Donovan McNabb walked back to the waiting area in Madison Square
Garden where relatives and friends had gathered to celebrate
with him the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. He had just been
selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the second pick of the
NFL draft, and now it was time to sit back with his loved ones
and savor his professional coronation, reflect on all the hard
work that had made it possible and look forward to the long and
glorious career that surely lay ahead.
Moments earlier, however, it had become official at last:
McNabb, a 22-year-old quarterback, had shaken the hand of NFL
commissioner Paul Tagliabue, donned the green hat of the Eagles
and...been booed. By Eagles fans. His fans, he thought. McNabb
knew Philly was a tough town, but he wasn't even in Philly yet.
A couple of hundred Eagles fans just couldn't wait until McNabb
crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge to voice their displeasure, so
on draft day, April 17, they bused to New York City. There they
booed him before he put on an Eagles uniform.
As a star at Syracuse for four years, McNabb had been noted for
his poise, his unflappable game-day demeanor, but this time he
was knocked for a loop. "Did you hear that, Mom?" he said to his
mother, Wilma, as she greeted him in the waiting area. "They
booed me." The McNabbs had been warned--Philly fans booed Santa
Claus, after all--but still they were taken aback by the fans'
reaction. The Quayle for President committee has been cut more
slack than McNabb, a three-time Big East offensive player of the
year. "They booed him before he even got drafted," says Wilma.
"He was introduced to the crowd, and they were booing. The
Eagles hadn't even picked him yet."
May 16, 1999
Mostly they booed him because he made one egregious mistake: He
wasn't born Ricky Williams. Perhaps it's something McNabb should
work on. "I guess the whole town was rooting for Ricky," says
McNabb. "What could I do?" In the weeks leading up to the draft,
an eclectic band of Eagles fans had set out to persuade the team
to draft Williams, the Texas running back who set the NCAA
Division I record for career rushing yards and won the 1998
Heisman Trophy. It didn't matter that the rebuilding Eagles were
in desperate need of a quarterback, preferably one who could run
the West Coast offense that was being installed by new coach
Andy Reid. Williams was the sexier choice. He was the middle
square in pro football's version of Hollywood Squares, the
amiable guy with the tattoos, the rapper agent and the cool
dreads. In Philadelphia mischievous radio talk-show hosts and
silly politicians did everything but hold hands and sing Master
P tunes in support of Williams.
It's a good thing that Philly mayor Ed Rendell doesn't have a
large city to run, because he took the time to go on the radio
and make a plea for the drafting of Williams, even urging
listeners to call the Eagles, which fans did by the hundreds.
(On our next show: Andy Reid talks about school vouchers and his
solution to the city's mass-transit problems.) A resolution that
urged the Eagles to draft Williams was even submitted to the
City Council, though it was ultimately defeated.
McNabb, meanwhile, was raw meat for bloodthirsty Ricky People on
the talk shows and in the newspapers. "The team tried to prepare
him for this sort of thing," says McNabb's agent, Fletcher
Smith. "They asked him several times, If the fans are not
supportive, can you handle it?"
The Eagles were 3-13 last season and aren't expected to make
great strides in the first year of the Reid-McNabb era. Will
McNabb be able to handle the inevitable adversity? Off the
record the Eagles say this is one category in which he projected
better than Tim Couch, the quarterback whom the Cleveland Browns
took with the first pick. According to one member of the
Philadelphia organization who spent time with several of the
five quarterbacks selected in the first round, "Couch was
looking around the city like, 'Wow, look at all the concrete.'
Donovan didn't bat an eye. He's from Chicago [suburban Dolton,
Ill., actually]. This city doesn't intimidate him."
The morning show on WIP, Philadelphia's carnivorous sports radio
station, gave out tickets to the draft in New York and chartered
a bus. Other passionate Ricky People found their own way to the
festivities. If the Eagles were to choose someone else, the
party would be strictly BYOB--bring your own boos. The Eagles
did choose someone else, because team executives knew what they
needed, and it wasn't more politics. It was a quarterback who
could run the offense and handle the pressure, on the field and
off. "He knows how to make people miss," says Reid, who's hoping
McNabb can survive pass rushes and impatient Eagles fans with
equal aplomb. Maybe he can make them all miss.
"They don't know it yet, but they're going to love him in
Philadelphia," says Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni. "It's a
great marriage. In that city, with that offense, if they just
give him a chance, they'll find out what a special player
The Eagles became convinced of that when they sat down with
McNabb before the draft to test his aptitude for X's and O's.
Quarterbacks coach Brad Childress was responsible for the
questions, and his plan was to fire away at McNabb fast and
furiously, hoping to create confusion and frustration. It
worked. Childress ended up confused and frustrated. "Brad was
just spitting things at him, and Donovan was answering at a
rapid-fire pace," says Reid. "Finally Brad was like, 'Slow down,
would you? I can't keep up.' But that's how Donovan's mind
works. He's unbelievably sharp."
At this time last year, McNabb was projected to be a late
first-round or possibly a second-round choice. The rap against
him was familiar and, for McNabb, infuriating: great athlete,
good option quarterback, but can he run a pro-style offense? Some
NFL scouts and personnel men had doubts, but not McNabb or those
who shared in his success at Syracuse.
