Don Tollefson’s Last Stand

Don Tollefson knows what you think of him: scam artist. Fraud. Liar. Now the disgraced sports anchor has a story to tell — of the demons he’s fought since childhood, life in the fast lane, and near-death. It’s his truth. But is it the whole truth?

Photography by Wesley Mann

Photography by Wesley Mann

She kept Don inside. His mother wanted him to study. She wouldn’t let him be like them, those other kids who got into trouble. Don rarely saw his father — his parents had separated. So the boy would spend hours in his bedroom in San Francisco, playing endless games with his baseball cards: Dodgers-Giants, over and over. He’d go out into the tiny backyard of their small house near Lake Merced and re-create the ’60 Olympics. With string, he’d make a high jump. A broad jump. A track around the perimeter. That’s how he spent his childhood. In fantasy. Alone.

He did what he was told, and he earned the A’s his mother demanded. She taught piano, at the Conservatory. Sometimes, on her days off, they’d go for drives down the Peninsula together. His brother Arthur was 10 years older, and had gotten into Stanford. Arthur was gone, just like Don’s father. Don was student body president of his high school. He was accepted at Stanford, just like his brother, at 16. He was sure he could make his mother proud.

Then his mother got sick. It was pancreatic cancer, and it was quick. She died just before he graduated from high school. She’d fought Stanford to allow Don to live at home instead of on campus once he started there, and she won. But now Don was going to stay with his father, a man he barely knew, while he went to college.

By the end of that month — May of 1969 — everything was different. Don had started drinking. He hung out with another boy — something his mother would never have let him do — and they sipped beer under a bridge off El Camino Real. His father, a paper pusher for the telephone company in San Francisco, ignored Don most of the time. He could do whatever he wanted.

It was a beginning that had no middle and seemed to go on forever, because from that moment forward — from the time he was 16 years old until last October, when he was 61 and everything changed once again — Don got drunk every night.

Often, that’s how he delivered the sports, either at Channel 6 or Fox 29 — half shot, or worse. He’d go to dinner or a bar or some event after the six o’clock news and drink. He’d pop back at 11 and deliver the sports with the same Tolly awesomeness. He had no home life, even when he was married. But he was still Don Tollefson. And then it all fell apart.

HE WAS THE MOST unlikely guy in Philadelphia to get into the sort of trouble he did.

Not very long ago, Tollefson had this city at his beck and call. In his prime, he was the go-to sports newscaster in Philly, and a fixture on the local scene for almost all of the past 40 years. Tolly practically leaped out of the tube every night over some Julius or Randall or Chase act of wizardry, landing in our living rooms on raw energy alone; on a “cold, cold, cold” day against the Giants, he declared the Eagles defense “hot, hot, hot!” He talked up his charity work with the same over-the-top vigor, every chance he got, and showed up all over town to emcee events, especially for underprivileged kids. “Good guy” was practically stamped on his forehead.

Or maybe we had been utterly snookered.

Tollefson was arrested in February, accused of selling ticket packages and trips — Eagles games, the World Cup, the U.S. Open and other events, with some of the proceeds destined for charity — without delivering on them. The deputy Bucks County district attorney claims he’s scammed at least 150 people out of more than $250,000. He’s been charged with theft by deception and other crimes. Suddenly, there was a question, both profound and simple: Who is this guy?

After his arrest, he disappeared into jail. Tollefson had to stay there for a month because he couldn’t come up with the 10 grand to get out. A measly 10 grand! That used to be walking-around money for Tolly. But he was broke, and no one was willing to bail him out.

He left jail in late March, but the silence continued. Now, after a month at a treatment center for an addiction to alcohol and painkillers, Tollefson is under house arrest in an apartment in North Philadelphia. The legal trouble continues — he’ll stand trial later this year on charges stemming from that quarter-million dollars he allegedly swindled. But Don has decided that it’s time to talk. It’s a matter of survival.

