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Ties that bind are McNabb's support

By Rick Maese
Sunday, August 8, 2010; D1

IN CHICAGO Sam and Wilma McNabb have been slowly packing away a past life.

Just a day after their son, Donovan McNabb, was traded to the Washington Redskins, Wilma hopped online and ordered new jerseys that featured burgundy and gold. Four months later, though, there still are remnants of McNabb's 11-year run as the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback lying around. The license plate holder on Wilma's sport-utility vehicle is still green, for example. The McNabbs have tried to clear most of the Eagles' knickknacks and photographs from their closets, shelves and walls, but it's not that easy.

"We keep seeing something, and it's like, 'Oh, we forgot one,' " Wilma says.

"We'd also just got a bunch of new Eagles' gear in January," says Sam. "I was thinking, 'Well, all right. I'll be all set. I'm looking pretty good here.' But it's all got to go now."

So they've been packing it up, putting just about everything into a box that will be banished to storage space, like old photos and letters from a past love. "We can't just throw it all away," Wilma explains. "It's still part of a legacy."

So many corners of the South Side of Chicago have played a role in shaping McNabb's legacy, which the 33-year-old quarterback hopes to build on in his first season as Redskins' quarterback. But nothing has been as influential and crucial as his parents and brother.

"They were the ones providing advice, guidance, [who would] be your worst critics and make sure you're doing the right things," McNabb says. "We've always been a close-knit family, where no matter what situation someone is in, we're all going to rally together and make sure it comes out for the better."

Unquestioned leadership skills

Critics have had no problems dissecting McNabb's throwing mechanics, quibbling and complaining. But those who've watched McNabb since he entered the NFL in 1999 rarely take issue with his leadership skills. His former teammates and coaches call him a perfectionist, and McNabb knows where that's rooted.

McNabb was raised in the dangerous "Wild 100s" section of the city before his family moved to the suburb of Dolton when he was a young boy.

"We learned at a young age that you've got to have a thick skin," said Sean, McNabb's older brother. "We were the first black family to move into that neighborhood. We had no choice but to grow thick skin."

Regardless of where they lived, the McNabbs always had high aspirations for both children, Donovan and Sean, who is older by four years.

"My parents continued to push," McNabb explains. "You get a B in class, you get excited, [but] that's not good enough. You get an A in a class - 'You don't have all A's'. You get out on the basketball court, you win and you hit the game-winning shot - 'Well, you missed five shots.' You go to a football game, you win - 'You threw this many incompletions.'

"Just things like that, where nothing is ever good enough. We don't settle just to be satisfied," McNabb says. "That's the household I come from."

Neither parent was shy when it came to discipline, and they didn't mince words when it came to expectations. Sean described their parenting style as "no-nonsense, straight at you with a lot of constructive criticism."

"I guess both my wife and I, as parents, we just wanted the best in our kids," says Sam McNabb, 57. "So in the upbringing stages of it, I think we just kind of imparted in them, when you do something, you have to try to do it the best way you can and be the best at it. Even if it didn't materialize, at least they understood that there was still work to be done and that they just couldn't be satisfied if something is just good enough."

Now married and with four kids of his own, McNabb says he has a newfound appreciation for that approach. He still counts his family, including wife, Roxie, among his toughest critics and says he wouldn't have it any other way.

"After a loss, we know when to approach and when not to," says Wilma, 55. "We were gonna be the biggest critics he had that day, but we'd wait. You wouldn't just go right into it and make him crazy. We'd wait until he kind of cooled down, showered and ate. And if he brought it up, we were like, 'Okay, good, now let me tell you what I saw."

"The bottom line is, if you stunk up the house, you stunk up the house," his father says.

Making every game

Before they were parents of a Pro Bowler, Sam McNabb was an electrical engineer for a Chicago power company and Wilma was a registered nurse. It allowed the two to give their children a comfortable childhood, short on extravagance but filled with attention.

McNabb can't remember his parents missing any of his athletic pursuits. "He probably can't remember us missing because we were there for 99.9 percent of them," Sam says.

Sam, in fact, coached both of his sons in youth basketball. As the McNabb boys entered high school, Sam and Wilma - called Mama McNabb by many in the NFL but simply "Char" by friends because her middle name is Charlotte - were regular fixtures in gyms and stadium bleachers.

Wilma credits Sam's genes for her children's athleticism and hers for their intellect. "There's no proof, but that's what she says," Sam says.

Attending their events was essential, if not easy. McNabb cycled through five sports in high school, including football, basketball and baseball.

"I had to tell him, 'You're killing me!' " Wilma says. "Between volleyball and track, I would just die. It was like watching paint dry."

Perfect attendance became more difficult when McNabb enrolled at Syracuse and played both basketball and football. The McNabb parents would get off work at 5 p.m. on a Friday and catch an Amtrak train to New York. About 11 hours later, they'd reach Syracuse and take a nap before kickoff. Then they'd go back to the station to catch a midnight train before pulling into Chicago late Sunday morning.

"There was just no way we were going to miss anything," Wilma says.

They've stayed true to that throughout McNabb's professional career. Home and away, his parents and brother, Sean, are always there. In fact, after 11 years in the league, his family has visited all but two NFL stadiums.

"As I continue to get older, you look back on all that and just understand that you see some of these kids nowadays who don't have mom and dad in the house together, to have that support that they definitely need," McNabb says. "Because you need that. You have tough times that you have to battle through, you have no one to talk to. I had two in the house that I could talk to, as well as my brother, to make sure that I'd be able to handle the situation correctly."