"I know what the other quarterbacks can't do, but I'm not sure
what Don can't do," says Kevin Rogers, who was the offensive
coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Syracuse before recently
taking a similar position at Notre Dame. "He's a dominant
player. Is he the prototypical NFL quarterback? No--he's the
wave of the future. Teams need a guy who can make things happen
when everything breaks down, a guy who can avoid a rush, who can
run and who can also throw downfield. Believe me, Don can do it
Doing it all was what the Orangemen's coaches demanded of
McNabb. Pasqualoni says McNabb had to know between 125 and 150
plays each week, as well as 25 to 35 formations. Pasqualoni
calls the Syracuse offense "multiple pro concept with an element
of option" and dismisses the notion that McNabb tucked the ball
under his arm and ran his way to 33 wins in four years. "He
could throw the streak route or run the option," says
Pasqualoni. "Whatever it took to win."
McNabb is an unassuming and accommodating guy who agreed to have
lunch with SI as long as his mom could come along. Until
retiring recently, Wilma was a registered nurse for 25 years;
her husband, Sam, is an electrical engineer. Wilma and Sam used
to travel 11 hours each way by train to attend Donovan's games
at Syracuse. Donovan says the first thing he will buy when he
signs his first contract (which should be worth more than $6
million annually) is a dog. He can bench-press 400 pounds and
has run the 40 in 4.45, but he says he is most proud of having
graduated in four years with a degree in speech communications.
McNabb holds the Syracuse and Big East career records for
touchdown passes (77) and passing yards (8,389). "It really
started to bother me after my redshirt freshman year," he says.
"I'd pick up a preseason magazine, and they'd call me an
all-purpose quarterback or an option quarterback. I can't stand
that label. Throughout my career, I'd hear people say, 'Syracuse
doesn't like to throw the ball.' I took that personally. In my
senior year I tried to learn more about every aspect of the
passing game and take my performance to another level."
To further enhance his NFL stock, McNabb quit the Syracuse
basketball team after two years as a reserve. "He became a
365-day football player," says Rogers, "and he really tried to
improve on the things the NFL looks at." He had one eye on a
national title and the other on a pro career. The Orangemen, with
an 8-4 record, finished 25th in the final AP poll. McNabb
ascended to No. 2 in the draft. Not bad for an option
Reid would like to see McNabb flourish the way another of his
former pupils--Brett Favre, an early second-round selection in
1991--has with the Green Bay Packers, winning a Super Bowl and
being named league MVP three times. "It's unfair to compare
anyone to Brett," says Reid, the former Packers quarterbacks
coach, "but there are a lot of similarities between Brett and
Donovan: the athletic ability, the confidence, the leadership
qualities. Brett was always the funniest guy on the bus and in
the locker room, but when it was time to get guys juiced, he was
the most intense player on the field. I see a similar style in
Rob Konrad, an All-Big East fullback, was McNabb's teammate at
Syracuse for four years and was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in
the second round. He says playing with McNabb was "like playing
with Eddie Murphy" and claims his former quarterback did "the
best Coach Pasqualoni imitation ever." Then when the game began,
says Konrad, everything changed: "When I looked at him in the
huddle, I knew we were going to win. There's a special quality
On top of everything else, McNabb doesn't hold a grudge for
long. Five days after he was greeted with chants of "We want
Ricky!" in New York City, he stepped in front of another large
gathering of rabid Eagles fans. The Philadelphia Chamber of
Commerce held a reception in his honor at the Ritz-Carlton
Hotel, and as a peace offering Mayor Rendell presented him with
a Liberty Bell souvenir. "But he didn't apologize," says Wilma,
shaking her head. "He said he wasn't booing Donovan personally.
He was just booing the choice."
"And I'm pretty sure I was the choice," says Donovan.
Still, McNabb agreed to swap gifts with his new buddy,
presenting Mr. Mayor with an Eagles jersey bearing Williams's
number, 34, on the front. Then he flipped it over, and on the
back was number 5, McNabb's number. The assembled movers and
shakers chuckled and cheered. McNabb has been defusing crowds,
and Ricky People have been running for cover ever since.
At a recent 76ers game, Bill Cosby sat down next to McNabb and
welcomed him to town. McNabb stopped in the Sixers' locker room
after the game and renewed acquaintances with Allen Iverson, a
former Big East hoops rival, from Georgetown, and a guy with
some experience in winning over Philly fans. Iverson was like
almost everyone else McNabb had run into since being drafted by
Philadelphia. He never wanted Ricky Williams. He never booed. He
was a McNabb guy all the way.
"He said, 'I was pulling for you, man. I'm glad we got you. You
turned me into an Eagles fan,'" says McNabb. "It's funny.
Everywhere I go, it's the same thing. People come up and say,
'It wasn't us. We never wanted Ricky. We wanted you.'"
Everyone wanted him. Everyone loves him. At this rate McNabb
could run for mayor of Philadelphia, although he's not nearly
silly enough for the job.
When he toured Philly, "Donovan didn't bat an eye," says one
Eagles official. "This city doesn't intimidate him."
"He's a dominant player," Rogers says. "Is he the prototypical
NFL quarterback? No--he's the wave of the future."