Whatever happened to …. Ron McDole
Redskins fans who remember the George Allen Era have fond memories of “The Dancing Bear” — Ron McDole. He was obtained from the Buffalo Bills in 1971 for third and fourth round draft choices. In fact, they were the same draft choices Allen had traded previously for Speedy Duncan of the San Diego Chargers. George did things like that and it infuriated Pete Rozelle. By the end of his career, McDole had played in Super Bowl VII (1972), was selected to the All-Time All-AFL Second Team, selected AFL all-star twice (1965,67) and is one of the 70 Greatest Redskins. He also holds the record for the most interceptions by a lineman (13). However, migraine headaches almost ended his career before it really got started.
The Early Years
Roland Owen McDole was born September 9, 1939 in Chester, Ohio and was raised in Toledo, Ohio. He was the second of five children — three sisters and two brothers. His dad worked for a steel company in Toledo and his mom was a homemaker and worked at restaurants.
He started playing organized football when he was in seventh grade. “Toledo had athletic clubs and parents would coach the teams,” said McDole. “I was on the west side of Toledo and we had several teams organized by the districts of the junior high schools. There were about five or seven teams and we all played at night at the high school stadium. I couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years old.” He played Little League baseball first, he added.
When it came time to attend high school, McDole went to Toledo DeVilbiss on the other side of town. He played football for the school. A versatile player he played fullback, end and defensive tackle. “I moved to fullback when the player who had the position was disqualified because he was ruled ineligible,” he said.
After graduating high school, McDole attended the University of Nebraska on scholarship. He said it was a choice of going to Nebraska or joining the Major League Baseball Detroit Tigers. “The baseball coach at my high school, Norm Kies, was an ex-pro player and he was also my adviser. He advised me to go to Nebraska instead of playing for the Tigers. He told me that playing in college was equivalent to playing in the minor leagues and I would get an education. That was a big reason why I went to Nebraska.” McDole added that he wanted to study industrial arts and Nebraska was one of the few colleges that offered it.
The scholarship to attend Nebraska was for football. But McDole tried to play baseball as well. First, he was ruled ineligible to play baseball because he didn’t have enough hours due to an illness — mononucleosis. In his junior year during spring football he was elected one of the football team’s captains and the coach asked him to concentrate on football and not to participate in baseball that year, which was his junior year. And in his senior year he had to play in college all-star games like the Senior Bowl, Blue-Gray game and other games. “When I played in the Senior Bowl, I was paid. That meant that I was a professional so I was disqualified from playing baseball,” explained McDole.
He played defensive and offensive tackle for Nebraska. “At the beginning of college I wasn’t that big — only about 192 pounds. So my sophomore year I started as a tight end — more of a blocking tight end. But I did catch two passes total and one was for a touchdown.” He only played three games that season because he was ill with mononucleosis. “I was released from the school infirmary in time to play our last game of the season against Oklahoma. I had gained a lot of weight when I was sick. I was up to 240 pounds. I think I’m the only guy to ever have mono and gain weight. Anyway, they shifted me to offensive and defensive tackle and I played there for the rest of my college career.” By the way, Nebraska upset Oklahoma in that last game of McDole’s sophomore year. That was a big achievement because Oklahoma had dominated the Big 8 Conference for many years. In fact, they did not lose a game in the conference for 13 years.
McDole explained that the fact he played both defensive and offensive tackle was a benefit at the time. “Oklahoma didn’t huddle in the second half. So it was a good thing to play both ways,” he said.
McDole said that he had to learn the position of offensive and defensive tackle just about from scratch. “I had a good coach who taught us technique,” he said. He added that the players of the offensive and defensive lines had the same coach.
Pat Fischer, who was one of the other captains at Nebraska was drafted along with McDole by the St. Louis Cardinals. Later Fischer was to be a teammate of McDole’s with the Redskins.
It was while he was a senior at Nebraska that he married his high school sweetheart, a student at Purdue University who was on the school’s diving team. She competed in world sports events including the Pan American Games, said McDole.
A Less Than Auspicious Beginning
After his senior season in 1961 McDole was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth round of the NFL draft, the Denver Broncos in the AFL draft and the Winnipeg franchise in the Canadian Football League.
“In advance of the draft I didn’t talk to the Cardinals,” said McDole. “So I was surprised that they picked me.”
