A Shot in the Arm

Despite an ailing right elbow, Jim McMahon continued to gain new respect by leading Philadelphia past Phoenix 34-14
December 02, 1991

What holds Jim McMahon together is a medical mystery. On game days McMahon, the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback, receives a ritual shot of painkiller in his right elbow—"Some kind of 'caine," McMahon believes. But most other days the therapy is decidedly less traditional. Eagle trainer Otho Davis applies a poultice laced with secret ingredients that, he says, "pull the swelling and soreness right out of a bruise. It's a remedy my grandmother developed in Texas." Perhaps this is all in a scientific journal we don't know about.

The effectiveness of these treatments apparently is limited to what McMahon does on a football field, because off it he remains a mess. The chronic tendinitis in his elbow makes it difficult for him to comb his long hair; in fact the left hand must help the right move the brush through the postgame tangle. And putting his ponytail up, just reaching behind his head, causes him to grit his teeth. That's how it was on Sunday, after Philly's 34-14 win against the Phoenix Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium, when McMahon's elbow was supposedly in good shape.

Three weeks ago, as McMahon dressed for a game against the Cleveland Browns, the elbow was in such bad shape that his roommate, Ron Heller, had to put the ponytail up for him. This is a funny picture, don't you think, a 280-pound tackle slipping McMahon's hair into a knot? "What do you mean funny?" says Heller, puzzled. "It looked pretty good, I thought."

McMahon's problem is not just something a good haircut could solve either. Four weeks ago, following the Eagles' game with the New York Giants, backup quarterback Brad Goebel had to reach into McMahon's left armpit to administer a dose of roll-on deodorant. McMahon's personal hygiene is a team project, although the Eagles say nothing clears a clubhouse quicker than the sound of McMahon calling out, "Ron?...Brad?"

But the Eagles will suffer almost anything to have McMahon on the field, where he has had sufficient use of his right arm to make them a playoff contender. In games in which he has been healthy enough to play at least one quarter, the Eagles are 7-2—and they're 0-3 without him. Teammates who at first thought of McMahon as that arrogant jerk with the headbands, annoying and useless baggage on a team that had Randall Cunningham as its leader, are remembering that, yeah, he did win a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. Maybe he's not such a bad guy after all.

The emergence of the Eagles as a possible wild-card team, despite the loss of Cunningham to a season-ending knee injury in Philly's first game, is almost as unexpected as McMahon's emergence from his one-year exile as Cunningham's backup. When McMahon signed with Philly as an unrestricted free agent before the 1990 season, it certainly seemed that his medical history, a list of ills that included everything from a lacerated kidney to a torn rotator cuff, had doomed him to finish his career on silent mop-up duty.

At the press conference announcing McMahon's signing, the Eagles' p.r. department tried to remind the media that a colorful character was now at hand by passing out sunglasses, McMahon's trademark eyewear. But McMahon would have none of it. He proclaimed that he was tired of the "circus" and did no interviews between games. And because he took maybe two dozen snaps all last year, he didn't do too many immediately afterward, either. He had become a frail case of quarterback insurance, and a not very intriguing case at that. In fact, as the 1990 season closed for the Eagles, it appeared that perhaps the last memory of McMahon's career would be of the three incompletions he threw in Philadelphia's wildcard playoff loss to the Washington Redskins, three lobs that may have been responsible for the firing of coach Buddy Ryan, who dared to replace Cunningham for a series of downs.

Then at the start of this season Cunningham went down. And McMahon, aching and shaking, has since thrown for 2,104 yards and 12 touchdowns. This is astonishing when you remember that in McMahon's glory year for the Bears, 1985, he passed for 2,392 yards and 15 TDs. "I always knew I could play," he says. "I was never scared I wouldn't." Not even when he was buried behind Cunningham? "I looked at that as my redshirt year in college. I never cared what anybody said about me always being hurt or whatever. I expected to play again, and one of the reasons I came to Philadelphia from San Diego was that I expected to win again."

If he is not as electrifying as Cunningham, who last season passed for 3,466 yards and ran for 942 more, McMahon is still a good enough touch passer to keep the Eagles effective in the air. Here's all you need to know about that: The Philly offense did not score a touchdown during the 11 quarters he was sidelined with a strained right knee midway through the season. McMahon's backup quarterbacks, it seems, are handier with antiperspirant than with a football.

Even when he's hurt, McMahon is too important to the Eagles for him to sit out of a game. He went into action against the Cardinals, just as he had against the Cincinnati Bengals the Sunday before, without taking a snap all week in practice. About all he did was throw the ball a few times on the sideline and roam about with a nine-iron, practicing his swing—half extension only. "I'd like to throw at least one day a week," he says. "That way, when your brain tells your arm what to do, your arm remembers how."

