Will McDonough: A man of substance
By Bob Duffy, Globe Staff, 1/10/03
Lunchtime was a rumor to the nocturnal creatures who subsisted on a constant diet of caffeine, nicotine, and adrenaline while toiling into the wee hours putting out the Boston Globe back in the pre-Surgeon General's Warning days of the late '50s. So Ernie Roberts, a reporter for the Globe's evening incarnation, was somewhat taken aback while strolling through the sports department one noon when he encountered the co-op kid striding purposefully past him.
Roberts knew that Will McDonough was one of the Northeastern night owls who provided indispensable assistance on the late shift shagging coffee, copy, and telephoned tips and tidbits for the staffers. What could possibly bring him into the building at this ungodly hour?
"I'm going in to see about getting a full-time job," explained McDonough.
Roberts quickly surveyed the applicant. And took pity. "Why don't you go home," he gently suggested, knowing McDonough lived just down the road, "and put on a shirt and tie first?"
McDonough did a cursory self-inspection. Sweater, sans shirt. Jeans. Sneakers. Everything looked fine to him.
"I think I'll just stay like this," he told Roberts.
Joe O'Donnell cringed at the sight of the piece of filth his father showed him. Joe was an All-Scholastic football and baseball player at Malden Catholic at the start of the '60s. His dad, an Everett cop, had been searching the bench area for lost articles after a game. This ratty, tattered article - presumably a coat at one time - looked more abandoned than lost; it was on the ground only because some self-respecting trash can probably had spit it back out.
But, unbelievably, it had identification sewn in it: "Property of Will McDonough, 326 Dorchester St., South Boston."
O'Donnell recognized the name, for McDonough had been recording his exploits while handling the high school sports beat for the Globe. But the young athlete couldn't believe anyone would admit to ownership, let alone publicize it. Still, a call was placed to the McDonough residence, where "he was still living with his mother," says O'Donnell. And before the O'Donnells could delouse or discard this ancient ruin of which they had become reluctant caretakers, McDonough was at their door near Everett Square to reclaim it.
"He took a train and a bus to get it," says O'Donnell, still amazed and aghast at the memory.
The face was right out of a Southie barroom brawl. The voice belonged on a cast recording of "Guys and Dolls." And the fashion sense, as Ernie Roberts and Joe O'Donnell could attest, was . . . well, unparalleled. But Roberts, who went on to become the Globe sports editor and later a columnist, and O'Donnell, now a multifaceted tycoon, discovered a far more profound truth way back when:
Appearance, artifice meant nothing to Will McDonough, who passed away late last night at the age of 67. Substance was what mattered. Those who had it, he embraced. Those who tried to snow him - and, by extension, the public - with superficiality, he scorned. For 44 years, that has been his credo.
The other stuff is impressive, to be sure. The national reputation, especially in pro football circles, as evidenced by his achievement of having covered all 36 Super Bowls. The general practitioner's shingle he hung out by chronicling every major local sports entity - the Patriots from day one, the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, Boston College, you name it - before the age of specialization obliterated such all-around expertise. The high and mighty sources to whom he and he alone had access, moving as comfortably in those circles as he did in the less rarefied but equally valued world of cops and counter waitresses and longshoremen. The cash-laden trail he blazed as the first full-time print journalist to cross over into network television and radio.
Distinctions to be savored, every one. But not the essence of McDonough's career. Beneath all the grandeur was this given: Will McDonough accomplished all this while he remained - no, because he remained - unmistakably himself.
In a sense, he never left St. Augustine's Parish. The tenets he absorbed while growing up on Dot Street and playing in the Old Colony projects stayed with him. So did the friends, no matter what their station in life.
Dick Carey became a multimillionaire businessman. Bill Tierney became chief justice of Boston Municipal Court. Joe Corcoran became a big-time real estate developer. Billy Sweeney, Willie's best friend, became a superintendent with Boston Gas. Billy Bulger, who grew up in the Old Harbor projects but started hanging out with the McDonough crew during adolescence, became president of the Massachusetts Senate and later the University of Massachusetts. But there were others who earned niches not quite as glorious, becoming guests of the state at various correctional institutions.
"But Willie would still go to visit them," says Sweeney. "He never felt he was too good for them."
Except on the diamond or gridiron of the sandlots or at Boston English High School, because there he was better than most of them. He was a star pitcher in baseball and quarterback in football until a college knee injury curtailed his career.
Teen exploits tend to become magnified through the haze and bravado of age. But Sean McDonough, the gifted announcer who calls Red Sox games, discovered just the opposite was true when he tried to separate the brag from the fact about his father's playing days. Sean was doing play-by-play of a college hockey game on New England Sports Network, and Bill Stewart, the legendary Boston English coach, was a goal judge.
"Tell me," Sean implored Stewart between periods, "just how good an athlete was my father?"