“Preparation for the draft back then was not like it is today. If a team was interested in you they would send you a letter and ask you for information. I didn’t get a letter from the Cardinals. Back then teams kept watch of players through the college coaches. The coach at Nebraska had asked me if I was interested in playing football for a team back east. I said that I wasn’t even sure I would play pro football. Teams like the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers showed interest. They sent me letters. But I never got a letter from the Cardinals.”
After the Blue-Gray Game the AFL held their draft and the Broncos selected McDole. “I went out to visit the Broncos but I didn’t sign. At the time of the NFL draft, teams were concerned about drafting a player who had already signed with an AFL team. I hadn’t signed. So the NFL was comfortable about drafting me.
“Well, the draft was much longer back then. It lasted all day and into the night. I didn’t know who had drafted me until the next morning. I got a phone call from the Cardinals and they were the first to let me know that they had drafted me.”
McDole signed with the Cardinals. It was the first year the team played in St. Louis. They had moved from Chicago. In fact, McDole noted, the team’s training camp took place at Lake Forest, north of Chicago.
The coaches with the Cardinals expected McDole to play defensive tackle. “The starter got hurt during the previous season and no one was sure he would be back. So they drafted me to take his place. But the guy did come back and attended training camp. So the team moved me to defensive end.”
Injuries forced him to finish his first season at offensive right tackle. In fact, he played three games at that position. “We were moved around a lot because teams had a 32 man roster,” said McDole.
The Cardinals had gone through a coaching shake up during McDole’s first season. Then coach Frank “Pop” Ivy had quit during the season and the assistant coaches finished up the job for the remaining games. The following year Wally Lemm was hired as the team’s head coach. Lemm had been head coach of the Houston Oilers but was fired after the season. Frank “Pop” Ivy went on to become the head coach of the Oilers.
McDole did not make the Cardinals roster. Lemm had decided to carry an extra linebacker. With a 32 man roster, every opening was precious. McDole was the odd man out.
So the Cardinals placed McDole on their Taxi Squad. “I got paid a couple of bucks. But then Ivy called and asked if I would be interested in playing for the Oilers. He had traded with the Broncos to get rights to me. So, since I wasn’t on the Cardinal roster, I was free to go to Houston.”
McDole was assigned to play defensive end and offensive tackle for the Oilers. He did not start.
About this time McDole started suffering migraine seizures. “We went to play a game in San Diego and I got a migraine seizure during the game. My face and arms got numb. I went to the hospital and when I got out the Oilers and the AFL were afraid of a possible lawsuit so they didn’t play me. They didn’t release me, but they didn’t play me.”
Ivy advised him to consider suing the team or find out if he could play football. McDole met with Adrian Burke, an ex-player and attorney for the Houston Oilers who was with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). He advised McDole to be examined by a doctor. He was and the doctor determined that he could play football. The Oilers paid him what they owed him to that day and released him. So he returned to school to finish his education.
The following year he signed with the Minnesota Vikings. But the Vikings, like the Oilers, feared a lawsuit concerning McDole’s migraine seizures, so they did not play him. He was later released.
“I decided that I would head back to Toledo and teach in a school but Buffalo Bills coach Lou Saban called me and asked me to play for the Bills. They took a chance on me when no other team would.” McDole discovered later that the general manager of the Oilers had sent out letters to the other teams alerting them of McDole’s medical problem. As a result, the Vikings didn’t play him and later released him and no team was willing to take a chance on him. In a de facto manner, he was being blacklisted until the Bills decided to take a chance. As it turned out, McDole suffered migraine seizures in just one season with the Bills. He said he “grew out of it.”
The year he joined the Bills was 1963. The Bills were the eastern division champions that year. In the season finale the team’s starting defensive end was injured and McDole replaced him. Then McDole started in the first playoff game. The Bills lost that game, but McDole became the starting defensive end the following season. “They told me the position was mine until someone took it away from me,” said McDole.
From that time on, things worked out for McDole. When asked why things didn’t work out with the previous teams he answered, “In St. Louis there were not a lot of available jobs. Back then the veterans got the benefit of the doubt most of the time so the rookies didn’t get a lot of chances. You just struggle to make the team and hope they keep you until you’re one of those veterans. I learned enough tricks to make the team. Then came the migraine problem and that hurt me with the Oilers and Vikings and then I was out of football until the Bills took a chance.”
