Ron McDole was one of the best defensive ends in Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins franchise history.
It’s hard to fathom McDole became a football legend considering he wasn’t sure about embarking on a career on the pro gridiron.
McDole also dealt with migraine seizures early in his pro football career that put a bull’s-eye on his back.
He seemed destined for a teaching career when Lou Saban’s Buffalo Bills came into the fray.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Ron McDole became a five-time First-Team All-AFL defensive end with the Bills and a member of the Redskins’ fabled “Over-The-Hill-Gang” during his eighteen years on the gridiron.
It just goes to show you that you should make the most of every opportunity that comes your way.
Ron McDole sure did.
Ronald Owen McDole was born to parents Bert and Ruth in Chester, OH on September 9, 1939.
According to McDole’s autobiography “The Dancing Bear: My Eighteen Years in the Trenches of the AFL and NFL,” he was literally born in a manger.
His mother Ruth was milking the cows on their Ohio farm when she brought him into the world.
McDole was the second in a brood of six. He had two brothers Chuck and Richard and three sisters Janice, Jackie, and Debbie.
His father was a steel worker while his mother was a restaurant employee, per The Washington Times‘ Robert Janis.
McDole’s first love was Little League baseball.
He began playing football when he was in seventh grade. He told Janis in 2008 he wasn’t older than fourteen when he participated in games organized by athletic clubs in Western Toledo.
McDole recalled the league featured around five to seven teams. He and the other kids played football at night at the local high school stadium.
McDole attended DeVilbiss High School in Toledo, OH.
He played on both sides of the ball for the DeVilbiss Tigers. He played fullback, end, and defensive tackle.
McDole told Janis he moved to fullback because the previous player on the roster was ruled ineligible.
As the time to choose a college drew near, McDole was torn between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers.
Tigers baseball coach Norm Kies was a former major leaguer who was also McDole’s adviser during the latter’s high school years.
Kies encouraged McDole to take Nebraska’s scholarship offer. He said attending university was the equivalent of spending time in the minor leagues. The main difference was McDole would get a good education at Nebraska.
McDole took Kies’ advice to heart and officially committed to the Nebraska Cornhuskers football program.
College Days With The Nebraska Cornhuskers
Ron McDole was a three-year letterman who majored in industrial arts at the University of Nebraska.
He played for the Nebraska Cornhuskers from 1957 to 1960.
McDole was just 192 pounds when he started his college football career as a blocking tight end.
McDole caught Nebraska’s only touchdown pass in a 7-6 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes in 1958.
He suited up in just three games because he was sick with mononucleosis.
Surprisingly, McDole’s illness was a blessing in disguise: he gained a lot of weight which led to a crucial position switch during his junior year in Lincoln.
“I had gained a lot of weight when I was sick. I was up to 240 pounds,” McDole told The Washington Times in 2008. I think I’m the only guy to ever have mono and gain weight.”
Nebraska won just three games in the 1958 NCAA season and didn’t receive a bowl invite for the fourth straight year.
However, one of those victories was against the Oklahoma Sooners, the perennial Big Eight juggernaut during McDole’s era.
In fact, McDole left the infirmary in time for the game against the Sooners – his last as a sophomore in 1958.
Cornhuskers head football coach William Jennings moved a bigger and beefier McDole to the right tackle position a year later. McDole also played defensive tackle.
McDole had to learn both tackle positions from scratch. Fortunately, the Cornhuskers had a coach who taught both the offensive and defensive lines.
McDole seized the opportunity and picked his brain so he could excel as a lineman.
McDole started every game as a junior in 1959. The Cornhuskers were a tad better from the year before with a 4-6 win-loss mark.
Happy birthday Ron McDole! Both he and Pat Fischer starred at Nebraska, were drafted by the Cardinals, and had long careers with the Redskins. #BigRed1960s https://t.co/olB1S4wE8d pic.twitter.com/sgXvrRRcmk
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) September 9, 2020
McDole became Cornhuskers co-captain along with future St. Louis Cardinals cornerback Pat Fischer in 1960.
McDole and Fischer would eventually become teammates with the then-Washington Redskins (now known as the Washington Commanders) at the peak of their pro football careers.
McDole also married his high school sweetheart Paula during his senior year at Nebraska.
