Philadelphia sports commentator Ray Didinger didn’t have typical summer vacations with his parents. As a family of avid Eagles fans, the Didingers ditched the beach to instead attend the team’s training camp in Hershey.
“You could stand right on the sidelines. You could literally walk right up to the players,” reflected Didinger in a recent interview with The Times. “It was a kinder, gentler time.”
A 10-year-old Didinger idolized wide receiver Tommy McDonald, a third-round draft pick of the Eagles in 1957 who, three years later, helped the Birds win the NFL Championship game against the Green Bay Packers. McDonald took note of the young fan, who was in attendance nearly every day, and asked Didinger if he’d like to carry his helmet from the locker room to the practice field.
This sparked a decades-long friendship between the two, with McDonald referring to Didinger as “Little Brother.” Eventually, Didinger helped his hero get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after waiting 30 years.
“It was really a unique story of a little boy and his football hero and kind of bringing it all full circle. Later in life, I found myself in a position where I could help him achieve the one thing he really wanted,” said Didinger. “It just seemed like a really nice, feel-good story and I thought it deserved to be told.”
Though Didinger is known for sports writing and is the author of several books, including the recent memoir Finished Business: My Fifty Years of Headlines, Heroes, and Heartaches, he felt the story needed to be expressed on a larger platform. Therefore, in 2017, he penned his first play Tommy and Me, which is hitting the Bucks County Playhouse stage, 70 S. Main St. in New Hope, April 7-17.
“We wanted to bring it to the folks up in Bucks County because I know there’s a lot of Eagles fans up there who don’t necessarily want to come into Philadelphia. If they’re not gonna come to us, let’s bring Tommy to them,” said Didinger. “It’s such a great theater with great history. The idea that we’re actually bringing Tommy and Me to the same theater where Grace Kelly and James Earl Jones have performed, it’s really exciting.”
Over the years, Tommy and Me was performed at FringeArts in Philadelphia, The Media Theatre in Media and Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington. Aside from the character of Young Ray, the cast has remained largely unchanged. Directed by Joe Canuso, who also had a hand in The Philly Fan play that chronicles the frustrations of being a Philadelphia sports fan, Tommy and Me stars Matt Pfeiffer as Ray and Tom Teti as Tommy.
For Teti, who shares Didinger’s love for McDonald, it’s an honor to portray him on stage.
“He said this is a great thrill for him and, even though he’s been acting for more than 30 years doing everything from Sweeney Todd to Mark Twain, he said getting the chance to play Tommy McDonald, his favorite football player, is a particular thrill for him,” said Didinger. “And he’s really, really good at it.”
Before McDonald’s passing in 2018, he, along with his wife, children and grandchildren, came out to see Tommy and Me. Didinger watched from the wings as McDonald laughed, clapped and nudged his son, saying, “Yeah, that happened!” Afterward, McDonald received a standing ovation and signed autographs for attendees.
“Just watching him watch the play, to see him enjoy it was the best part of the whole thing,” said Didinger. “I’m so glad that he was able to experience it and enjoy it as much as he did. Nobody loved this play more than he did.”
Tommy and Me chronicles everything from the pair’s first encounter to when, years later, Didinger became a Philadelphia voter for the Hall of Fame and fiercely campaigned for McDonald’s inclusion.
The play culminates in a video of McDonald’s unforgettable 1998 acceptance speech, which saw him dance to the Bee Gees, toss his Hall of Fame bust into the air and chest bump his fellow inductees. According to Didinger, he didn’t want to give a traditional address out of fear he’d cry on television. Instead, he reminded fans that sports should be fun.
“He did this whole thing that no one else had done or ever dreamed of doing,” said Didinger.
Directly following each performance of Tommy and Me, audiences can participate in a talk-back with Didinger and the cast, who answer questions. Each talk-back features a special guest moderator, including Eagles great and 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame member Harold Carmichael on April 7, Didinger’s 94WIP radio co-host Glen Macnow at the evening show on April 9, and comedian Joe Conklin on April 15.
Similar to McDonald, Carmichael also waited approximately 30 years for his Hall of Fame induction.
“Sometimes you kind of get forgotten,” said Didinger. “Even if they’re good players, they can fall through the cracks. That happened with Tommy and Harold.”
Though Didinger loves seeing theater-goers decked out in Eagles gear, he stressed that knowledge about McDonald, the Eagles or sports isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying Tommy and Me.
“It’s a story about a football player, but it’s about so much more than that. It really is a story about a little boy and his hero, a story about making dreams come true,” said Didinger. “There’s always those people that we look up to and identify with. It’s nice when you find out that you picked the right hero, when you finally meet him and he is everything that you hoped he was going to be. Tommy was even better than I thought, and the fact that we later on in life were able to forge this kind of relationship and create something like this play that continues on and entertains people, it’s wonderfully gratifying.”
Tickets for Tommy and Me can be purchased at bcptheater.org or by calling 215-862-2121. The show is offered as part of the Playhouse’s Visiting Artists Series. Proof of vaccination (along with photo ID) and masks are required.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org