McDole’s career took off. The Bills won the AFL Championship in 1964 and ‘65. And in 1966 the team lost the AFL Championship to the Kansas City Chiefs.
After the championship seasons, the Bills fell on some hard times. Saban left in 1965 and was replaced by Joe Collier. He was unsuccessful for the most part and was fired during the 1968 season. John Rauch was hired as head coach. Rauch had been the head coach of the Oakland Raiders and McDole and other players had found him to be a little “paranoid.”
“It turned out that Rauch wanted to trade me and had bad mouthed me and other players on TV,” said McDole. About this time George Allen, who had become head coach of the Redskins started nagging Bills team owner Ralph Wilson. “It turned out that George nagged Wilson with phone calls. Wilson didn’t really want to trade me, but George kept at it until Wilson finally gave in.
“George told me later that years ago when the Redskins played the Bills at a time when the Bills were not very good, George was impressed with me because I was all over the field. He told me that I was making tackles on the other side of the field on a team that just wanted to go home. He thought he needed me to help re-build the defense.”
Life With the Over the Hill Gang
So Ron McDole became a part of the Over the Hill Gang. “The trade was a great thing to happen to me. I had a great time.
“We were all in the same graduating year from college or close to it and we all played with each other in all-star games. So we all knew each other. I already knew Billy (Kilmer) and Pat (Fischer) had played with me at Nebraska and with the Cardinals.
“Allen got guys who knew the game of football,” continued McDole. “It was like having a bunch of coaches on the field, especially on defense. The players would consult with George and among ourselves. We would come off the field and talk with each other and say, ‘They’re doing this’ or ‘They’re doing that.’ So we would say, ‘Okay, then let’s do this’ or ‘Let’s do that.’ The players could adjust to the situation.
“Allen was a player’s coach,” continued McDole. “For Allen, the players were the most important part of the organization.” McDole remembers a situation that involved Billy Kilmer that proves this point. “We would fly large planes to the West Coast games but smaller planes to games closer to Washington. So one day after a game we’re flying a small plane back to Washington and Billy (Kilmer) said, ‘We never lost a game when we took a bigger plane to the West Coast.’ The next away game we flew in a bigger plane. George got that bigger plane.”
And he did a great job preparing the players for a game. Moreover, during the game he passed out breakdowns. “He did everything he could to help put his players in a position to make a play. And he was innovative. He was the first to hire a special team’s coach.”
And the team was full of characters. It was Sonny Jurgensen who gave McDole his nickname “The Dancing Bear.” “I was dancing at a Georgetown nightspot and Jurgensen saw me and called me ‘The Dancing Bear.’ Well CBS game broadcasters Tom Brookshier and Pat Summerall were there and they heard it. So when they broadcasted our game the next day, they called me ‘The Dancing Bear’ and it stuck. Anyway, back then everyone had a nickname. Roy Jefferson was called ‘Sweetpea’ and he’s still called that today.”
Being on the inside as far as preparation for Super Bowl VII against the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972 was concerned, McDole said that the team was well prepared to play that game. But to the players and especially to George Allen, the NFC title game against the Cowboys was “bigger.” “The Dallas playoff game was like no other game,” said McDole. “And there was a two week wait before we played the Super Bowl. It was tough for us to stay focused.
“And during the game the Dolphins shut down our running and passing game,” McDole said. “No one really knew who the back up quarterback was. But whoever it was, George wasn’t going to go to him. George didn’t like throwing the ball. In the second half we did, but George didn’t like it.”
McDole said that the players were given film of the game but he didn’t watch if for years.
McDole played on through the George Allen Era and one season for Jack Pardee but by that time change was the front office’s agenda. “Things changed so much. It wasn’t the same team. They started playing the younger guys before they were ready. And Bobby Beathard (the general manager at the time) wanted to build his own team. We was trying to get the older guys out of there.”
McDole unofficially retired in 1978. However, he didn’t retire officially. “If I officially retired, the Redskins would own me. So if another team wanted me, they would have to trade for me. If I wasn’t officially retired, then I could sign with another team and they wouldn’t have to trade for me.” As it turned out, it didn’t matter.
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