Eagle Scout Philadelphia's fun-loving, straight-arrow quarterback, Donovan McNabb, has fans eating out of his hand

July 30, 2001
July 30, 2001

Table of Contents
July 30, 2001

Eagle Scout Philadelphia's fun-loving, straight-arrow quarterback, Donovan McNabb, has fans eating out of his hand

He paid $600 for the suit, a lot of money for something that would
mostly hang in the closet. Still, they booed him.

This is an article from the July 30, 2001 issue Original Layout

Anybody else, and you don't start by mentioning what the suit
cost, but this is Donovan McNabb, and for the man to have
shelled out that much for an outfit tells you how important the
day was. It was a huge day: the one in April 1999 when the
Philadelphia Eagles drafted him. Next to his wedding day and the
days when his children are born, the day a football player is
drafted by the NFL is the biggest of his life. That's what the
players always say, anyway, explaining why so many of them break
down and cry upon hearing their names called.

They show up at Madison Square Garden dressed as if for a
coronation. They preen like peacocks. Compared with the others,
McNabb got off cheap. The suit was a blue double-breasted, over a
blue shirt and a blue-and-orange tie. The shirt and tie cost
extra, McNabb points out. "I got an allowance when I was growing
up," he says, "and I always tried to hold on to that, tried to
make it last. I guess I never got over it."

He gets it from his dad, the practical gene. (To a man, McNabb's
Eagles teammates call it a tightwad gene.) Donovan inherited
other genes from Sam McNabb as well: the work-ethic gene, the
pride gene, the humility gene, the gene that makes him want to
win at everything he does. Sam and his wife, Wilma, instilled in
Donovan an appreciation of the fundamentals, and one of these was
the merit of a life lived with an eye out for tomorrow. "Just
because you have it, doesn't mean you have to spend it," Sam
taught him.

So when Donovan studies a restaurant menu and refuses to order
anything marked Market Price, that's Sam's influence. When he
buys a house for less than $400,000 in a suburban New Jersey
neighborhood although he could afford a mansion on the old,
moneyed Main Line of Philadelphia, that's Sam too. When Donovan
tries to get a better deal on a leather coat that's already
reduced by half, who else but Sam?

Sam has worked for the power company in Chicago for 25 years,
most recently as a quality-control man in the reliability
department. Reliable only begins to describe Sam, and Wilma too.
They used to build TV shows around couples like this. Wilma was
the attractive mother whose counsel her children sought when they
wanted to unburden themselves of secrets. She seemed to spend the
better part of her life in the kitchen, despite having a
full-time job as a registered nurse. Sam was the all-powerful,
all-knowing presence who sat on the edge of his son's bed at
night and dispensed pearls of wisdom while Donovan, the little
knucklehead, looked on with a dewy-eyed mix of awe and

When Donovan and his big brother, Sean, were growing up, Sam also
lectured them about the importance of showing class and
"humbleness," as he called it. He believed that if you were nice
to people, they would be nice to you. These were "the traits you
carry with you for a lifetime," he told the boys, never imagining
a day when his hard-won homilies would be trampled by a bunch of
wack jobs from Philadelphia.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that with the second
pick, Philadelphia had chosen McNabb, the quarterback from
Syracuse. Donovan came to his feet and heard what sounded like an
ocean roar. The booing actually had started earlier, when it was
announced which players were in the greenroom, and McNabb's name
incited catcalls from a boisterous contingent of Eagles fans who
wanted the team to take running back Ricky Williams of Texas, the
Heisman Trophy winner. As McNabb strode across the stage, the
noise intensified to the point that it was almost riotous. He
stared, mystified, at the audience. "I was shocked," he says,
"but I wasn't as shocked as my parents were. It heated me up. I
was ready to put on the pads right there, to show them I was a
good pick."

When he came off the stage, he found his mother crying. A moment
passed before it occurred to him that her tears were of happiness
and excitement, not anger and embarrassment. "Were they booing
you?" Sam asked, perplexed. Donovan didn't answer right away. He
couldn't answer. He was laughing so hard that his body shook and
his stomach hurt. "Yes, they were booing me," he said at last.
"They're still booing me."

Other families might have started for the exit, heads bowed. But
these were the McNabbs. The McNabbs laughed.

As anniversaries go, this isn't one the quarterback cares to
celebrate. During the week leading up to the NFL draft this
April, McNabb was so busy preparing for the upcoming season that
he had no time for the past. He spent each day working out at the
Eagles' new practice facility, the NovaCare Complex, across from
Veterans Stadium. He lifted weights, threw passes, did some
running, met with coaches and reporters and clowned around with
teammates. At night he played basketball. "Donovan's usually the
first player to arrive and the last one to leave," says Andy
Reid, the team's coach. "He's always here."

