviously, there like no way, we’re going to wait to see what’s going on.  It was an ACL tear.  I had two guys I grew up watching.  Billy was my main man and then there was Marcus Dupree, so in my mind, Dupree blows his knee out and he’s pretty much done. I’m thinking I’m pretty much done.”

His season ended with 829 yards on just 110 carries – a 7.5 per carry average – in just less than six games.  Gaddis had watched his Heisman dreams evaporate and even though he began rehabilitating, he doubted in his own mind if he could ever come close to being the back he had been.  He could not even return to the field for a year and a half, and as the 1991 season arrived, he was listed as the fourth team tailback.  That might have been the last we heard of Mike Gaddis if not for some comments made by head coach Gary Gibbs.

“I think he said something like we can’t count on Gaddis, something like that.  And he sparked me to want to come back, so I busted my butt that summer, me and Coach (Pete) Martinelli, strength and conditioning coach,” said Gaddis. “What motivates me is when people say you can’t do it.  If I don’t want to play, that’s my decision.  But you aren’t going to tell me I can’t play.  I go to coach Gibbs the day of the article and I’m told him ‘I’m getting ready to prove you wrong because I’m going to come back.   I’m going to make you play me.’”

Gaddis rebounded in his final season to torture the Pokes again
Gaddis rebounded in his final season to torture the Pokes again

Still third-team when the season started, Gaddis finally got his last chance when the two backs ahead of him were injured in the conference opener at Iowa State. He came off the bench to rush for over 100 yards and would up regaining his starting spot down the stretch.  Gaddis reeled off a 217 yard performance against Missouri and tore up his old favorite, Oklahoma State, with his third 200 yard game against them., running for 203 yards on a career-high 35 carries.  He finished the year with more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns, turning down a chance for a medical hardship year to go to the NFL.

A sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Gaddis once again saw misfortune strike when he blew out his other knee after securing a spot on the team.  He tried to come back with other NFL teams, but concerns about his kidneys rather than his knees made teams leery of giving him a shot.  It was about the same time that the possibility of kidney failure started to become reality.

“I always believe everything works out for the best and I never second guess.  When I was 18 at OU, they told me that when I was 25, I would probably need a transplant,” said Gaddis. “When I was 27 is when I started feeling the effects. The high blood pressure for no reason and headaches, so I started seeing a kidney specialist and about five years later, it was time to get it done.”

After testing all four of Gaddis’ brothers for a match, doctors selected his brother Brent as the ideal candidate to donate a kidney.  Brent, who had been a basketball player at Southern Nazarene University, spent 10 months in psychological and physical evaluation, while Mike was on dialysis, before the two went to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas for the transplant operation.

“It’s a blessing every year with my brother’s kidney in me.  I haven’t had any rejection.  My body has accepted it”, said Gaddis. “Obviously, I’m on tons of medication so my body won’t reject it.  Because I take so many immune suppressants, I have to be real careful around people who are sick.  Even when my kids get sick, I have to be careful and worry about infection.  Fortunately, I haven’t had any problems and this kidney could last me the rest of my life.”

Gaddis with his family a few years ago, shortly after his kidney transplant
Gaddis with his family a few years ago, shortly after his kidney transplant

“Looking back, you don’t really know how bad you are feeling, because that’s normal to you.  When you know is after I had the transplant.  Then I knew how bad I felt all my life. I never knew you could feel this good.”

Gaddis settled back in Oklahoma City, where he has operated an insurance agency for  more than 15 years.  He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Andrea, for 20 years and they have two boys, Lunden  and Roman .   Gaddis keeps close tabs on the Sooner program and is especially happy for two of his old teammates who are now on college coaches.

“Ol’ Cale (Gundy) does a heckuva job with those running backs. I never thought he would be good running back coach”, Gaddis said.  “But the ball doesn’t touch the ground, they run hard, they’re physical,  I told him he couldn’t coach me, because I was fumbling all over the place.  I had that ball out there like a loaf of bread.  I grew up watching the wishbone.”

“Chris Wilson (now at USC), I played with him. Those guys are doing a good job.  I never saw either one of them as coaches, but who does when you’re playing.  It’s a good way to stay around the game, you’ve got to be patient, they’re in there breaking down tape and getting their guys ready, and then having to listen to the “experts” on the radio second guess every move.  It’s a tough job.  They’ve served their time and put in their dues and I think they’re putting in some serious hours.  I get to go home every day.”

