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Ray Didinger: Tommy McDonald Shines In The Controversial First Fog Bowl

Posted Sep 21, 2017

Tommy McDonald set a franchise record with 237 receiving yards against the Giants on a fog-covered Franklin Field in 1961

It was the first Fog Bowl - December 10, 1961. The Eagles played the New York Giants in a huge game at Franklin Field. There were 60,671 people in the stands and for much of the day, they had a hard time following the action. I know because I was there.

The fog wasn't quite as dense as the fog in Chicago that turned the Eagles-Bears 1988 playoff game into a whiteout, but it was pretty thick and, unlike the Chicago fog, it was there from the start of the game. Our family's seats were in Section EE behind the end zone at Franklin Field and we could not see Weightman Hall, the athletic administration building, at the opposite end of the field. We could see to midfield but beyond that the players were ghosts.

It was a weird weather day because it was typically cold for December - 30 degrees, 23-degree wind chill - but the humidity was 94 percent which resulted in this fog that turned Franklin Field into a setting that looked like something out of a horror movie - appropriate, given the way the game ended.

The Eagles and Giants came into the game tied for first place in the Eastern Conference with identical 9-3 records. The Giants had beaten the Eagles a month earlier at Yankee Stadium, 38-21. That was the Eagles' first game without cornerback Tom Brookshier who suffered a broken leg the week before. The Eagles started a rookie, Glen Amerson, in Brookshier's spot against the Giants and he was torched by quarterback Y.A. Tittle throwing bombs to the speedy Del Shofner.

By the time the teams met again, the Eagles had replaced Amerson with Irv Cross, a better player but also a rookie. There were only two games left in the regular season so the Eagles-Giants rematch was likely to decide the conference champion.

The Giants scored on the fourth play from scrimmage with Tittle hitting Shofner again on a deep pass. From where we were sitting all we saw was Shofner catch the ball over his shoulder and disappear into the fog. It looked like we were in for a repeat of the rout at Yankee Stadium.

But the Eagles had added something new to the playbook that was the creation of assistant coach Charlie Gauer. It was a stacked deck formation with three receivers lined up one right behind the other - split end Pete Retzlaff, tight end Bobby Walston, and halfback Timmy Brown. There was one lone receiver on the opposite side and that was flanker Tommy McDonald.

The formation put the Giants' defense in a dilemma. They had to roll the coverage to the three-receiver side which meant they had to play McDonald one-on-one which was exactly what Gauer wanted. The Giants put their best one-on-one defender, cornerback Erich Barnes, on McDonald but it was a mismatch. The first time the Eagles came out in the stack, McDonald beat Barnes on a crossing route and quarterback Sonny Jurgensen hit him in stride for a 52-yard touchdown.

It went on like that for the entire day. Barnes was a good cornerback, a lanky 6-2, 200-pounder who was acquired by the Giants that season in a trade with Chicago. It was reported at the time that the Giants made the deal mostly to add a cornerback who could cover McDonald who had tormented them for years. The Giants felt Barnes, with his height and long arms, could shut down the 5-9, 170-pound McDonald. It didn't quite work out.

Barnes had a good year for the Giants, intercepting seven passes and returning two of them for touchdowns. But he didn't have any more luck covering McDonald than anyone else and it was particularly true on this foggy afternoon.

Jurgensen hit McDonald with a 66-yard bomb later in the game then hit him again with a 30-yard touchdown pass to pull the Eagles within four points in the fourth quarter. For the game, McDonald had seven catches for 237 yards, a club record that still stands. Think about that. A passing record that is still on the books 56 years later. It is amazing when you consider the NFL's evolution into a pass-first league.

There have only been five 200-yard receiving games in Eagles history: Bud Grant, 203 yards against the Dallas Texans in 1952; Retzlaff, 204 yards against Washington in 1965; Kevin Curtis, 221 yards against Detroit in 2007; DeSean Jackson, 210 yards against the Cowboys in 2010; and McDonald's 237 yards against the Giants.

Think of all the great receivers who played here and never had a 200-yard game. Harold Carmichael's career high was 187 yards against the Cardinals in 1973. Terrell Owens had 171 yards in one game against Kansas City (2005). Mike Quick's personal best was 170 yards against the Cardinals in 1988. So a 200-yard game is a pretty rare feat.

Jurgensen had a big game against the Giants, passing for 367 yards and three touchdowns, and Brown averaged almost 7 yards per rushing attempt. The Eagles outgained the Giants 455 yards to 371, but it wasn't enough as the Giants won the game 28-24.

Anyone who was there will remember the controversy surrounding a fourth-quarter special teams play. The Giants were punting from their own end zone late in the game. The Eagles trailed by four points but they had momentum thanks to the McDonald touchdown. Defensive end Leo Sugar attempted to block the kick. He didn't touch the ball, but the punter Don Chandler went down and the referee called roughing the kicker. It gave the Giants a huge first down and they went on to score a touchdown that put the game away.

The play happened right in front of me and - fog or no fog - I saw it clearly enough to know that Don Chandler took a dive. Sugar said after the game that Chandler did a great acting job and that's sure how it looked to me.

The following week, the Eagles beat Detroit 27-24 and the Giants tied Cleveland to win the conference with a 10-3-1 record. But neither the outcome nor the fog could obscure the brilliance of McDonald's record-setting performance.

When I wrote the play Tommy and Me that was performed the past two summers by Theatre Exile, I put in a line for Simon Kiley, the 12-year-old actor who played me as a young Tommy McDonald fan. Matt Pfeiffer, who plays the adult me, makes reference to the 237-yard game and notes it is still the Eagles' record.

Simon says, "Take THAT, T.O."

That line got a laugh every night.

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here.

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