He told Janis almost fifty years later his wife was a member of the Purdue Boilermakers diving team. She participated in various global events including the Pan American Games.
Paula McDole gave up her diving career so her husband could flourish on the gridiron.
“She said that diving and winning a medal was just one thing, where me playing ball could be a career and we could make money,” Ron McDole wrote in his 2018 autobiography.
Nebraska duplicated its 4-6 win-loss record in 1959 and failed to play in a bowl game for the sixth straight season.
Despite the Cornhuskers’ mediocrity, Ron McDole was an iron man who played 1,074 out of a possible 1,200 minutes on the gridiron in his final two seasons in Lincoln, NE, per Huskers.com.
Ron McDole would thrive in an 18-year NFL career with the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Oilers, Buffalo Bills, and Washington Redskins from 1961 to 1978.
According to the Cornhuskers’ official website, the accomplishment made McDole the Nebraska Cornhuskers football player with the longest NFL career.
Before embarking on a legendary pro football career, McDole suited up in the Senior Bowl, the Blue-Gray Game, and the Coaches All-America Game.
Pro Football Career
Ron McDole became a highly-touted prospect when he entered the pro football ranks in 1961.
In fact, three teams – the National Football League’s St. Louis Cardinals, the American Football League’s Denver Broncos, and the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers – drafted him that year.
The Cardinals’ selection stunned McDole.
“In advance of the draft I didn’t talk to the Cardinals,” he told Janis forty-seven years later. “So I was surprised they picked me.”
Nebraska Cornhuskers head football coach William Jennings asked McDole if he wanted to play professional football for an East Coast team.
McDole told Jennings he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to put on pads and cleats after college.
Despite McDole’s apprehension, teams such as the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys, and Green Bay Packers had him on their radar.
Those three squads sent McDole letters to express their interest in his services.
On the other hand, the Cardinals, the NFL team that drafted McDole 50th overall in the fourth round, never did.
#OTD in 1960 the Buffalo Bills hit the offensive line mother lode in the 1961 AFL draft. They'll grab future HOF Billy Shaw 2nd, Stew Barber 4th, and Al Bemiller 7th. Buffalo also drafts QB Norm Snead while Denver drafts Ron McDole in the 5th who makes his way to Buffalo in 1963 pic.twitter.com/OXvsnQOY6k
— ThisDateInBuffaloSportsHistory (@BuffSportsHstry) November 21, 2021
For their part, the Denver Broncos selected McDole 25th overall in the 1961 AFL Draft. They drafted McDole after that year’s Blue-Gray Game.
McDole told The Washington Times in 2008 he visited the Broncos but didn’t sign a contract with them.
He remembered NFL teams were wary of players who had existing AFL contracts. McDole didn’t have one, so the Cardinals were confident when they drafted him.
The NFL Draft back in the day was a long and arduous grind. McDole didn’t know which NFL team drafted him until the following morning.
The Cardinals rang him up and informed him they had drafted him.
McDole signed a contract with the Cardinals, who were in their second season in St. Louis in 1961.
Even though the Cardinals were previously based in Chicago, they held their training camp in nearby Lake Forest, IL.
The Cardinals initially wanted McDole to replace their starting defensive tackle whose status remained uncertain due to injury.
However, he unexpectedly returned after the Cardinals drafted McDole. St. Louis promptly moved the rookie to defensive end.
Ron McDole, who used to be a 192-lb. tight end at the beginning of his college football career, was now a 232-lb. defensive end in the professional ranks.
He would thrive and excel in that position for the rest of his legendary gridiron career.
Injuries limited McDole to just three games at the right tackle position.
“We were moved around a lot because teams had a thirty-two man roster,” McDole told Janis in 2008.
The Cardinals also had to deal with multiple coaching changes after head coach Frank “Pop” Ivy resigned during the 1961 NFL season.
Several assistant coaches including Ray Willsey, Ray Prochaska, and Chuck Drulis served as the St. Louis head coach during various points of the season.
The #BigRed take the field before a 1961 game. Ron McDole (@mcdole_ron) is #66 and played one season in St. Louis before having a long career with the #Redskins. Larry Wilson, Ernie McMillan, and Prentice Gautt also in video. pic.twitter.com/3H7D7mkKWu
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) February 19, 2019
The Cardinals finished with a mediocre 7-7 win-loss mark and missed the postseason for the thirteenth straight year.
