Seeking Relief, McHale's Life Took a Fatal Turn
Family and Longtime Friends Say Prescribed Painkiller Hastened Decline of Former NFL Player
Sunday, November 9, 2008; Page D01
On the last night of his life, Tom McHale arrived at the suburban Tampa apartment of Martin Jackson, a 29-year-old furniture salesman McHale had met only a few months earlier at the drug rehabilitation clinic they attended. McHale had been staying at the one-bedroom apartment in Wesley Chapel, Fla., after a falling-out with his wife.
According to the account Jackson later gave Pasco County sheriff deputies, McHale was drunk when he stumbled through the doorway at 10 p.m. At some point, he inhaled cocaine and swallowed no fewer than three Xanax pills. He also told Jackson he was looking forward to going to rehab the next day.
At 8:30 the next morning, according to Jackson's account, Jackson awoke to find McHale sitting on his couch, crumpling a just-finished can of Coca-Cola and eating leftover pie. Then McHale got up, walked past the clothes that were strewn about, entered the apartment's lone bedroom and settled into the ruffled sheets on Jackson's bed.
About 45 minutes later, Jackson noticed that McHale wasn't breathing. He called 911, dragged McHale onto the floor and administered CPR. McHale vomited just as paramedics arrived, but they could not revive him.
With that, Tom McHale, the son of a Gaithersburg surgeon, the charming focal figure of some Montgomery Village kids who came of age together in the late 1970s and remained friends for decades, the barbecue perfectionist and restaurateur, the former undrafted free agent who carved out a nine-year NFL career on the offensive line, and the husband and father of three boys was pronounced dead at 9:28 a.m. on May 25, 2008. It was exactly three months after his 45th birthday.
It often is difficult to pinpoint when a life begins to unravel. Those left behind can disagree for years about the exact moment a fatal turn occurred. But in McHale's case, his family and longtime friends describe a rapid descent fueled by a painkiller prescribed three years earlier to deal with the lingering soreness of playing professional football.
There also was unanimity in the value of what they believed was lost in McHale's downfall, with friends still finding it difficult months later to delete his number from their cellphones.
"He was everything to everyone," said Mark Moholt, who knew McHale since the second grade. "He was everyone's best friend. He made it a point to make everyone feel good. He found the good parts of everybody, not the bad."
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By the time of his death, McHale no longer was the strong-willed renaissance man who still was admired by childhood friends, most everyone agrees. They had lived in the Whetstone neighborhood, attended Whetstone Elementary and graduated from Gaithersburg High School in 1981.
After graduation, McHale played defensive tackle at Maryland for two seasons before transferring to Cornell so he could enroll in its School of Hotel Administration. While there, he met his wife, Lisa, who was a manager for the football team. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Cornell's former sports information director, Dave Wohlhueter, watched McHale forge a playing career that landed him in the school's athletic Hall of Fame. "He was a man amongst boys when he was here," Wohlhueter said. "He was a great person. In my 33 years as an SID, I only had two athletes who came into my office and thanked me for whatever I might have done for them. One of them was Tom McHale."