IN HIS LAWYER’S OFFICE one afternoon in mid-May, Don looks considerably better than he did in his mug shot back in February, when he appeared ghostly. Tollefson admits he was scared; now he’s tan and friendly. He’s also far too thin — his jeans dangle off him in scarecrow folds, hiding an ankle bracelet that monitors his movements. Don lives, post-rehab, in a small, messy apartment in North Philadelphia near Temple University — one room is stuffed with sports memorabilia that he’s trying to sell. He looks every bit of 61, with sparse, spiky gray hair. But he’s zeroed in, now, on his new story, one that’s emerged in intense therapy.

“I wasn’t making clear-thinking decisions,” Don says. “Whether it was with women or going on the air inebriated or whatever it was, I think back to my childhood when I created that make-believe world. Addicts create make-believe worlds — not just the denial, but the delusion that they’re functioning adults, and they’re not. They’re addicts.”

Going back to that 16-year-old about to enter Stanford, he can barely remember a day when he didn’t get drunk — first it was beer, then, as he got older, beer and wine and mixed drinks. Over the past few years, he added painkillers that had been prescribed for shoulder injuries following a bad car wreck in 2008. From late 2012 until he first went into treatment a year later, he was mixing booze with Percocets and Oxycontin and other drugs. “You take enough codeine three’s,” he says, “in combination with alcohol, you’re on the way to dying.” He doesn’t have any doubt about where he was headed.

Prior to that — all those years on the air, the charity work and mentoring and hosting fund-raisers for good causes — he somehow functioned despite drinking heavily every day. But Don hates the phrase “functional alcoholic.” He wasn’t functioning. He was a mess.

“Relationships with women were alcohol-based and drug-based,” he says. “And very immature, as a result. I was still being a high-school kid in my adult relationships with women.” The day he went into rehab last October is also when he and his second wife, Marilyn, separated; they have a four-year-old daughter. “I cannot remember in my marriages or my relationships outside of marriage having many serious, sober conversations,” Don says. “Because I just preferred to isolate myself.” And that meant getting drunk.

His openness is riveting, as if he’s still the old Tolly you couldn’t stop watching, though far different from the guy ­enthusing wildly from his nightly-news perch. He is intense, straightforward: an addict all his adult life now fighting hard to get healthy, to make amends.

Yet there is much that is not straightforward, when you take a look at the path he went down. Some of it is marvelous. Some of it is not. And some of the trouble he’s gotten into doesn’t seem to have much to do with addiction.

LET’S START WITH the marvelous.

Don still had his life ahead of him when he entered Stanford. He immediately started writing for the student paper, and was blessed with a certain radar for the big story.

One day in 1971, Tollefson walked into the Stanford Daily offices and a cop was standing there with a search warrant. Police were looking for photographers’ negatives that might bolster their case against demonstrators who had turned violent during a protest over a mistreated black university hospital worker. “It has been our policy since last spring’s demonstrations to destroy negatives in order to protect our photographers from harassment,” a very serious Tolly, the Daily’s news editor, said at the time; the story made the CBS Evening News. The Daily would go on to win a judgment against the police that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, sparking national debate on freedom of the press and leading Congress to pass legislation giving greater protection to the notes and files of journalists.

National news take two: When Patty Hearst was kidnapped in early 1974, Don just happened to be driving near the Hearst mansion in Hillsborough. He camped out on the mansion grounds and covered the story for the Associated Press for weeks.

In the fall of that same year, Don and Jim Lampley were picked by ABC Sports, after a nationwide search, to be the first football sideline reporters. The idea was to add a little color about college life, supplied by two college-age guys. Tollefson attacked the new assignment as a serious journalist. For a University of Mississippi game, he brought James Meredith, the school’s first black graduate, back to the very steps where Governor Ross Barnett had turned him away in 1962, when he first tried to enter Ole Miss

After the Meredith interview garnered death threats for ABC executives, Don says, he was forced to start interviewing cheerleaders for his halftime bits. There was another price to paving the way to the pretty-girl celebrity gig that sideline reporting would become — Don and Jim could walk into any college bar in America and drink for free, hang with the hottest coeds, get feted as big stars. “There was no possible way we’d live an unspoiled life again,” Lampley says. “Any person would be altered in some way, that autumn.”