The day after the 2001 draft, Reid bumped into the quarterback at
the complex and said, "It's been two years."

"Two years," McNabb repeated. Then he and Reid had a laugh
together. McNabb can do that now that he has emerged as one of
the league's top young stars. Last season he did more than
silence the boo-birds; he made them wish they'd stayed home that
day two years ago and yelled at the dog instead of at a
22-year-old in a new suit. The kid the city rejected is now the
man Philadelphians hope will never leave. Fans who cursed his
selection are forever introducing themselves to him and
apologizing, but McNabb harbors no grudge. "I don't think about
it anymore," he says. "It's over with. Time to move on."

Philadelphia had the likes of Norm Van Brocklin, Sonny Jurgensen,
Ron Jaworski and Randall Cunningham quarterbacking the Eagles,
and now it has McNabb, who promises to be better than all of
them. "We're two years in, and Donovan hasn't reached his
potential yet," says Reid. "That will happen in two more years,
when he moves into his prime. As a rule it takes four years for a
quarterback to master the position. That's the exciting part, to
think about what's ahead of him."

Last year he carried a team with average talent to six road wins
and an 11-5 record and into the second round of the playoffs.
McNabb accounted for 3,999 total yards, which was roughly 75% of
the Eagles' production, and easily led the league in that
category. He also became the team's first quarterback since
Cunningham in 1994 to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season.
The Eagles' only other offensive star, running back Duce Staley,
went down with a foot injury in the fifth game, and
Philadelphia's other runners combined for a pathetic 737 yards.
To make up for that, McNabb rushed for 629 yards, best among NFL

"Donovan's a gamer," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde
Barber. "Last year all you heard was 'Daunte this, Daunte that,'"
as in Daunte Culpepper, the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback. "But
Daunte, I think, lives off his receivers, while Donovan doesn't
have any [of the Vikings' caliber]. Donovan lives off Donovan."

McNabb was never better than in November, when he led Philly to
four straight wins, two of them (against the Dallas Cowboys and
the Pittsburgh Steelers) in overtime. McNabb and the Eagles run
the West Coast offense, which challenges the quarterback to make
quick decisions and react as either a passer or a runner. "You
need a good athlete to play quarterback in our system," says
offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower. "We send so many receivers
out, and you can't block everybody on pass protection, so your
quarterback isn't going to have that classic pocket where he can
sit back and read the play. He has to move around. The other
thing is, opponents will blitz from all directions, and he has to
be quick about getting the ball out of his hands. If he can't
pass it, he has to be able to run."

McNabb is the prototype for football's new-generation
quarterback. At 6'3" and nearly 230 pounds, he's the ideal size.
He's been timed at 4.4 in the 40, though he runs the distance
more regularly at 4.5, and he's thick and padded with muscle from
a fierce regimen of weight training. In another era he likely
would've played tailback, and he would've played it well.
"Donovan could make it as a running back, but he's also one of
the better long-ball throwers I've ever been around," says
Dowhower, who in his 35-year coaching career has worked with
several excellent passers, John Elway and Jim Hart among them.
"What sets him apart is, Donovan can be on the move and still
flip the ball with his wrist. He's got a very strong wrist, so
the ball gets to the receiver pretty fast in tight coverage."

Last Nov. 12, McNabb rallied the Eagles from 10 points down in
the last 3:47 and beat the Steelers 26-23 in overtime by throwing
for 75 yards and one touchdown during the comeback. At Washington
two weeks later he rushed for 125 yards in a 23-20 win over the
Redskins. The NFL hadn't seen a quarterback run for that many
yards since the Chicago Bears' Bobby Douglass rushed for 127 in
1972. For McNabb, however, the game was most significant because
it helped him erase the memory of a disappointing performance
against the Redskins in October. The Eagles lost that one 17-14
after McNabb, trying to put his team in field goal range, threw
an interception with less than a minute to play. "I wanted to
prove that what happened in the first game should not have
happened, that the person the fans saw [in October] wasn't the
Donovan McNabb they were seeing the second time out," he says.

As in the first Washington game, McNabb was given the ball late
in the second half and asked to produce. This time he didn't
fail. With the clock winding down, McNabb faced third-and-10 on
his own 39. He broke from the shotgun and rambled 54 yards to the
Washington seven, setting up the game-winning 30-yard field goal.
"He dominated the game for us that day," says Dowhower. "He was
easily the best player on the field."

