By Rick Maese and Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 12:37 AM
What might have happened had the Philadelphia Eagles selected Ricky Williams, a running back from Texas, with the second pick of the 1999 NFL draft? Cheers would have filled Madison Square Garden, where the draft was held, and Donovan McNabb would have fallen to the Cincinnati Bengals or the Indianapolis Colts or the New Orleans Saints or some other team in some other city, with a chance to write a different script. There would have been no history for McNabb with Philadelphia, with the Eagles, with their fans.
"We thought Ricky Williams was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime player," said Ed Rendell, former Philadelphia mayor, current Pennsylvania governor, ardent Eagles fan and Williams supporter on Draft Day '99.
But as soon as then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said: "With the second pick, the Philadelphia Eagles select Donovan McNabb, quarterback, Syracuse University," the seeds of a complicated, turbulent, sometimes inexplicable relationship were sown. The Eagles fans who bused to the draft booed, and booed hard.
Welcome to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, Donovan. We wish you were someone else.
"Not that he had a chip on his shoulder, but he really felt slighted," said Michael Karloutsos, a Philadelphia restaurant owner, Eagles season-ticket holder and friend of the McNabb family. "He felt like they took away that moment from him, and he deserved that moment. Think about that. So now, that sour taste is in his mouth."
McNabb himself would never say he was or is or ever will be sour about Philadelphia. Eleven years later, when the bookend to McNabb's career in Philadelphia came in the form of a trade to the Washington Redskins, McNabb spoke only highly of his time in Philadelphia.
"It's been 11 great years," he said last week.
The addendum to that career and those emotions comes Sunday, when McNabb appears on the Eagles' field for the first time in an opposing uniform. For one moment, the complexity of the relationship between city and athlete will be distilled to its simplest form. He will be booed, or he will be cheered. Or both.
"He's going to get a big ovation," said Angelo Cataldi, the outspoken drive-time host on all-sports radio station WIP, the man who organized the trip to boo McNabb's selection at the draft. "It hurts me to say it."
"It's going to be some mixed reactions," said Redskins lineman Artis Hicks, who spent the first three years of his career blocking for McNabb in Philadelphia. "You got a lot of diehard fans there that it's all about who we got now."
"There's going to be an opinion," said Eagles Coach Andy Reid, the man behind both McNabb's selection and his departure.
The Phillies will appear in baseball's playoffs in the coming days. The Flyers, who reached the Stanley Cup finals last spring, open their season this week. Yet in Philadelphia last week, the talk centered on the Eagles and McNabb, McNabb and the Eagles. His pending return has caused what amounts to a wave of civic introspection.
When McNabb's selection was booed all those years ago, more than one Philadelphia columnist suggested the act reflected poorly on the city. Last week, talk radio buzzed about how the fans should treat their departed star, as polarizing an athletic figure as this passionate sports city has known.
"Donovan always said the right thing, and no one can argue that he wasn't a good guy," said Anthony Gargano, a native Philadelphian and another host on WIP. "The perception was he only said what you're supposed to say. They wanted him to cry after the Super Bowl and throw his helmet. And in the end, it all comes down to one thing: not whether his personality didn't jive - and that's true - but he didn't win."
McNabb is well aware of how his failure to win the Super Bowl - despite five NFC championship games and six Pro Bowl appearances - affected his reputation with the city. Some people close to him said he was hurt by the trade that sent him away from the only city he had known as a professional. Still, a month after he was dealt to Washington - after he threw more completions for more yards and more touchdowns than anyone in Eagles history - McNabb went on one of the sports radio stations in town, home of much of the vitriol directed at him over the years, and apologized to the city of Philadelphia.
"When I got to Philadelphia, I said I wanted to have a parade on Broad St., and bring a Super Bowl championship back to Philadelphia," McNabb said in an interview before this season. ". . . Through my 11 years, I've been questioned about things that I did, or the way that I approached things - because I smiled during a game, little things that bothered some people. It's just me having fun in this game. I enjoyed playing football.
"That I wasn't able to accomplish that one goal that I set for myself - we got so close - but not being able to bring it back to Philadelphia, I wanted people to understand the passion that I had and how I truly felt about that."Complex relationship
There, though, lies some of the complexity in the relationship. Some fans never understood McNabb. They believed his passion for winning, if it was there at all, was masked by the smile and what appeared to be a lack of emotion. And many Philadelphians believe McNabb didn't truly understand Philadelphians.
Some believe this is about more than sports. Philadelphia was once the capital of a nascent union, and had that title stripped from it and moved to Washington. The U.S. mint moved to New York. There was bubonic plague, Legionnaires' disease, a litany of problems that became intertwined with the city's identity.
"You've got to understand: There's some psychology here," said Karloutsos, the restaurant owner. "Philadelphia was the center of the universe at one point in time. When the New World was created, this was it. . . . [When that was lost] "it created this huge, huge inferiority complex. Over time, Philadelphia expected to lose in every way shape and form."