Tollefson, still only 22 and still a student because of all his time away for work, suddenly had myriad options. When he’d flown to New York to interview for the ABC job, he ran into William Randolph Hearst in an elevator. “Don, what are you doing here?” wondered Hearst, who remembered the kid camped outside his mansion when Patty was kidnapped. Don told him. “We’ll still have a job for you,” Hearst said, meaning in newspapers. But the next year, in 1975 — enamored of the money and trappings of TV over print — Don left Stanford without a degree and joined Channel 6 in Philly. He would also be close to New York, where his girlfriend of the moment, the secretary of ABC Sports president Roone Arledge, lived.

Within a year, Don was sports director at Action News, and the city was his. The troika of Jim Gardner, Jim O’Brien and Tolly was the most-watched local newscast for years. When Lampley would come through Philly, he and Tolly would have dinner at Bookbinder’s, where Don could barely eat for all the attention and autograph-seekers. He wouldn’t pay or enjoy a private moment in public ever again.

Tollefson lapped up the fame and women. He was always out at charity functions, too, as if he couldn’t ever go home. Circa 1980, Don was showing up at better than 400 events a year: Special Olympics, PAL, toy drives with firemen. His best friend at WPVI, sports reporter Jack Brayboy, points out the obvious: “Don never met a microphone he didn’t like.” Endless motivational speeches at schools. Little League dinners. Even part-time teaching at William Penn High School.

Lampley was right: Fame changed them, especially someone as needy as Don. In 1984, when local TV news was much bigger than it is now, ’PVI sent about a dozen staffers to L.A. for the entire Summer Olympics. Every night, there was lobster and serious drinking. The crew got invited to the ABC Sports wrap party with Lionel Richie. Tolly, with ABC and now ’PVI, had hit the fast lane of TV sports.

And then, in 1990, after 15 years at Channel 6, he quit. Tollefson ditched his TV career for North Carolina, to devote himself full-time to charity work. A lot of people in the broadcast news industry assume Tollefson got fired. He was 38, making $300,000 a year at Action News, a big star in a city that has so few, and he decided to give all that up to … move to Greensboro?

But that’s where his brother lived — Arthur Tollefson was a dean at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a concert pianist — and Don says he moved down in part to be near him. Other reasons for his leaving TV news made the rounds: There was talk of him showing up just a few minutes before he went on the air, being more committed to outside events than to his job. Management was getting frustrated; they pushed him to change. Tollefson says that yes, there were a lot of discussions with management, but that he decided it was time to go.

Alan Nesbitt, who was president and general manager of ’PVI when Don left, is adamant that he wasn’t fired. Now retired in Florida, Nesbitt remembers questioning Tolly on whether he was really sure about doing charity work full-time. “It sounded a little nebulous,” Nesbitt recalls.

Don admits now that leaving television to create his own charity wasn’t the whole story. The constant drinking and out-and-about life had started to overwhelm him; he was living as if he needed a constant audience. Don had to get away. “At least subconsciously, I knew,” he says, “that I was feeding my addiction, in a number of different ways.”

So he escaped to a higher calling. And his story got really strange.

TOLLEFSON DID MAKE a go of it in Greensboro. He registered his first charity, Winning Ways, with the state. He traveled all over the co­untry — Don claimed early on that he had gone to hundreds of school districts and after-school programs in nine states to give talks, especially to disadvantaged kids. Sometimes he charged nothing, or a few thousand dollars, depending on what a school could pitch in. Corporations and individuals donated some money; he says he paid himself nothing.

But he needed more. Tollefson had gotten married in 1992, to a 30-year-old named Monica Vasquez, whom he’d met in Philadelphia 12 years earlier at a fashion show. They bought a spacious house with a pool in Jamestown, the next town over from Greensboro. Her parents had some money, and soon after the wedding, Don convinced his in-laws to give him $200,000 to invest in Israeli bonds, according to their financial adviser.