For Gaddis, the thought of what might have been is something that he’s learned to live with through the years.  Despite the injuries and illness, he still managed to carve out a spot among the top ten all-time rushers at OU in what amount to about a season and a half worth of action.

“Just growing up an Oklahoma fan and then having an opportunity to go play at that school that you grew up worshipping and listening to on the radio every Saturday before every game was on TV,”  said Gaddis.  “It was my lifelong dream to go there, but not just go there but actually be able to be a good player there.  My only regret was, there is no way I could know how my career might have turned out.  I thought I could have gotten a couple of Heismans, honestly. When I look back, I never really started a full season.

“I’m pretty proud about that and maybe one day, my kids will really believe I played there.”

 

No Apologies

The world was in a uproar over a headline in the Daily Oklahoman from Thursday morning that dubbed Kevin Durant as “Mr. Unreliable”. It was perched above a column by Berry Tramel that opined about the Oklahoma City Thunder star’s struggles in the playoff. Newspaper columnists and reporters don’t write the headlines – there’s a whole separate crew responsible for that – but they do suffer the wrath of those headlines from the reading and non-reading public.

That headline went through a three-step approval process and no one along that line, including the top newspaper brass, objected to the two words that rocked the state and the sports nation.  I will have to admit I was surprised to see what was screaming from the top of the Thunder Extra, given that the local paper is usually one of the biggest cheerleaders on the planet and never courts controversy unless it occasionally deals with who is feeding who fried chicken and whether someone is qualified to be a man at the age of 40.

But despite my raised eyebrows, I didn’t see a problem with the headline although I knew the great majority would.  In fact, if it had included a question mark at the end, it would have probably weathered the thunderstorm of criticism that followed.

What I did have a problem with was the apology from Oklahoman Sports Editor Mike Sherman.

Oh, I don’t have a problem with Mike.  I have known him since his days as a cub reporter, have respect for his honesty and dedication, and I even sat next to him at Tuesday’s Thunder-Grizzlies game in OKC. In fact, our kids will probably be attending the same school this fall.

However, one thing you never, ever, ever do in the world of journalism is apologize for a stand you took on a particular story of theme. What it implies is that you don’t have the courage of conviction to stand behind what you believe.  And the apology likely caused the Oklahoman more embarrassment as the day continued than the original headline.  Stick to your guns, take your medicine and live to fight another day.

I’m sure the pressure to apologize came from the top office, after getting a number of calls from advertisers and possibly from one of the Thunder owners who just happens to be the son-in-law of the old newspaper owners.  But this is where the editorial side needed to bow up and say “No, we got this.”

In fact, given Durant’s public response, which was that it was no big deal, and his on court response, which was to throw up a big FU in busting out to a 14 point first quarter en route to a 36 point explosion, the Oklahoman could have taken some credit for his turnaround in the series with a Friday headline saying “I Guess We Were Wrong” (and so was I).

While the newspaper will probably have to scuttle a pending special Thunder edition they were trying to sell in the upcoming weeks due to adverse response to the headline from irate advertisers, at least they were relevant again for a day.

Just remember next time, don’t say it if you don’t mean it.  And own it once you do say it.

 

KD – From MVP to Decoy. Who gets the blame?

Kevin Durant, almost everybody’s choice for regular season NBA MVP, scored the first two baskets in overtime for Oklahoma City in their loss to Memphis Tuesday night – and then didn’t touch the ball again until grabbing a rebound in the final minute. That was when he was fouled and missed the second of two free throws after referee Joey Crawford’s bizarre sprint and grab that disrupted Duran’ts concentration at the line. He got another chance to win the game in the final two seconds, but his long jumper missed and the Serge Ibaka follow was a half tick too late.

Joey Crawford ices KD
Joey Crawford ices KD

So Oklahoma City, one of the favorites to represent the West in the NBA finals, finds themselves on the brink of elimination in the first round and the finger pointing is in full force.  Whose fault is it?  Is it coach Scott Brooks, who seems content with a “fling it and hope strategy” in last second situations?  Is it Russell Westbrook for dominating the ball and sometimes being better than the defense in cooling off the league’s leading scorer, Durant?  Or is it KD himself, for reverting to meek and mild status and not taking control of the situation.  The sad fact is that it is probably a combination of all three and it will likely lead to the end of the Thunder’s season tonight in Memphis.