When St. Louis hired former Houston Oilers head coach Wally Lemm in 1962, Ron McDole failed to crack the Cardinals’ roster.
Lemm’s desire to have an extra linebacker made McDole the odd man out. The Cardinals placed him on their taxi squad where he earned a meager salary.
Ivy, who had become head coach of the Houston Oilers, called McDole and asked him if he’d like to play for him in Texas.
McDole replied in the affirmative.
Ivy traded with the Denver Broncos so the Oilers could acquire McDole’s rights. Since the latter wasn’t on the Cardinals’ roster, he was free to become an Oiler.
McDole played on both sides of the ball for Houston – he suited up as a defensive end and offensive tackle.
McDole began experiencing migraine seizures when he played for the Oilers.
He remembered having a seizure during a game against the San Diego Chargers in 1962.
“My face and arms got numb,” McDole told The Washington Times in 2008.
When doctors released McDole from the local hospital, the Oilers and the AFL were terrified because of a possible lawsuit.
They didn’t release McDole, but they didn’t play him, either.
McDole reached out to Houston Oilers lawyer Adrian Burke, who worked for the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) at the time.
Burke advised McDole to let a doctor examine him to determine if he could play on the gridiron.
After McDole passed his physical tests, the Oilers paid him the remainder of his salary and waived him.
McDole spent the rest of the 1962 AFL season finishing his bachelor’s degree in industrial arts from the University of Nebraska.
McDole signed with the Minnesota Vikings the following year.
Unfortunately, the Vikings also grew wary of McDole’s migraine seizures and a possible lawsuit.
McDole never took the field in Vikings Purple and White. Minnesota eventually released him.
It seemed Ron McDole’s promising days as a gridiron warrior were finished.
McDole told Janis in 2008 that he was about to embark on a teaching career in his hometown of Toledo, OH after the Vikings released him.
Ron McDole broke into the @NFL w/the Cardinals. But a battle w/migraine seizures nearly ended his career. Then along came Lou Saban & the @BuffaloBills. The rest is history. For the whole story https://t.co/mTtemfmwPW or anywhere u get podcasts. @footballhistory @ProFootballHOF pic.twitter.com/IojYnZGmnw
— Sports4gottenHeroes (@SportsFHeroes) March 8, 2019
That’s when fate in the form of the AFL’s Buffalo Bills intervened.
Bills head coach Lou Saban reached out to McDole and asked him if he wanted to play in Western New York.
“They took a chance on me when no other team would,” McDole told The Washington Times some forty-six years later.
It was during this time when McDole discovered the Oilers sent out letters to other AFL teams informing them about his medical condition.
The Vikings took the Oilers’ word for it and released McDole prior to the 1963 AFL campaign.
McDole had the proverbial bull’s-eye on his back until the Bills stepped in and took a chance on him.
After just one season with the Bills, McDole experienced excruciating migraine seizures yet again.
Fortunately, he told Janis he “grew out of it.”
Not only that, but Ron McDole would evolve into one of the AFL’s elite defensive ends over the next fifteen seasons.
McDole filled in for the Bills’ injured starting defensive end as the 1963 AFL season wound down.
The position was McDole’s for the taking from there on out.
McDole’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time.
He was the starting defensive end for the Buffalo Bills teams that won consecutive AFL titles in 1964 and 1965.
Alas, the bottom suddenly fell out on McDole and Co. after those championship seasons.
After Saban left Buffalo in 1965, Joe Collier took over and guided the Bills to a 9-4 win-loss record and an appearance in the AFL Championship Game.
Regrettably, the Bills lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in lopsided fashion, 31-7.
Buffalo went into free-fall mode during Ron McDole’s final years with the team from 1967 to 1970.
The Bills averaged fewer than five wins during Collier’s three-year coaching tenure from 1966 to 1968.
His replacement, John Raunch, fared even worse – Buffalo averaged roughly three wins per season from 1969 to 1970.
McDole and his teammates considered Raunch, who previously coached the Oakland Raiders, somewhat paranoid, per Janis.
