(Editor's Note: This story originally ran in 2016 when the original fundraising campaign for Tommy and Me was taking place. The play just finished a run at the Media Theatre last month. Tommy passed away Monday at the age of 84.)
Sitting on the couch in front of a bright window in the living room of a South Philadelphia home in Passyunk Square, three actors hold scripts in their hands. As they begin reading their highlighted lines for the small audience in attendance, Ray Didinger diligently follows along with his own copy of Tommy and Me, a play that marks his first endeavor into the world of theater.
The tale is one that begins with a boy meeting his NFL idol, Tommy McDonald, on a hot summer day in Hershey, Pennsylvania. In that moment, the child never imagined the future unfolding the way it eventually would, but as fate would have it, that experience was the first of many memories Didinger and McDonald would share over the course of their adventure.
Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1957 out of Oklahoma, McDonald enjoyed a 12-year NFL career. He played seven seasons with the Eagles and was part of the organization's 1960 NFL Championship team.
On that cold December day, the receiver gave the Eagles their first lead of the game, catching a 35-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He and his teammates eventually upset the Green Bay Packers and head coach Vince Lombardi, 17-13.
When he retired from the game in 1968, McDonald had amassed 9,891 all-purpose yards, 8,410 receiving yards, and 84 receiving touchdowns, the second most in NFL history at the time. As the years went by, however, McDonald's hopes of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame slowly diminished.
The phone call never came, until Didinger became involved.
"I just knew it was a very unique story, a very one-of-a-kind kind of story about a little kid and his childhood hero, having the opportunity years later to help him," Didinger said. "Once I got into my career, I was in a position to help him get into the Hall of Fame, which is the thing he always wanted. Then when he gets in the Hall of Fame, he turns around and asks me to be his presenter without ever knowing that I was the kid that carried his helmet at Training Camp.
"It's a story that starts at Eagles Training Camp in the 1950s with me being the little kid who waits outside the locker room to carry his helmet to the practice field, and it ends up 40 years later with the two of us standing together on the steps of the Hall of Fame. I just thought it was a really sweet story, and then the question was what's the best way to tell it?"
While Didinger's writing speaks for itself, the five-time Philadelphia Sportswriter of the Year and member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame admitted he wasn't sure where to start when it came to penning a play.
After spending about a year on the rough copy of Tommy and Me, Didinger sent his work to Joe Canuso, the founding artistic director of Theatre Exile. When Canuso read the draft, he knew it was a story people would love and a project he wanted to take on.
"I was honored. Ray Didinger brings you something that he wrote, I mean come on," Canuso said. "Then I read the play and it's a great story. I did not know all the details of the story. I didn't know Ray was the one that helped Tommy get in the Hall of Fame. I didn't know all that stuff about him knowing Tommy when he was a kid. All that stuff was fascinating to me. I knew who Tommy McDonald was. I knew he was in the Hall of Fame, but I didn't know all the background story to it. Once I read that, I was like, 'This is a great story. We have to do this.'"
Suddenly, Didinger's vision began to take shape. He, Canuso, and others with Theatre Exile got to work casting the play's three characters, Ray, Young Ray, and Tommy. Once they selected Matt Pfeiffer, Simon Canuso Kiley, and Tom Teti for the parts, the planning was fully set into motion.
On May 4, 2015, they hosted the first reading of Tommy and Me at Plays and Players Theatre. With about 200 people in the crowd, Didinger patiently waited for reactions to the show, knowing that night could ultimately be the make-or-break moment.
Without positive feedback from the audience, Tommy and Me would not go into production because the company would be unable to raise the necessary funding to continue.
Once he and Theatre Exile learned the play was a success, Didinger focused in on one specific individual's thoughts. The opinion of this man sitting in the front row that evening was everything he could have ever hoped.
"The best part about it was that Tommy McDonald actually came to the reading. He and his family came to the reading, his wife, his son, his daughter, and their spouses sat right in the front row," Didinger said. "They really, really enjoyed it. In fact, at one point Tommy got so excited he jumped up and started Eagles cheers.
"I said to Joe, 'Even if this thing never goes beyond tonight, if this is the only night Tommy and Me meets the public, it was worth it to see how much he enjoyed it. It was worth it to see him kind of for one night be Tommy McDonald again, having people asking for his autograph, posing for pictures, to bring him back center stage.' That was my way of repaying him a little bit."
Now almost a year later, Didinger, Canuso and everyone involved have planned to put together a full production of the play this August at FringeArts Theater on Columbus Boulevard. However, because Theatre Exile is non-profit theater, they are now focused on raising the necessary funds.
As the three actors perform the reading in hopes of gaining more awareness for their mission, Didinger looks over the revisions he's made to the script, striving for perfection. The small group gathered around the living room watches on in admiration.
The play, even in the most basic of settings, was moving and proved to be a story sports fans and non-sports fans alike could relate to. In the end, that was Didinger's goal all along.
"If you're an Eagles fan, it's a slam dunk. You're going to love it," Didinger said. "To know that the story actually touched people who knew nothing about it, didn't care about football, didn't care about the Eagles, but there was a humanity about this story of a boy and his hero that crossed all odds. That's kind of what I think the takeaway is. Somebody who is your boyhood hero is always your hero. You never really outgrow that. That's a big part of your life, someone you look up to. That really has a hold on you.
"The best part is later on when you actually meet that person and they prove to be everything you hoped they would be. Then it's really special. We all have childhood heroes. Sometimes they're athletes. Sometimes they're singers. Sometimes they're actors. We all have childhood heroes, but you don't often meet that person. It's usually someone that stays up on the screen or stays on the stage. It's rare that you actually get to meet that person, and then that you can actually forge a relationship with that person, that's even a step further. Then when you have the opportunity to help that person realize their dream, that's the ultimate. That's really what this story is."