In the aftermath of the fourth straight overtime game and third one the Thunder lost in the series,  none of the trio instilled confidence in their ability to come back and win on the road to bring the series back to Oklahoma City.  In addition to the three minute stretch in overtime where Durant was shotless after hitting two straight, he went six minutes in the final period of regulation without being involved while Westbrook, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler were firing up threes.  Brooks’ explanation for the lack of touches by Durant was, well, lacking.

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“We’ve got some plays where he has to space the floor. We’re giving Reggie (Jackson) some opportunities. We did that the game before and we were able to get into the paint and create easy opportunities,” said Brooks. “They did a good job of guarding him.  We obviously have to find better looks for all of our guys.”

His guys, especially Westbrook and Jackson, could find better looks by not flying out of control down the court and throwing up off balance prayers.  The two combined for 12-of-38 shooting (31.6 %) and while Durant was right around 42% on his 24 shots, I’d rather take my chances with the leading scorer and MVP shoo-in taking most of that 14 shot differential.

Westbrook sees himself as the Alpha Dog, although he is still hobbling
Westbrook sees himself as the Alpha Dog, although he is still hobbling

When asked if Durant is struggling mentally against the defense of Memphis’ Tony Allen and to a lesser degree, Tayshaun Prince, Brooks didn’t exactly say no.

“Well, he hasn’t made shots but he’s still competing. He’s a great shooter,” Brooks said. “I believe in all the work that he puts in.  I believe that he’s going to come back next game and give us another great effort and I believe that his shots will fall.”

And I believe the children are our future, but that doesn’t make it so.  Durant played almost 52 minutes Tuesday night – more than any other player on either team – and he is showing some signs of fatigue after four straight overtime games.  That plays right into Memphis’ defensive strategy against him and Westbrook, who played 48 minutes on a still bum knee that saw him limping down the court on several occasions.

“As far as KD and Russell, we’re just trying to be aggressive, trying to be physical and make them take and make tough shots. That’s all you can do,” said Memphis point guard Mike Conley. “They’re both phenomenal players and can score at will, so you just have to try to make it tough on them.  Wear them down throughout the game and hope you wear them down enough to where at the end of the game, they miss a couple of those shots.”

The Memphis defense of Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince has stifled Durant
The Memphis defense of Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince has stifled Durant

Durant concedes the Memphis defense has taken its toll, in part, because he hasn’t taken charge of his own game.

“It’s a little bit of both. They’ve been doing a good job, but I have to just stay disciplined on my shots  and knock ‘em down. Can’t just rely on the jumpers,” said Durant. “I’ve got to be more aggressive and have to stay positive.  I’ll figure out where to catch the ball and how I’m being defended.”

First of all, Durant has to actually get the ball, something that has been difficult during the series, as those stretches without shots will attest.  Secondly, you wonder if KD has the burning drive to make it happen.  It appeared so during the stretch when Westbrook was out following the All-Star game, as Durant went on a scoring tear and started showing some Michael Jordan-esque desire.  But since Westbrook has come off of his minutes restriction, Durant has sometimes turned back into a shrinking violet.  There is one cure for that and these comments make you wonder if Durant is ready to step up and take charge.

“Sometimes you’ve got to be a decoy out there and I’m fine with that.  If the basketball comes my way, I have to be ready and be aggressive on my touches,” Durant said. “If I want the ball, I’ve got to go rebound it and bring it up on the break.  So, I trust my teammates with whatever decisions they make, I just gotta be better for ’em.”

Can you ever imagine Jordan, Bird, Magic or Kobe Bryant saying that? LeBron James at one point, maybe. But that’s where we are with Kevin Durant and unless he regains the fire tonight, the Thunder’s playoff hopes will be extinguished.

Durant's frustration has caused him to shrink rather than rise
Durant’s frustration has caused him to shrink rather than rise

Anthony Kim – Gone Without Goodbye?

As the world of golf searched for the next Tiger Woods, it focused its high beams on former OU golfer Anthony Kim.  At  22, he won $1.5 million dollars in 2007, his first full year on the tour and finished sixth on the money list with $4.5 million while winning two PGA events is his second season.  He was a member of  winning U.S. teams in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup and seemed to be on the doorstep of greatness.  All before the age of 25.

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With Presidents Cup teammate Phil Mickelson

But Anthony Kim resembled Tiger Woods in another area.  He liked to party.  His benders were stuff of legend and caused many to wonder if Kim cared enough to be the best.  For a time, he seemed to shift gears, making motions that he was going to get serious about his game.  Nobody wanted to lose the fun side of Kim, but almost everybody wanted him to succeed.

