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Ray Didinger talks inspiration behind autobiographical play and friendship with Tommy McDonald

The acclaimed sports journalist and NFL Hall of Famer gave Metro the scoop on “Tommy and Me”.

Philadelphia is a city known for its passion, and that notion certainly rings true with its sports teams. Philly fans have a reputation for being loud, rowdy or even a little rude. But what every true Philadelphian knows is that all of that energy actually comes from the deep love of tradition that sports fans have for the City of Brotherly Love.

Acclaimed sports journalist and NFL Hall of Famer Ray Didinger embodies that idea with his autobiographical play “Tommy and Me,” following his friendship with the popular Eagles football player and his campaign to get McDonald into the NFL Hall of Fame.

Now in its fourth year, the touching play is back at Theatre Exile and will run from Aug. 9 to 25.

“I had always thought about trying to tell the story in some way, I just couldn’t quite decide what was the best way to tell it,” says Didinger. “I had thought about possibly writing a book, but then I thought it didn’t quite feel like a book. But it certainly felt like more than just a newspaper article.”

Didinger is well-known and has a colorful history in writing, but working on a play presented a new challenge for him. For that reason, he recruited longtime theater director Joe Canuso to read over the original script and help take the story to new heights. “I figured if I got a script together and could bring it to someone in the theater community, I would have them take a look at it and see what they think. I knew all along I had a really good story, it was just a matter of figuring out the best way to tell it,” says Didinger. “Joe was one of the only people I knew in the theater community. So I brought him the show and Joe read it over and he liked it. He helped me smooth out some of the storytelling, but he’s been the driving force behind it really since the first day. He’s directed each of the last three years and he’s going to direct the fourth.”

Didinger and Canuso worked together to help bring the compelling story to life, and they both knew right from the start that there was something truly special about it. “This was a story that I had lived and I knew it would resonate with people, and not just football fans, but everyone,” adds Didinger.

Didinger first met McDonald at an Eagles training camp after already idolizing the wide receiver for years. As time went on and Didinger grew up, he realized that he himself needed to give something back to his lifelong hero by securing him a spot in the NFL Hall of Fame.

“He really deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, he was an amazing player. With every Hall of Fame there always ends up being people who fall through the cracks for various reasons, and there are always some truly great players out there that end up getting overlooked or forgotten, and that happened with Tommy,” says Didinger. “Because I had this relationship with him and because he was such an inspiration to me as a kid, I just wanted to rectify that and get him what he deserved. I knew this was the one thing he really wanted. If I could help him achieve that, it would be my way of giving something back to him.”

That passion really resonates with Philadelphia sports fans, and theater fans in general. After each performance of “Tommy and Me,” there are talkbacks where the audience can ask Didinger, Canuso and the cast questions and give feedback of their own. Didinger says that is one of the most rewarding parts of the whole experience for him.

“In many cases, what you’ll get [with the audience] is that they’ll relate their own stories that are similar — games that they saw at Franklin Field or times they’ve encountered Tommy McDonald. It’s a really lovely way to bring the whole evening together,” says Didinger. “But one of the most gratifying aspects of the talkbacks is, there always is one person that will say they aren’t even a sports fan, but they like theater and they came here just to see the play, and they really cared for this character and loved this story. That’s what really touches me and makes me feel good.”

“Tommy and Me” not only showcases the impact a hero can have on a child’s life, it’s also a love letter to Philadelphia sports in general and highlights what makes the Philly teams the most special in the country.

“When the Eagles finally won the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, I had a lot of people and writers around the country that called me up and asked, ‘What does this mean for the city of Philadelphia?’ It’s a hard thing to get your arms around but I really do think that there is something unique and special about Philadelphia and its sports teams,” says Didinger. “Part of it has to do with the makeup of the city. Philadelphia is a place where I think people are born, raised, work and die here. When you have that kind of generational culture rooting for one set of particular teams, it develops a real kind of bond. These teams become part of who you are and part of your identity.”

But what Didinger truly hopes audiences take away from the show is the impact a hero can have on someone at a young age, and how that child can carry that impact with him for the rest of his life.

“What ‘Tommy and Me’ really is, is a story about a little boy and his hero. That’s something that I think anybody can relate to. We all have heroes growing up, whoever they may be, and they become your inspiration and your role model. It’s about the athlete and the hero giving to the little boy early on in his life — giving him friendship and giving him sport and letting him feel like he’s a part of his life. And years later, the boy is able to give something back to him.”

Visit theatreexile.org for more information, tickets and showtimes.