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Loss of a legend

Page 5 of 6 -- ''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.''

Breaking new ground

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.   Continued...

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