Stewart replied emphatically, "Maybe the best I've ever coached."
"That certainly wasn't the answer I was prepared for," says Sean with a laugh.
That proficiency would serve Will in good stead, earning him respect among his subjects as someone who could perform sports feats, not just describe them. "He was a great athlete," says Bruins president-general manager Harry Sinden, who has known McDonough since becoming the team's coach 36 years ago, "so he knew where the people he was writing about were coming from."
Red Auerbach realized that firsthand. "We used to work out a lot together," says the resident Celtics legend, who was still coaching the team when he met McDonough. "He used to beat the [expletive] out of me in tennis and racquetball."
Perhaps because of that, there was no doubting his destiny; from childhood, he had "sportswriter" written all over him.
"He read everything, watched everything," says Sweeney. "He's extremely bright, he's got a mind that can absorb everything, and he was a real sports nut."
Bulger noticed another trait that is invaluable in McDonough's chosen trade. "He always talks about everything ex cathedra, as if it's certain, when things aren't certain: "I'll tell you what's going to happen.' He never had the problem of hesitation."
Bulger speaks with bemusement about this aspect of his old friend, but it once came in handy.
As Bulger relates in his memoir, "While The Music Lasts: My Life In Politics" McDonough was Bulger's first campaign manager.
It was a shoestring operation, with guile and savvy in greater supply than dollars and cents. A key element was finding residences to hang signs promoting Bulger to represent Southie's Ward 7. One night, Bulger writes, "Coley Walsh . . . breezed in after a sojourn at the Cornerstone Pub."
Walsh told McDonough and Bulger they could nail a sign on the three-decker across the street, which he owned. The neophyte politicos instantly took him up on this. But while installing the sign, McDonough and Bulger were interrupted by an irate resident sticking his head out a window and demanding, "What the hell do you think you're doing? You've already knocked a picture off the wall."
Bulger explained that the building's owner had granted permission for this campaign propaganda. The man exploded, "All Coley owns is the clothes he's wearing. I own this house, and you get away from it and take your damn sign with you."
Chastened, Bulger and McDonough obliged. But McDonough took a different tack, so to speak.
"We're leaving," he told the resident, who had not seen the name on the sign, "but I still hope you'll vote for O'Leary" - Bulger's opponent.
"Not after you're hammering my pictures off the all," the man snapped. "Tell him I'm voting for Bulger."
Ex cathedra, indeed.
McDonough's no-nonsense personality could create agitation or allegiance, and he didn't much care which. He was what he was; take it or leave it.
Surprisingly, many movers and shakers chose to take it. Perhaps they were contemptuous of sycophants and admired McDonough's relentless candor. Perhaps his photographic memory was a secret weapon of persuasion.
"I attribute memory to interest," says Corcoran. "If you're keenly interested, you're going to remember it."
Just a regular guy talking. A guy who happened to number some of the most powerful figures in sports among his allies.
"He has a very attractive personality," says Vince Doria, the former Globe sports editor who is now ESPN's vice president-director of news. "He was the type of guy you wanted to hang around with."
This wasn't some contrivance designed to acquire heady access, but that's what it did. And it often transcended sport.
"I don't know what it was," says Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who has known McDonough since coming to New England as an assistant two decades ago, "but we just hit it off. We talked some football but also a lot of other things. He's just a friend. I don't know how to describe it. Sure, we had a professional relationship because he was a sportswriter and I was a coach, but he never once compromised me, never exploited the relationship. He was so real and genuine."
"Honest," agrees Sinden. "He's a reporter first rather than a philosopher. I'm sure he's made some mistakes, but I don't recall him ever even stretching the truth. If there was something [negative] going on, he'd make damn sure he had all the facts right before he'd write a story."
Those alliances led to charges that McDonough's methods constituted a self-serving agenda. "I know sometimes he's accused of crossing the line," says his son Sean, "but the bottom line for him is getting the information for the paper in the best way possible. And he's not going to burn a friend."
But he wasn't going to let friend or foe off the hook when he felt criticism was warranted.
"He's fair and tough," says Auerbach. "He won't back off when he feels he's right, and I like that."
And, contrary to the standard criticism, he didn't play favorites, or vice versa.
"One of the things in our friendship was I didn't give him tips or scoops or any of that crap," says Auerbach. "That's why it was a friendship. I wouldn't give him anything I wouldn't give a lot of others."
Former Red Sox CEO John Harrington reinforces Auerbach's analysis. In 1972, when the American League office was in Copley Square and Red Sox Hall of Famer Joe Cronin was its president, he and assistant Harrington were crossing the street after lunch one day when they encountered McDonough. Harrington had never met the sportswriter. But he was struck by the vigor with which McDonough advised Cronin to take a hard-line stance in the matter of Vida Blue's holdout from penurious Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley, a cause celebre at the time.