It didn’t take long for his new in-laws, who lived in South Jersey, to get nervous; they went to the adviser, George Richardson, who’s now retired in Florida. Richardson made calls to Israeli financial markets. He called management at Channel 6 to see what he could learn about Tollefson (not much). But he did enough digging to be convinced that Tollefson hadn’t put his clients’ money into Israeli bonds, and he tracked down Don, who was on a golf outing in California. Richardson remembers their conversation vividly. He told Tollefson he knew he hadn’t invested the money. Don was silent.

“What in the hell are you doing, Don?” Richardson said to him.

“They had this money they wanted to invest,” Tollefson said. “I needed that money.”

Richardson was stunned — Tollefson was admitting that he stole it. “Why?” Richardson demanded. “You were making a fortune at Channel 6.”

“I needed it to live on.”

Richardson gave Tollefson a week to get the $200,000 back to his in-laws. If he didn’t, Richardson told him, he’d file charges.

“No, no,” Don said, “don’t do that. I’ll get it back to them.”

Though the money — all 200 grand — was returned, Tollefson’s marriage didn’t last long. Richardson’s only regret now is not going to the D.A. anyway, in order to stop the trouble that would come later.

Around that same time, Tollefson got caught up in something as strange as those Israeli bonds. His brother, Arthur, and his wife, Brenda, say they began getting calls from banks around the country about credit-card applications they’d been making. This was odd — they hadn’t applied for any credit cards. They went to the police, who couldn’t figure out what was going on. Arthur was able to convince a bank that called to send him one of the applications. It was in Don’s handwriting, filled with Arthur’s financial information.

Arthur and Brenda are convinced that Don was setting up a scheme to rip off his own brother, by applying for credit cards in Arthur’s name and having them sent to a post office box in Greensboro.

Why would Don do that? “We’ve tried to figure that out for decades,” Brenda says. Arthur and Brenda still have no clue. They don’t even know why Don came to North Carolina in the first place; he’d hardly been in touch with them much before moving down.

“He said he wanted a change,” Brenda remembers. At the time, Arthur talked glowingly of Don’s shift from newscaster to charity head, telling the Greensboro paper that “it takes a great deal of courage and dedication when you’re on top of a career and making a substantial salary to say, ‘There is more to life than this.’” But Arthur didn’t see much of his brother in North Carolina.

When they learned that Don was preparing to scam them, “It was the end of a friendship and a family,” Brenda says. They say they’ve rarely talked to Don since.

“He’s called here a few times and left a message — happy Father’s Day or birthday,” Brenda says. “We haven’t returned the call. He’s never admitted what he did.” Don’s current legal troubles don’t surprise her. “Once this happens to you,” she says, “he becomes a different person in your mind. In that case, he’s capable of anything.”

Don was supposed to file a report with the state every year on how much money Winning Ways took in and where it went. He never bothered with that.

DON TOLLEFSON WON’T address the Israeli bond deal or scamming his own brother — mere allegations, to be sure, but troubling ones — because of his ongoing legal battle.

That presents a problem for him. Tollefson talks a great deal now about coming clean: “You can’t be in recovery without being totally honest,” he says. Which means that he runs a risk — perhaps with himself, and certainly with the rest of us — if he’s open about abusing alcohol and drugs but buttons up when it comes to other misdeeds. Tollefson was still drinking dangerously in North Carolina, he says. But would that lead him to try to steal from his own brother? And why was he so desperate for money — did he have a gambling problem?

Tollefson says he didn’t have a gambling problem, and that he wants to explain everything. He does admit that going to North Carolina “was just running away, and you can’t run away from your addiction. I need to make amends with people for things that happened while I was in North Carolina.” That’s all he’ll say about that period.

When he returned to Philadelphia and to television, working for Fox 29 in 1995, his life would continue to veer off the rails. The station took him on because he was still a big name here, and he was willing to start as a general assignment reporter. Tolly was shifted into sports, his natural groove. That’s when the same issues that had annoyed management at ’PVI emerged: showing up 15 minutes before a telecast, not doing the nuts-and-bolts reporting on stories.