McNabb's long gain proved to be the difference, but an
electrifying touchdown run in the third quarter announced what he
was made of. Trailing 14-10, the Eagles found themselves on
Washington's 21-yard line after recovering a fumble. McNabb
needed only one play to find the end zone, and he got there
virtually on his own, racing around defensive end Bruce Smith,
juking past safety Mark Carrier with a dazzling open-field move,
then hammering safety Matt Stevens at the goal line. Replays
showed McNabb wearing a smile during most of the run. After the
game Carrier compared him with Barry Sanders.

"Know why I smile so much out there?" McNabb says. "It's because
I'm having so much fun." As for the move he put on Carrier, he
says, "I practice my moves, but that one was instinct. If I see a
guy leaning one way, I'll make a move to that side so he'll
continue to lean more and put a lot of weight on his leg, and
then I'll go the other way. Things just come to you on the

"Last year Donovan took us on his shoulders," says Eagles tight
end Chad Lewis. "He wasn't afraid to do that. He wasn't boastful
about it, either. He wasn't saying to the media, 'Yeah, you know
I gotta carry this team. I'm the only guy working around here.'
He just went out and did it.

"The most interesting thing about him is that he is loosest when
the most is on the table. We were playing Pittsburgh, and we had
to score twice within three minutes to tie the game. He stepped
in the huddle and said, 'Hey, we're gonna win this thing. Don't
worry about it. Let's go out and have fun.' And we went out and
won the game. He's like any great athlete in that sense, I
suppose. He doesn't get tight."

McNabb seems to pull the best from his teammates. Last year in
the Tampa Bay game, Eagles receiver Charles Johnson felt
something give in his right ankle after getting his leg tangled
in a pileup. As he lay on the ground in a fog of pain, he could
hear McNabb asking the team trainer, "Is it his knee?" When
McNabb learned that Johnson had injured his ankle, he started
shouting at him, "Come on, let's go, you're not hurt! Get off the
ground! You're not hurt!"

"It's weird, but at the sound of his voice I was getting up off
that ground," says Johnson, who is now with the New England
Patriots. "I could barely put any weight on my ankle, and the
trainer is trying to carry me off, and Donovan's saying, 'All
right now, go to the sideline. I'll see your ass back in this
game. You hear me?' He walked me to the sideline, and all the
time the pain was so great I could hardly catch my breath, but he
talked me through it. I go to the sideline, and lo and behold,
two series later I'm in there playing again, just as Donovan said
I would be."

At the end of the season McNabb landed on everybody's shortlist
for NFL Player of the Year, the magnitude of his individual
performance rivaled only by those of the St. Louis Rams' Marshall
Faulk and the Indianapolis Colts' Edgerrin James. "I'm not
worried about individual accolades or what people say about me,"
says McNabb, who came in second to Faulk in the AP's voting. "I'd
rather people talked about the Eagles. I want to win the Super
Bowl, and I want this team to be first in everything. That
doesn't come from only one player. It comes from everybody
pulling together. But one guy has to set the tempo, be the
leader, and if that's my job, then I'll be that guy."

McNabb was named first alternate on the NFC Pro Bowl squad, which
meant a vacation in Hawaii. "Want to hear what he did out there?"
says Lewis, who also made the team. "He spent at least some of
his time in the hotel swimming pool with my two daughters, acting
like the shark in Jaws, with his hands up out of the water like a
fin. He would scare them, then let them regroup, then scare them
again. And he was doing the theme music from the movie. I had
players tell me, 'You are so lucky to play with him.' A lot of
them came up to me and said, 'Man, you guys are going places.' I
remember [Oakland Raiders running back] Charlie Garner saying,
'You guys are going to win the Super Bowl next year.'"

Given the year he had in 2000, it's inevitable that Donovan would
forget Sam's and Wilma's instructions about how to live his life,
right? He can afford to be rude and obnoxious. After all, the man
has a contract that will pay him around $50 million over seven
years, and he received more than $11 million in bonus money to
sign the deal. Treated the way he was in the beginning, McNabb
has every reason to have a chip on his shoulder and feel
alienated from Philadelphia fans.

Oh yeah? Tell that to the kids who sat on his lap last December
when McNabb played Santa Claus at a Philadelphia community center
and spent three hours handing out gifts and asking children what
they wanted for Christmas. Tell it to the hundreds of kids who
showed up at his house on Halloween. Tell it to four-year-old
Charles Johnson Jr., son of the former Eagles wideout, who
received a life-sized toy motorcycle from McNabb on his birthday
and spent the day playing games with the quarterback at an
amusement park.