"Boy," Harrington told Cronin, "that's one tough guy from Southie."
Cronin paused to consider his aide's first impression, then said, "Tough but true. Stay close to that guy if you stay in baseball."
Harrington hasn't forgotten that admonition during his eventful reign at Fenway Park, during which he and the team hardly have gotten a free ride from McDonough.
"Sometimes I'd hold my breath when he called," says Harrington. "I'd wonder, 'What case is he on now?' "
Because McDonough might be calling in search of ammunition to blast Harrington's employees. He had inherited the Saturday morning potpourri column - a Boston institution passed down from the late Jerry Nason to Roberts and on to McDonough - and anyone he considered an underachiever with skewed priorities would get a helping of wrath with his corn flakes. But Harrington still took McDonough's calls, good or bad. Why?
"Because what Joe Cronin said was right," says Harrington. "Will was tough but true."
Two of his favorite Saturday targets, Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn, might be shocked to discover that McDonough also has betrayed clandestine evidence of having a large heart.
He does not like it publicized but he is a tireless worker for charity."
"If he asked you to show up at some function," says Sinden, "you'd better show or have a damn good reason not to."
On one tragic occasion, O'Donnell was galvanized by McDonough's charitable zeal. When the concessions mogul's son Joey died at age 12 from cystic fibrosis, "I didn't know whether to break down crying," says O'Donnell, "or jump off the roof."
McDonough pulled him aside. "You've got to go on," he told his friend, "for Joey's sake."
O'Donnell wound up forming the Joey Fund, which has raised millions in the battle against cystic fibrosis.
That crusading inclination may have been a hand-me-down from McDonough's older brother John, a Boston railroad employee and a Roman Catholic Church deacon.
John McDonough also helped run religious retreats at Stonehill College. He wondered whether his kid brother might need a bit of a push on the road to salvation. "Maybe we should get him to go on retreat," he told Harrington.
The co-conspirators arranged a recruiting dinner at John McDonough's house. The brothers, Harrington, and their wives spent two or three postprandial hours discussing family values.
Near the end of the session, John McDonough winked at Harrington and whispered, "I don't think Will needs a retreat."
In any sense of the word.
McDonough was unabashedly controversial, but the journalistic establishment didn't exactly disown him. In 1993, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of journalism degree from Northeastern. By then, Dr. McDonough had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and, among an array of exclusives, he had revealed that Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker would renounce his senior year of eligibility at Georgia and turn pro with the US Football League; that 1984 Los Angeles Olympic chief Peter Ueberroth would become baseball commissioner; and that former Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter's gambling activities were under FBI investigation.
It didn't hurt that McDonough aggressively advertised himself as nobody's patsy. His signature moment in that regard was the infamous 1979 altercation in which churlish Patriots cornerback Raymond Clayborn poked McDonough in the eye and scratched his face for allegedly intruding upon his locker space - then got decked by the two-fisted reporter.
"After that," says Doria, "he became a folk hero."
"You know how when you're a kid, you go around saying, 'My dad can beat up your dad'?" says Sean McDonough. "Well, after that, I went to school saying, 'Never mind beating up your dad. My dad can beat up an NFL player.' "
Eventually, McDonough acquired a lofty nickname under singular circumstances, recalls O'Donnell.
Making an ill-fated attempt to buy the Patriots, O'Donnell was in Palm Springs, Calif., where McDonough was covering the 1989 NFL owners' meetings.
"Six thousand writers running from one room to another, from one press conference to another," O'Donnell recounts.
Except one. Immune to the frenzy was McDonough, who was "more worried about his tennis and golf games," says O'Donnell. "I said, 'What the [expletive]? Everyone else is working.' "
Ah, but O'Donnell should have learned years before, appearances can be deceiving with McDonough.
On the third day of the meetings, when commissioner Pete Rozelle was scheduled to issue his annual State of the NFL address, McDonough suggested that he and O'Donnell take in an exhibition baseball game. But what about Rozelle's report? wondered O'Donnell.
"Don't worry," McDonough told him. "I can do this in my sleep."
So off they went to the ballpark, where they were enjoying sunshine and hot dogs in the fourth inning when a fan sitting beside them put down his transistor radio in shock and said, "Holy [expletive]. Rozelle just announced his retirement."
Choking on his hot dog, O'Donnell figured McDonough was cooked.
"The biggest story of the century," he told McDonough, "and you've missed it."
"Don't worry," McDonough shrugged with an eerie calm. "I'll think of something."
With less than a sense of urgency, McDonough accompanied O'Donnell to the would-be Patriots owner's rental car, and O'Donnell raced back to the hotel "on two wheels."
When they arrived, McDonough shuffled from the garage into the hotel ever so slowly, "like Jim Brown walking back to the huddle," says O'Donnell.