And something had changed in Don. A colleague who knew Tollefson at both stations could feel the difference more than define it: “There was a sense of him being there but not really being there,” she says. “I never read it as arrogance — I read it as ephemeral. Don just kind of floated, in and out of stuff. At ’PVI, he’d gather himself and be totally present in the moment.”

This colleague liked Tollefson; she thought he was complicated and sensitive, but his strangeness drove her a little crazy. “I couldn’t put a finger on what the hell was happening to him. I went to him a few times: ‘Are you okay, Don? Is everything okay?’ He would always say he was fine.”

Tollefson says that he was just as engaged in doing TV as always, but that his life was still a mess. Once, after a big Eagles game, a manager pulled him off the air because he was drunk. Yet he hadn’t admitted to himself that he drank far too much. Don was older, and despite marrying his second wife, Marilyn, he still didn’t really have a life, beyond the public persona. And the bottle.

“I got the sense,” the colleague says, “that something was terribly wrong, and that the facade was cracking.”

Over the years Don was at Fox, the sports department started to get wind of a more concrete problem — his charity work was beginning to draw suspicions. A different co-worker saw him come into the office one night a couple days before the Super Bowl in 2000 and try to book hotel accommodations on ticket packages he’d sold — it seemed awfully late for that. In 2001, Philadelphia Charge soccer star and Olympic silver medalist Lorrie Fair asked the same co-worker to come to a fund-raiser for multiple sclerosis at Tiki Bob’s Cantina in Northern Liberties, and suggested that he invite Tollefson as well.

Two weeks later, when the co-worker arrived at Tiki Bob’s, there was Tollefson, now emceeing the event — typical Tolly, never missing a chance to worm his way in and get before an audience. After he auctioned off sports memorabilia, Don told everyone to make out the checks to Winning Ways, his charity. The Fox co-worker made the winning bid on a golf outing.

After the event, Fair says, she called Tollefson about the money raised: Where was it? He said it was taking time to collect; she didn’t even know how much it was supposed to be.

The co-worker says the golf outing never materialized. But his check wasn’t cashed, either; he figures that’s because Don had to keep working with him.

Lorrie Fair gave up pestering Tollefson and never got any word from the MS Society that they received anything. “I was naive,” says Fair, who now lives in California. Though she can’t prove anything, she admits, “I probably got duped.”

Tollefson’s co-worker began watching him. Calls started to come into the office, people wanting to speak to Don: I’m supposed to get tickets from Tolly. Where are they? The co-worker sent a note to the Daily News about his suspicions; he never heard back. But the complaints started coming faster, according to another newsroom source, near the end of Tollefson’s time at Fox.

Meanwhile, his obsession to put himself front and center seemed stronger. In 2007, when the Phillies clinched the division title, a Fox broadcaster and a producer were up in the Citizens Bank Park press box, planning their coverage of the team’s celebration, when they saw Tollefson down on the edge of the field. What? Don never came to games. He hadn’t done any of the legwork for the Fox coverage that night, but sure enough, there was Tolly, on-air, having convinced hitting coach Milt Thompson to spray him with champagne.

A Fox broadcaster says in that same year, news director Kingsley Smith called him into his office and asked, “What do you know about Tollefson?”

“What do you mean?” the broadcaster said.

“I think he’s running a pyramid scheme,” Smith told him.

Tollefson says now that Kingsley Smith never said a word to him, and that he never got the sense he was in trouble. (Smith didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.) But by 2008, when he had a bad car accident and went on medical leave for shoulder injuries, his career was crumbling. He was seen during his leave at charity events, even as he was still claiming he couldn’t get behind a microphone. Two days after he came back to work, Don was fired.

The calls kept coming in to Fox, from people who wanted to know where their Eagles ticket packages were. As Don’s life unraveled, he did some TV work with the Eagles, continued mentoring kids, and spent a lot of time at home, getting drunk, and then drunk and high on painkillers — a combination that was killing him, he knows now. Until he finally went to rehab.