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2010 seemed to be his year.  A playoff victory in the Shell Houston Open was followed by a third place finish at the Masters.  Kim joined Woods, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott as the only players in the past 30 to win three PGA events years before their 25th birthday.

Then came the injuries.  He had his 2010 season cut short after just 14 events. In 2011, he came back but had just two top ten finishes, his lowest full season total.  Then, in 2012, he tore his left Achilles tendon after making the cut in just two of 10 events. Kim has not played in a PGA event since.

This week, his agent said that Kim is not even playing golf recreationally, and even though friends say he’s assured them he is working on a return, it sounds like AK may be done at the age of 28.  Here’s a profile I did on him in his first year on the tour, which reads somewhat like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Anthony Kim exploded onto the collegiate scene at Oklahoma as the NCAA Freshman of the Year in 2004 and was a member of the victorious U.S. Walker Cup team in 2005.  Despite that, Kim was somewhat of an enigma in Norman, attaining All-American status three straight years, while at the same time often finding himself in the doghouse of Coach Jim Reagan. Following his junior season, he decided to part ways with the Sooner program and turn professional.

Just like he did in college, Kim made an immediate splash on the PGA Tour, using a sponsor exemption to play in the Valero Texas Open and finishing second in his debut.

After qualifying for full time status in the winter, Kim became the youngest rookie on tour at age 22, and won over a million dollars in his first season.

Still, Kim’s flamboyant style garners almost as much publicity as his talent.  He can be seen wearing a large belt buckle he picked up at an Oklahoma mall with the initials AK, sometimes wearing his hat backwards and sporting brightly colored attire.

Kim sported the flashy belt buckle on tour
Kim sported the flashy belt buckle on tour

As he told a reporter at the World Golf Championship’s Bridgestone Open, he takes his fashion inspiration from his roots.

“I’ve got a little European, a little basketball, a little everything”, said Kim.  “I grew up playing a lot of post and listening to rap and R&B.  I had to bring the belt buckle from Oklahoma.  I’m trying to be a little bit different and be myself out there.”

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His background, as you might imagine, is not typical.  An Asian-American, Kim moved away from his parents while he was still in high school.  They remained in Northridge, CA, to run the family’s oriental herb business, while Anthony was set up in a house in LaQuinta, where he could attend school and work on his golf game through a membership at PGA West’s four private courses.

Don’t get the idea that Kim is a country club kid, though.  He is more in tune with the streets and showed that by hooking up with a public course professional as his mentor and friend.

Kevin Scheller is a pro at Woodley Lakes G.C. in Van Nuys, California who Kim looks to for swing advice.  The two became friends first and developed a working relationship later.  But Scheller knew from the time he met Kim that the youngster was going to be something special.

“Absolutely”, said Scheller. “He displayed a level of talent that was unusual.  It was far and above normal.  Every once in a while you come across a kid who is above and beyond the rest of his peers, even people that are older. In the beginning when I knew him, I didn’t help him.  We were just friends.  Then over the years, we just happened to hang out and I happened to be an instructor and he would be practicing in California and he would say ‘Hey, would you mind taking a look’.  I would tell him what I thought and he valued my opinion and it’s nothing more than that.”

“You would have to have him say the word coach out of his mouth, because I just don’t do that.  I always considered him a friend first, and I do that for very specific reasons, because it’s not about me.  It’s about him. He’s the player.  I happen to help him occasionally when things don’t go right.  When he’s a little confused and doesn’t think he can figure it out himself.  And that goes back to the teenager living on his own in Palm Springs.  He can take care of himself and he prides himself in that.”

At Oklahoma, Kim also butted heads with Coach Reagan, but in spite of what many think, the two are still on good terms and Kim stays in contact with his college coach.   Although he is now based in Dallas, Kim also returns to Norman from time to time, visiting friends and old haunts around the OU campus.

One of the things that sometimes exasperated his coach was Kim’s insistence on spending as much time on the basketball court as he did on the practice tee.  In fact, Kim missed several tournaments during his sophomore year at OU after spraining an ankle while playing hoops.  At 5’10, 160, Kim envisioned himself as having a shot at being an NBA or NFL player during his younger days, but finally realized that golf was his future.