Not a soul remained in the ballroom where Rozelle had issued his announcement. Now McDonough was a goner for sure, O'Donnell figured. Then, in amazement, he watched McDonough pick up the house phone, ask the operator for Rozelle's room number, and say, "Pete? Will. Something came up and I missed your speech. Can I talk to you for a few minutes?"
"The next thing I know," says O'Donnell, "we're sitting in Rozelle's 30-room suite getting the only personal interview he was giving. He was telling Willie stuff nobody else had gotten about why he was retiring."
The next morning, says O'Donnell, "6,000 guys have the same story. Will's is entirely different. He's got the real story."
So O'Donnell walked up to self-proclaimed NFL inside reporter Fred Edelstein, who was always in friendly competition with McDonough, and said, "How come you didn't have the real story and McDonough did? I'll tell you why. He's Mr. Big. Mr. Large."
By that time, a nation of viewers already had gotten that message. McDonough was now a household face and had been since 1986, when CBS made the revolutionary move of hiring him as an on-camera reporter for its "NFL Today" pregame show.
McDonough had established himself as the sport's preeminent print reporter, largely through his Sunday notes column, part of former Globe sports editor Dave Smith's innovation for giving readers extra information on all the major sports.
"The notes column was made for him," says Smith, now the Dallas Morning News executive sports editor and deputy managing editor, "because he'd come up with so many great items that weren't worth a whole story but were very interesting and deserved two or three paragraphs."
Sunday notes columns soon became a national staple, and McDonough provided the juiciest smorgasbord of inside dope, gossip that proved to be fact, and backroom maneuverings.
Sometimes he had to walk the tightrope for his information.
"We had the same passion, shared the same dreams, had the same priorities," says Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis. "Will had to be careful because the league isn't friendly with me and I'm not friendly with the league. To his credit, he managed not to get involved" in taking sides.
Everyone, it seemed, took note of the notes. Especially CBS executive sports producer Ted Shaker. The Sunday Globe was a fixture on "The NFL Today" desk each week before the cameras rolled, and Shaker decided he wanted to get McDonough in front of them.
"It wasn't a secret that whatever Will McDonough printed in his Sunday column was the most insight on the NFL people were going to get all week," says Shaker. "The bottom line was that we wanted to improve the information on our program."
Putting straight print reportage on the air "was unheard of," says Shaker. "But viewers were more sophisticated. There no longer was the idea that TV personalities had to be virtual models."
Which McDonough decidedly was not. "At the time," says Shaker, "there were great reservations about bringing in a guy with a face for radio and a voice for newspapers."
There were equal misgivings in the Globe's editorial offices.
Doria was confronted with an unprecedented dilemma. "For one day's work a week," recalls Doria, "CBS wanted to pay him roughly three times as much as he was making at the Globe. Willie understandably wanted to maximize his income."
And Doria wanted to minimize the tremors. He and his superiors agonized over the alternatives before finally making what Doria calls "a deal with the devil. Anything he got on Sunday morning would go on CBS first. Anything he got Monday through Saturday would go to the Globe. I wasn't comfortable with it, but I finally decided that six days of Will McDonough was better than no days of Will McDonough."
And so a phenomenon was born. McDonough - just a regular guy talking about stuff nobody else happened to know - became an instant hit, so much so that NBC eventually lured him to its pregame show for even more money.
Doria and the Globe realized some unexpected rewards.
"Willie's exposure increased," says Doria. "Where he might have eight GMs whispering in his ear before, there were 30 doing it" thanks to the network cachet. "And from Monday through Saturday, the Globe got the benefits of that exposure and those contacts."
And a cottage industry took root. Nowadays, it's hard to find a print reporter who doesn't have a TV or radio gig going. Had McDonough failed, who knows what might have happened?
"The mentality in TV," says Sean McDonough, "is to say, 'OK, that didn't work. We won't do that again.' "
Thanks to Mr. Big, that discussion never took place.
It was a crystalline evening on the Mediterranean. With Barcelona hotel space at a premium during the 1992 Summer Olympics, Sports Illustrated had provided a cruise liner on which to cultivate its corporate advertisers and court the elite.
The ship was nearly submerged in success. On the periphery of the maelstrom of sparkling champagne and roving hors d'oeuvre trays and intoxicating conversation stood former Globe sports columnist supreme Leigh Montville, on board as an SI senior writer, and McDonough, a celebrity invitee.
"This is the life," said Montville.
"That's the thing about sportswriting," said McDonough. "You may not make a whole lot of money, but every once in a while, you get a chance to see how these people live. You get a chance to sample how the rich and famous and powerful spend their time."
"Yeah," said Montville, "we sure have it good."
"We?" said McDonough, eyeing his companion incredulously. "I meant you. I am one of these people."
Montville wasn't about to argue, and nobody really could. Southie's Everyman had come a long way.