The lack of practice showed against the Cardinals, as McMahon threw three interceptions and was generally ragged in completing 10 of 25 passes for 162 yards. Yet Philly coach Rich Kotite, whose team led 20-7 in the first quarter, never considered sending in a substitute for McMahon, and all he could talk about after the game was McMahon's second TD pass, a 29-yarder to Keith Jackson in the third quarter that put Philadelphia ahead 27-14. "An audible," said Kotite. "Thank god for Jim McMahon."

The Eagles, to a man, are thankful for him, even though some have a hard time admitting it. Running back Keith Byars hated the idea of McMahon's coming to Philly. "I had built-in notions about him," Byars says. "To me, he was this punk rock-type quarterback, wild and crazy, who didn't take his job too seriously. He was the type of person I didn't particularly care to be around." About a week after McMahon arrived, Byars forced himself to walk up to McMahon and extend his hand and apologize. "I told him I had seen the error of my ways," says Byars. "He just looked at me."

McMahon's rogue image became more far-reaching than he could have imagined when he started wearing headbands with things like rozelle printed on them in the mid-1980s. "Everything I knew about him I hated," says Heller. "When I found out we were getting him here, even though I thought it would hurt the team, I was still anxious for him to come so I could hate him to his face. So the first thing he does is introduce himself and say he remembers me from my days with Tampa Bay. Now, who remembers an offensive lineman? It turned out to be so disappointing, finding out he was this normal down-to-earth guy."

McMahon can still infuriate some of football's self-righteous; he can still blaspheme when he puts his mind to it. In a rare interview recently he said that game film and team meetings are overrated except as an opportunity to catch up on sleep. "It's not brain surgery," he said. "It's not really that hard of a game." But his teammates, now that they know him as a bowling-dominoes-golf buddy and even a neighbor—"You should see him pushing the baby stroller down the street," says Heller—are no longer possible to infuriate. Right now, McMahon may be the most beloved guy on the Eagles.

It's not just because he's such a team guy, either. Yes, he's a member of the Eagles' Monday night bowling league (last year's MVP, in fact), and yes, he's a democratic domino fiend, as likely to pair up with some rookie free agent as with any veteran. This is a guy who, more than anything, can inspire a team to win. And the Eagles realize it now.

They're amazed at his ability to play hurt. Veteran wide receiver Roy Green points to the game against the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 27, when McMahon went to the sideline after reinjuring his knee and then wobbled back in when backup Jeff Kemp was knocked out. "To see him come limping back onto the field and move the ball club is something I've never seen before," says Green, a 13-year veteran. "His pain threshold is something like I've never seen in the NFL. The fact that he put it on the line like that, when he really didn't have to, that makes other guys want to do good for him."

Heller uses the game against Cleveland, a come-from-behind 32-30 victory, to illustrate McMahon's will to win. McMahon had tried getting a shot of novocaine two days early, on the Friday before the game, but when he overdid it in practice later that day the elbow swelled badly. He couldn't even bend it. On Sunday morning, a worried Heller awoke and asked McMahon if he could play. "No way," said McMahon. Heller says McMahon was especially disappointed because he felt he could have picked the Browns apart. "But he was lying there just moaning," Heller says. "He couldn't even put up his ponytail!" But by noon that day, after his arm had been massaged for three hours to reduce the swelling around the elbow, McMahon was out on the field throwing spirals. He passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns and brought the Eagles back from a 23-0 deficit.

McMahon's future could become as curious as his past, especially if Davis's poultice keeps him relatively intact. At Philadelphia he has signed one-year contracts (the latest at a reported $500,000 with dozens of incentive bonuses, like an extra $15,000 per start, that could bring his salary to $1.5 million), which make him available as a free agent at the end of each season. It's not like McMahon never put his money where his mouth was; he expects to succeed, and expects to be paid when he does. But McMahon could be much more desirable around the league after this season. What then?

He talks dreamily at first: "My kids have been in three different schools in the last three years. And they're tired of seeing me come home too beat up, not able to hold them until Thursday each week. They want me to retire." Then he talks realistically: "But I'm too damn young to retire. I'm just 32." O.K., then, will he be back in Philadelphia next year? "I would hope so. I like this team. More than anything, I want to be on a winner. Like I said, that's why I came here."

The way he talks about winning, it makes you think. Is that what holds Jim McMahon together? Is it Davis's poultice? Or is it winning?

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER PHOTOPETER READ MILLEREagle Seth Joyner (not seen) ran this Anthony Thompson fumble (very much seen) in for a TD. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONKen Harvey's late hit on an out-of-bounds McMahon refreshed Philly with a 15-yard penalty. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe Eagles' warhorse has seen it all—in this case, a pass of his that fell incomplete.