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Kim spent as much time on the basketball court as he did on the driving range

Still, he loves basketball, and even though many people told him to focus on golf and forget other sports, Scheller wasn’t one of them.

“I never told him that. I told him to find as many outlets as he could possibly have.  He gets that from everybody else and his inner circle is pretty small,” said Scheller. “He is a very good judge of character and he understands people that want things from him and he understands people that want what’s best for him.  And he only associates with people who want what’s best for him.”

“The only thing I’m concerned with is just him being the best player he thinks he can be.  A lot of people give him a hard time for not practicing.  They think he should practice more than he does, but you know, some guys can bang balls for 10 hours and some guys just need to hit balls for 30 minutes and then go do something else and let their brain go to another place.  He just happens to be one of those kids who just can’t really practice a lot because it doesn’t do him any good.  He burns out quickly.”

Another friendship he developed through his OU days is his bond with former Sooner golfer and British Open champ Todd Hamilton.  The two met when Hamilton returned to Norman for an alumni event.  Hamilton, a quiet and reserved personality, is the polar opposite of Kim, which may be the reason they get along so well, according to Scheller.

“Both obviously have respect for each other’s game.  Todd obviously respects Anthony’s talent and I think Todd in some respects gets a kick out of Anthony”, said Scheller. “He’s a young kid, he’s brash, he’s not afraid to say what he wants to say and I think Todd kind of gets a kick out of that.  I don’t really pretend to know their relationship, but I’ve been around them.  I’ve walked practice rounds when they’ve played together and they just seem to enjoy each other’s company.”

Interestingly, Hamilton, who struggled after being named PGA Tour Rookie of The Year at age 38, even recommended his caddie to Kim.  Ron Levin had been on Hamilton’s bag for the 2004 British Open win and is now toting the clubs for Kim.

After a torrid start, with his four top 10 finishes coming by May, Kim has leveled off, still posting respectable scores, but finding inconsistency in his rounds.  That has given rise to comments about his dedication to the game and has given detractors a chance to comment that Kim is more about style than he is substance.  Still, his friend and swing coach Scheller believes that in the end, Kim’s talent will rise above any of the negativity.

“He is a breath of fresh air if people are willing to accept him as a breath of fresh air.  The people that have been waiting for someone like him are going to be excited and”, said Scheller.  “The people who just want to judge his personality, and his belt buckle and his hat on backwards and wearing two different colored shoes, they’re going to judge him and say ‘what a punk’.    I see it as a breath of fresh air.  I don’t see how you can discourage personality – when it’s sincere.  That’s just who he is and he’s not afraid to be who he is.”

“Hopefully, he won’t be labeled as a player who hasn’t lived up to his expectations or his potential.  You never want to be that guy.  And frankly, that’s in his control.  I can’t do anything about that.  What you write about him can’t do anything about that.  He either puts up the results or he doesn’t.”

Kim himself expects to be number one in the world someday, something that he would even say in front of Tiger Woods.  That’s just the way he is.  Only time will tell if he’s the next Tiger or the next John Daly.

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Seven years later, it seems like a little of both, as Woods has faced many of the same lifestyle and injury demons that sidelined Kim.  And Daly, well, he’s found his special place in golf, even if it is not on the top of the leader board.  Let’s hope we haven’t heard the last of Anthony Kim, although the odds are not in his favor at this point.

Sooner Legend Tommy McDonald – An Inspiration For the Little Guy

Spend five minutes with Tommy McDonald and you almost expect the 79-year old Sooner legend to buckle his chin strap and jump back onto Owen Field, ready to score another touchdown.

The years have done nothing to diminish McDonald’s enthusiasm about life and about his days with the greatest teams of the Bud Wilkinson era at Oklahoma.  McDonald grew up in New Mexico, but says he’s an Oklahoma boy at heart.

“It was a great four years of my life from 1953 to 1956. I mean, I never lost a college football game.  Only 17 of us can ever say that,” said McDonald, referring to his teammates who went through their careers during the Sooners NCAA record 47-game win streak.  “I can still hear Boomer Sooner and that stadium- I had never seen a stadium that full.  The Oklahoma fans were marvelous. I can’t say enough about them.  They always tried to make you feel at home.”

Tommy McDonald battling the Texas Longhorns
Tommy McDonald battling the Texas Longhorns

As a 5’9, 147 lb. halfback growing up in a the tiny town of Roy, NM, McDonald never dreamed of playing in front of thousands of fans. But when his family moved to Albuquerque and McDonald became the focus of Highland High Schools single-wing offense, his fortunes began to change.  Where would have McDonald’s life have taken him if he had stayed in Roy?