And then he was arrested.

DON TOLLEFSON HAS a gift. Once, it was the Tolly we saw every night on TV, the maniacal finger-pointer, the guy who found everyone “absolutely awesome.” Those who worked with Don attest to his back-slapping sunniness. But he admits now that he was hiding.

“I was trying to convince myself that my life wasn’t as depressing as I found it to be, because I had no real home life, even in marriage,” he says. Don seems thankful now that his estranged wife, Marilyn, lets him see their daughter, Gabriella, a couple times a week. “I was very lonely and depressed, because I couldn’t have adult relationships.”

Tollefson’s real gift is in how he can move people. Practically all the way up to the end, before rehab and jail, he could still perform. One of the charities he’s accused of ripping off was created for the family of Brad Fox, a Plymouth Township policeman killed in the line of duty in 2012. Tollefson was asked to make an appearance at the charity’s 5K. When the volunteers went to Kenney’s Madison Tavern in Warminster, he asked to speak briefly on the importance of police and first responders. But Don gave a much broader speech on the nature of heroism, on how a hero isn’t someone making millions a year playing football; a true hero protects our communities, or ventures overseas to make our country safe. That day in Kenney’s, many people listening to Tollefson grew emotional.

Was it real? Did Don believe what he was saying, or was he ingratiating himself and working the crowd for other reasons?

In a sense, those are questions he’s trying to answer for himself. From the time he started at Channel 6 in 1975 and was showing up at several hundred charity events a year, Don was hooked. “Hopefully,” he says, “the reason for doing them was in some large part for the charitable nature. But I now know that it fed the addiction of being a public figure. Certainly it was a combination — I only hope it was a balanced combination.”

His need for fame and good deeds is a toxic mix, especially considering that the Bucks County D.A.’s office is chasing him now for ripping off his own and other charities. That, in turn, produces the most daunting question of all, with the curtain on his addictions to fame and alcohol and painkillers ripped back: Did Tollefson really care?

Don wants us to know that he cares deeply. In his lawyer’s office in May, on the heels of discussing his interview with James Meredith back in 1974, he goes on to talk for several minutes about the evil of racism, on how Eagles receiver Riley Cooper using the word “nigger” last year drove him nuts, on how we would not believe how many people in the Philadelphia sports world spout racial epithets and how despicable that is. Hatred of any kind, he says, makes him crazy. And that’s the driving motivation of his work with inner-city kids, especially. All this from Tollefson can come across as too much, or simply self-serving. But it seems to be equal parts what Tollefson does believe and what he would like to believe, about himself. He wants to help other addicts, once his legal problems are behind him — to become the sort of man Gabriella can be proud of. He is a 61-year-old in recovery, trying to re-form himself.

But when it comes to those Israeli bonds or credit-card scams or whether he hustled people through ticket packages or convinced people to trust him just because he was Tolly, Don turns silent. These allegations seem to have nothing to do with addiction; they’re all weird money-grabbing gambits. And when he’s confronted with them, one by one, Tollefson appears to go somewhere, as if he is leaving his lawyer’s office for a moment. Then, barely above a whisper:

“I can’t answer that.”

There are still many questions he hasn’t answered, for legal reasons, he says. But Tollefson knows the stakes go beyond a possible jail sentence. “I firmly believe that if you relapse, after as much addiction as I had for as long as I had,” he says, “you are kind of signing a death sentence. You’re headed in that direction pretty quickly.”

On that level — a man’s very survival at stake — you root for him. Don Tollefson knows he must come clean; he says that in therapy he’s totally open, about everything. But for us, he won’t go very deep into the story of what he has done wrong. His passion for mentoring inner-city kids pushed him to go too far, he does admit: “Sometimes my ambitions overcame my resources.” In the end, though, we need much more than that. Don Tollefson must come fully clean for us, too.

Originally published as “Tolly’s Last Stand” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.