Sibling rivalry

Sports dominated the young McNabb's daylight hours. At home, his bedroom was wallpapered with newspaper clippings and Sports Illustrated covers. Even before high school, McNabb played in organized leagues, on playgrounds and just about any place where his older brother would allow him to tag along.

"I always wanted to be that guy, to lead in anything," he says. "If it was walking, I wanted to be first. If it was basketball, I'm going to make sure we win this game. If it was football, hey, I'm going to get the troops together; we're going to get out there and make this thing happen. Whatever it may be, I felt like that was my job and I was entitled to do that."

McNabb's competitive instincts were also instilled at a young age. By now, after six Pro Bowls and five trips to the NFC title game, everyone in the NFL knows McNabb's name. Growing up, though, they called him something else.

"I was always known as 'Little Sean,' " McNabb says, "and that bothered me.. . . That's something that gives you that extra push because you don't always want to be recognized as 'Little anybody.' "

"I always wanted to be better than my brother. I wanted to make a name for myself."

With a four-year advantage, Sean McNabb was always bigger, cooler, smarter and more athletic. To a young Donovan, his brother wasn't someone to emulate. He was someone to beat.

"It was cool bringing him around, but as a little brother, he was definitely a pest now and then," Sean said.

When McNabb was 13 or 14, the two brothers were on the same neighborhood basketball court, playing one-on-one. Sean had never had a problem with his little brother. He'd usually talk trash all the way home, and when they walked in the front door, Mom and Dad would mix in a couple of jabs, too.

But on that day, as Sean was preparing for college, the two took the court and McNabb finally got the better of his big brother. Looking back, McNabb's grin grows as he recalls that day as "one of the most exciting moments of my life."

"That right there felt like I was on top of the world," McNabb says. "I remember after I scored the winning basket, I remember throwing the ball across the court and walking off. Because I don't want him to go get the ball and now we've got to start over. I remember winning and just walking off."

Class clown

In Philadelphia, McNabb's smile was often misconstrued. During tense moments of big games, cameras would catch McNabb with a grin and passionate fans would spend the week lighting up talk-radio phone lines, complaining that McNabb doesn't take the game as seriously as they do.

But that's been his approach to the sport and a key component of his leadership style since he was given control of his first huddle. That smile can still be seen today in the trophy case at Mount Carmel High on the South Side of Chicago, where his No. 1 jersey and old photographs are preserved behind glass.

"If I felt the team was kind of tight, I could always grab Donovan and say, 'Hey, look, I need to loosen these guys up.' And he'd do something silly," says Frank Lenti, who is entering his 27th year as Mount Carmel's football coach. "He might throw himself on the ground and breakdance, just something to get the guys loosened up.

"And there were times where if I felt they were too loose, I'd say, 'Don, we need to have a serious day today.' "

Years later, it's still McNabb's strategy. In Philadelphia, he'd stand in front of a meeting room and address the team with his Andy Reid impression. He wouldn't break character until Reid entered the room and McNabb would have to scramble back to his seat.

"He was a clown at home, too," says Wilma McNabb. "I always told him if he didn't make it in football, he could try to be a comedian. He thought he was funny."

McNabb's comedic stylings were the subject of plenty of parent-teacher conferences and ensuing punishments. While the classroom wasn't always the best stage, his sense of humor has been integral to him winning over locker rooms.

"That's another side of leadership that I think people overlook," Sam says. "When you can make people around you in a tense and tight situation feel comfortable by being able to present humor or something that will take their mind off the stressfulness - there's an art to that."

McNabb served as Mount Carmel's starting quarterback his junior year. On the basketball court, he played alongside Antoine Walker, who would spend 12 years in the NBA. McNabb said he didn't settle on football until his junior year of college and told football recruiters that he wanted to continue playing both sports after high school. For some, that wasn't the biggest concern.

Football coaches from schools such as the University of Illinois came through Mount Carmel and saw in McNabb a defensive back or a wide receiver - not a quarterback. The Mount Carmel coaches told everyone who visited that McNabb had the tools to play the position and the character to lead a locker room. Syracuse listened, and McNabb started every game of his collegiate career with the Orangemen football team, honing leadership skills developed at Mount Carmel.

"He was the kind of kid that everybody gravitates toward," says David Lenti, Frank's brother and Mount Carmel's longtime defensive coordinator. "He was such a natural leader. That kind of personality is infectious."

Adjusting to a new team

McNabb left Syracuse as the best quarterback in school history. After 11 seasons in Philadelphia, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie says McNabb is the best that organization has ever had, as well. McNabb now brings his competitive streak and leadership skills to a new team and a new town.

As trade rumors began chasing McNabb through the offseason, his family clung to optimism. Even when speculation centered on the Oakland Raiders as a likely destination, Wilma McNabb tried to wear a smile.

"I was like: 'You know, Hollywood isn't bad. Let's go to Hollywood,' " she says. "I know it's not really close [to Oakland], but I try to look at things on the upswing instead of look at it in a negative manner."

After watching her son survive in the spotlight for so long, she is familiar with negativity. When it becomes too much, she asks her son, "Why couldn't you just be a [place] kicker?"

"Ma," he'll tell her. "I don't want to be a kicker."

"Yeah, but I wish you were."

Just as McNabb is embracing his new surroundings, the McNabb family is adjusting to a new team, burgundy and gold slowly overtaking green and silver in their closets and on their walls.

It takes some getting used to. When Wilma first saw photos of her son practicing in Redskins colors earlier this spring, she called him. "I told him he looks very strange," she says. "He's just like a rookie again. I kind of feel bad for him. I said, 'You're just starting all over again, huh?' " she says.

"He said, 'It'll be fine, Ma.' "

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