“My little rear end would have been on a tractor planting wheat,” joked McDonald.

Instead he wound up being All-State in football, basketball and track, but was still largely ignored by major football schools until Oklahoma basketball coach Bruce Drake spotted him in an all-star game and recommended that Wilkinson give McDonald a look.  Meeting Wilkinson was all it took for McDonald to choose the Sooners.

“Bud just overwhelmed you with his personality,” said McDonald.  “As soon as I met him, something clicked that said ‘you’d better go here’.  He was just so far ahead of everybody else at that time.”

Legendary coach Bud Wilkinson provided inspiration for McDonald
Legendary coach Bud Wilkinson provided inspiration for McDonald

McDonald credits Wilkinson’s innovative Split-T offense, a great coaching staff and an abundance of talent for Oklahoma’s magnificent performance during his three varsity years.  But the dominance of those Sooner teams  created problems for players when it came time for post-season awards.  Rarely did starters play more than half the game, as Wilkinson often platooned his first and second teams in alternate quarters.

Still, McDonald was able to garner the prestigious Maxwell Award and The Sporting News Player of the Year and finished third in the Heisman following his senior season despite getting only 110 carries during the season.

McDonald led a star-studded cast at OU
McDonald led a star-studded cast at OU

Midway through that 1956, OU had just rolled to a 40-0 win over Notre Dame and had outscored their first five opponents 223-12, recording four shutouts.  But in their sixth game at Colorado, in front of a national television audience, the Sooners found themselves trailing the Buffaloes 19-6 at halftime.  That’s when the most memorable moment of McDonald’s career took place.

“Coach Wilkinson came into the locker room and told us ‘You don’t deserve to wear that jersey today.  You’re letting that jersey that jersey down’,” remembered McDonald.  “He went on to talk about all the players that had built the program and how we were letting them down as well.  I don’t think they had to open the door after he got through.  We just about ran through the wall trying to get back on the field and Colorado couldn’t do a thing in the second half.  We scored 21 straight points and wound up winning 27-19.”

Capping his collegiate career by grabbing MVP honors at the North-South All-Star game, Mc Donald caught the eye of the Philadelphia Eagles, who picked him in the third round of the NFL draft.  At the time, pro football hadn’t yet taken over the nation’s interest, and McDonald did have his teaching degree from OU to fall back on.  Even though the $12,000 the Eagles offered him doesn’t sound like much now, it beat the $2,200 a year he could have earned in the classroom.

McDonald converted from running back to wide receiver in Philadelphia
McDonald converted from running back to wide receiver in Philadelphia

Early in his rookie year, McDonald was lost in the shuffle at running back and was primarily a kickoff and punt returner. But an injury at wide receiver prompted Eagles coaches to give McDonald a look at wide receiver, and in a game against Washington, he scored two touchdowns. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career, played on the 1960 Philadelphia NFL championship team and spent 12 years in the league with the Eagles, Rams, Falcons, Cowboys and Browns.  In 1962, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as having football’s best hands.

McDonald was fearless a pro receiver
McDonald was fearless a pro receiver

In 1998, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming only the second Sooner player to receive the honor, following Lee Roy Selmon’s induction just a few years earlier.  His appearance in Canton was memorable, as he stole the show by chest-bumping fellow inductees, and made an unforgettable speech.

“God Almighty, I feel good!” shouted McDonald, football’s smallest but definitely loudest Hall of Famer.

He cracked jokes about his wife and tossed his 25-pound bronze bust around like a football. He talked to his father and Ray Nitschke, whose ghosts he claimed were standing on stage with him.

McDonald's Pro Football Hall of Fame speech is still legendary today
McDonald’s Pro Football Hall of Fame speech is still legendary today

McDonald trumped that by pulling a radio out of his briefcase and dancing to disco music on the hallowed steps of the hall, live on national television.

Following his pro career, McDonald returned to the Philadelphia area, where his Tommy McDonald Enterprises supplied portraits to Heisman Trophy and Miss America winners, among others.

“I can’t praise God enough for letting me be in the right place at the right time,” McDonald said. “He kept me healthy.  I never got hurt in high school or college and missed only three games in the pros. And I can’t say enough about the people of Oklahoma.  They are awesome”

Tommy McDonald -- Photo by Bruce Adams