"Everybody he meets is his friend, and he has a way of talking to
people that makes them feel he's really paying attention," says
Philadelphia receiver Na Brown. "One day he invited some of the
offensive guys to his house for dinner--it was pretty much the
whole offense--and when we got there, his mom and dad were
cooking. There was something about being there that's hard to
explain, but he made you comfortable, like you were home."

McNabb spent his early years in a tough neighborhood on Chicago's
South Side. He was eight years old when Sam and Wilma moved the
family to suburban Dolton, Ill. Donovan so idolized athletes that
he ripped their pictures from magazines and papered his bedroom
walls with them. However, it was Sean, Donovan's elder by four
years, who seemed destined to be a pro athlete. Donovan briefly
worked as a manager for one of Sean's school basketball teams,
and when Donovan's time came to go out for football, he went to
Wilma for permission. She said he couldn't play. When the coach
called Wilma at home, she told him her boy was too thin. Wilma
relented only after the coach convinced her Donovan wouldn't get

"We used to think Donovan was going to grow up and be a
comedian," says Wilma. "It looked like he was going to be another
Eddie Murphy. But then he got serious about football. He's still
serious about it, but he has a good time playing it."

The McNabbs were among the first African-American families to
live in Dolton, and though most people in the area welcomed them,
not everyone was so kind. Before the McNabbs settled in, vandals
broke into the house, urinated on the carpets, knocked holes in
the interior walls and spray-painted obscenities on the exterior
walls. Someone later broke windows and exterior lights on the
house. The situation improved when Donovan befriended a gaggle of
neighborhood kids and invited them to dinner. The McNabb home was
so nicely furnished and had so many TVs and VCRs that the kids
assumed the McNabbs were rich. "We are rich," Donovan told them.
Asked what his dad did for a living, he seemed to forget that Sam
worked for the power company. Or perhaps he was angling for a
laugh. "My dad works for the gas station," he said.

The hostile reception and the way the family dealt with it proved
to be an important experience. Sixteen years later, when
Philadelphia fans booed Donovan on draft day, Sam knew his son
could handle it. "What we learned from our move to Dolton is that
not everyone will be happy for you when you make a success of
your life," says Sam. "I'm constantly reminding Donovan that
although he's enjoyed great popularity, not everyone's happy for
him. They'll boo him again if given the chance, and they'll say
ugly things about him. What's important to understand is that
it's going to happen and not to let it rattle you or stop you
from being the person you are."

Donovan made people laugh as a kid, and he's still making them
laugh. Among his teammates he's famous for imitating the fiery,
heavyset Reid, pulling up his shorts until the waistband nearly
reaches his chest, then stomping around the locker room like
somebody killing bugs. McNabb is also famous for imitating
Dowhower, the offensive coordinator. Come to think of it, he's
famous for imitating practically everyone he meets. "Most
quarterbacks are reserved," says Michael Strahan, defensive
tackle for the New York Giants. "They're not the joker type.
Donovan is the exception--he has a good time even on the field."

"I'll tell you who he reminds me of," Reid says. "I've gotten to
know Bill Cosby very well, and Donovan kind of looks like Bill,
and to watch Bill, well, it's like watching Donovan. I was
sitting with Bill at a 76ers game, and he was with this kid who
had an ice cream cone. The kid started rubbing ice cream all over
his face, and he got some on Bill, and Bill didn't care. The
faces Bill made to make this little kid happier, they reminded me
so much of Donovan."

At the NovaCare Complex, McNabb hangs around for hours in the
locker room telling jokes and talking to anyone who'll listen. He
talks about how much he likes red beans and rice. He talks about
how nobody's allowed to touch Excalibur, his pool stick, which
"has only my prints on it." He talks about how you can lose two
pounds in 10 minutes in the sauna if you keep it at the right

McNabb lies on the floor and begins to stretch. At least it looks
as if he's stretching. No, McNabb isn't stretching. He's sprawled
out like a kid in his living room. It isn't long before other
players join him on the floor. McNabb starts to get up, then
flops back down. Gets up, flops again. Still on the floor, he
challenges his teammates to a race. If any were to accept, McNabb
likely would lose, because these are skill people who've run
faster 40s than he has, but he challenges them nonetheless. It's
all bluster, and all designed to make them laugh.