McDole also found out Rauch bad-mouthed him and his other Bills teammates on television.
To make matters worse, Rauch wanted to trade McDole.
It seemed preposterous at the time considering the thirty-one-year-old McDole had earned five consecutive First-Team All-AFL honors with Buffalo from 1965 to 1969.
Washington Redskins head coach George Allen implored Bills owner Ralph Wilson to trade McDole.
Wilson finally reluctantly agreed to Allen’s pleas.
Allen told McDole years later he was impressed with his defensive prowess, particularly his ability to make tackles on the other side of the field, per The Washington Times.
McDole rejoined some familiar company in the nation’s capital.
He played against some of them in All-Star games during their college football careers. He already knew Billy Kilmer before he landed in Washington.
The trade also reunited McDole with his Nebraska Cornhuskers teammate Pat Fischer.
McDole told Janis the Redskins of the 1970s were like a football think tank.
“It was like having a bunch of coaches on the field, especially on defense,” McDole told The Washington Times in 2008,
McDole and the rest of the defense would convene on the field, analyze the offense, and adjust to the situation accordingly.
Thus, the Redskins’ famous “Over-The-Hill-Gang” was officially born.
McDole also considered the legendary Allen a player’s coach who was ahead of his time. He remembered Allen as the first coach to create the special teams coach position.
McDole also got his nickname “The Dancing Bear” during his eight-year tenure with the Redskins.
Washington quarterback Sonny Jurgensen gave him the moniker after he saw McDole dancing at a Georgetown nightspot.
Coincidentally, CBS broadcasters Tom Brookshier and Pat Summerall were also at the nightspot.
They heard Jurgensen’s remark and promptly used McDole’s new nickname in their next broadcast.
In McDole’s second season with the Redskins, he played in Super Bowl VII against the Miami Dolphins.
Unfortunately, Miami stymied Washington’s aerial and ground attacks. The Dolphins eventually prevailed, 14-7.
McDole and his teammates received film of Super Bowl VII. He told Janis thirty-five years later he didn’t watch it for a long time.
Despite the loss, Washington remained competitive for the next four years.
The Redskins averaged ten wins per season but never made it past the NFC Divisional Round during that four-year stretch.
Washington averaged nine wins during McDole’s twilight years with the squad from 1977 to 1978. To his dismay, the Redskins didn’t make the postseason during that span.
McDole recalled the Redskins were playing younger and inexperienced players more.
Washington general manager Bobby Beathard wanted to go with a younger core so he tried to purge the Redskins’ lineup of older players.
Ron McDole unofficially retired following the 1978 NFL season. He was thirty-nine years old when he hung up his cleats.
“If I wasn’t officially retired, then I could sign with another team and they wouldn’t have to trade for me,” McDole told Janis.
Ron McDole finished his eighteen-year pro football career with 12 interceptions, fourteen fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns.
McDole singled out offensive tackles Ron Mix of the San Diego Chargers and Rayfield Wright of the Dallas Cowboys as the best he faced on the gridiron.
He considered quick-release quarterbacks Joe Namath of the New York Jets and George Blanda of the Oakland Raiders as the best signal callers he competed against during his pro football career.
Ron McDole and his first wife Paula had four children together: Tammy, Taz, Tracy, and Mick.
Two of his sons reside in Virginia while the other one lives in Hawaii. His daughter resides in Florida.
McDole and his high school sweetheart separated during his retirement. He married his second wife in the fall of 2007.
He launched the Ron McDole Library Furniture company in Winchester, VA shortly after he last played professional football in 1978.
After selling the company in the early 1980s, McDole ventured into the millwork business.
He did millwork for clients in the commercial, restaurant, and the hospitality industries until he retired in 1998, per The Washington Times.
McDole teamed up with his Nebraska Cornhuskers and Washington Redskins teammate Pat Fischer during their retirement years.
Fischer reached out to McDole frequently to do re-modeling work for his clients in the real estate industry.
Assuming a call to Canton doesn’t beckon, Ron McDole isn’t worried about it.
“I never got in the league thinking of getting in the Hall of Fame,” McDole told The Winchester Star’s Adrian J. O’Connor in 2018.
The eighty-two-year-old McDole currently resides in the Shenandoah Valley region in Northern Virginia.