Mix those elements in with a predominantly blue-collar city, and an attitude developed. Nowhere is that attitude more obvious than in how the city relates to its sports teams.
"It's aggressive with its criticisms and its aggressive with its love," Gargano said. "It can be constricting how much the city can love you sometimes. It's because it matters here. In most places, people shake off a loss. It's sports. It's your outlet. Here, it's important. And that's the difference."
The results, of course, are important. But Philadelphians also believe that how their heroes handle the results - win or lose - is almost as important.
"The one thing I always found, that I knew to be true in Philadelphia, fan-wise: they just don't accept excuses," said Mitch Williams, the Phillies' closer for three seasons in the early 1990s. "They just don't want to hear them. If you lose, you just stand up and say you lost."
Williams offers perhaps the best example of this. In 1993, he saved 43 games for a Phillies team that went to the World Series. Called on to protect a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth of Game 6, Williams instead issued a walk, then a one-out single, then a three-run home run to Toronto's Joe Carter, which ended the Series.
Williams never played another game for the Phillies. His reputation?
"He's beloved in that town now," said Larry Andersen, a reliever and teammate on that '93 Phillies team, and now one the Phillies' broadcasters. "Part of it is because he stood up. He took the blame. He didn't have to or didn't need to, but he stood up and didn't make excuses. And I think fans in Philly respect a player that's honest and accountable."
When Williams returned to Philadelphia the following year as a member of the Houston Astros, he heard cheers. He believes not only what he said, but how he said it, mattered in the fans' post-World Series evaluation of him. "From a fan standpoint, you can't fool 'em," Williams said. "They can see right through insincerity."
McNabb's reactions to wins, to losses, to touchdown passes, to interceptions - all of them were analyzed and picked apart. Philadelphia doesn't bottle up its feelings. It doesn't want its athletes to. Shaun Young, an Eagles fan known as the "North End Zone Nightmare," dresses up in shoulder pads and face paint for every home game. In the hours before some big games, Young said he vomits because "I'm so jacked-up." This is the segment of the population that struggled with McNabb's measured reactions to nearly everything.
"McNabb never got us as fans," Young said. "He never got us. Part of it was because I don't think he wanted to. He was so guarded that he refused to let a lot of personality out and we didn't get to know the real Donovan McNabb."
Karloutsos points out that former 76ers guard Allen Iverson, never more than a step from controversy, was embraced by many Philadelphians, at least in part because when he got mad, it showed.
"Donovan didn't do that, and they resented him for it," Karloutsos said. "They want their guy to [feel] pain as much as they do. Donovan never showed that. He'd grin or kick a towel or whatever. For them, that wasn't enough. They wanted him to take a table and throw it against a wall. That's not Donovan."Super Bowl lore
McNabb's best chance to forge an unassailable legacy in Philadelphpia came on Feb. 6, 2005, when he played in his only Super Bowl as an Eagle. In the fourth quarter, Philadelphia trailed New England by 10 points. Despite needing two scores, the Eagles appeared to move casually in and out of plays. Later, wide receiver Terrell Owens said McNabb had thrown up in the huddle during Philadelphia's final drive, one that ended in the touchdown that cut the deficit to 24-21 - the final score.
McNabb threw for 357 yards that night, but he also threw three interceptions. And though he has repeatedly and consistently denied throwing up in the huddle, the fable remains part of his legacy in Philadelphia.
"That was the fatal moment in his career," Cataldi said. "Up to that point, he had a tremendous number of attempts to get there, a lot of years, and when he botched that up in the Super Bowl, it was like: This guy has his limitations. He won't get us the big win. He never fully recovered from that."
When McNabb arrived in Philadelphia, the town's last title had come from the 76ers, back in 1983, a drought that wore on the fans. But in 2008, the Phillies broke through, winning the World Series, a transformative experience for the franchise and its players - and how the fans reacted to them.
"It doesn't matter how successful you are if you don't win a championship," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said last week. "You were good. You played on some good teams. But you're never a winner until you actually win. . . . It was like, the pride of the city was back, being a blue-collar city, working hard, but at the end of all that hard work, for many years it was heart-breaking. Now it's like all that hard work finally paid off."
It has not paid off for the Eagles. Still, fans in almost every other NFL city would trade their results for those of McNabb's Eagles. During his decade as a starter, only Indianapolis and New England won more games; the Patriots and Eagles tied for the most playoff games (18) during that time.
"Donovan led us there," said Rendell, the governor. "He played hurt. He played in big games. He was always there. He had the daylights beat out of him, never complained. . . . I don't think he was ever fully appreciated."
Sunday afternoon will provide the first glimpse of whether a post-Philadelphia McNabb is appreciated.
"You wouldn't expect me to say I'm going to get booed, do you?" McNabb said last week.
He smiled. Broadly. And somewhere, a Philadelphia sports fan cringed.
Maese reported from Philadelphia. Svrluga reported from Ashburn.