"He's always wanting to compete," says Johnson. "He'll compete
with you at anything. If you get up from the table for more food
and leave your Hawaiian Punch there, he'll drink it. You have to
take it with you or it's gone. You go in the sauna when he's in
there, and he has to stay in longer than you do. It gets so hot
it feels like the air will burn you. One day we were in the sauna
and I couldn't stand it any longer and I said, 'You win, Donovan,
I'm getting out of here.' He jumped up and said, 'Whew! Thank
you, C.J., it's about time.'"

McNabb has won Philadelphia's admiration for the way he plays,
but the way he conducts himself in his daily life is what has
made the place love him. He's loath to refuse an autograph, and
he accepts charity gigs no matter how small they are. He's a
national spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association, and
though he's known among his teammates as a tightwad, he's donated
large sums to several of the institutions that helped him along
the way. He's given handsomely to his church, to his high school
and to Syracuse, from which he graduated with a degree in speech
communications. Last August, McNabb gave his college $100,000 to
use toward constructing a new locker room for the football team.

McNabb's reputation is golden. On the night in Atlanta two Super
Bowls ago when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was involved
in the incident that led to his being charged in a double murder
(charges that were dropped when Lewis pleaded guilty to
obstruction of justice for impeding the police investigation),
Donovan was in the same city throwing a surprise birthday party
for Sam. As far as women are concerned, Donovan has had the same
girlfriend, Roxi Nurse, since the beginning of his freshman year
at Syracuse. "I don't even pay attention to other women," he
says. "My girlfriend's been there for me when things were pretty
tough, and there when they were going well. She's been there when
I wasn't the Donovan McNabb everyone in Philly knows about, when
I was a rinky-dink kid in college trying to win a starting job on
the football team."

As Donovan's popularity has grown, Sean's role has become more
complicated, expanding from that of big brother and housemate to
bodyguard. At 6'2" and 285 pounds, Sean is equal to the task.
"Unfortunately, you never know what to expect in this crazy
world, so I'm there to watch Don's back," says Sean, who's
studying to be an insurance agent. "I'm the one who sometimes has
to be the bad guy and say, 'O.K., no more autographs' and pull
Donovan away. It's hard, because kids are involved. We want the
kids to feel comfortable with Donovan, and we don't want to boss
them around. He loves the kids. The problem we have is with the
occasional fan who won't take no for an answer, or who reads in
the paper about how much money Donovan makes and wants a piece of

In recent days family members have been encouraging Donovan to
buy a larger, more secure place to live in. He needs a house with
a fence, they say. Fans who once rejected him are turning up on
his doorstep at all hours and asking for autographs and wanting
their photograph taken with him. People drive by, honk their
horns and ask whoever comes to the door, "Hey, is this where
Donovan McNabb lives?"

A house in a gated community promises to be expensive, but Sam,
Wilma and Sean have convinced Donovan that it would be a wise
investment. "It isn't clothes," Sam says. "It's real estate."

Not that Donovan would spend much time there. "It's not time to
relax yet," he says. "It's not time to take a break and look back
on what I've accomplished. My dad told me something when I was
younger that I'll never forget. He said there will always be
somebody out there who's better than I am, and the only way I'll
beat this guy is to outwork him. I believe that. I can't let up
because right now someone is out there studying film, lifting
weights and running and throwing passes. He wants to be better so
that he can help his team win. I can see this guy. I always keep
him in mind."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS SIZZLER McNabb is less versatile at the grill than he is on the gridiron, but neighborhood kids don't mind.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS CAMP COUNSELOR During a minicamp in April, McNabb, as usual, helped keep the Eagles in line on the field--and loose off it.COLOR PHOTO: SUZANNE PLUNKETT/AP EATING CROW Fans hoping that the Eagles would draft Williams wore his college number and hooted when Philly selected McNabb.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS GREAT LEAP FORWARD At Washington in November, McNabb rushed for 125 yards, the most by an NFL quarterback since 1972.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS EAGLE'S NEST McNabb, here with his backups, Ron Powlus (left) and Koy Detmer, practically lives at the NovaCare Complex.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS GETTING AN EARFUL Even at Donovan's house, Sam (left), Wilma and Sean let him know that he's still the baby of the family.
Amid the boos at the draft, he says, "I was ready to put on pads
and show them I was a good pick."
In another era the fast, shifty McNabb likely would've played
tailback, and he would've played it well.
In the locker room he hangs around telling jokes and talking to
anyone who'll listen to him.
Donovan got the work-ethic gene, the pride gene and the
humility gene from Sam.
"Most quarterbacks are reserved," says Strahan. "Donovan is the
exception--he has a good time even on the field."