Donovan McNabb: A First Round Draft Pick, But Never First in My Heart

As a 40 year old female from Philadelphia who bleeds green, I am looking forward to seeing Donovan McNabb jog onto the field for his first official NFL game in his ugly new maroon and gold Redskins jersey.  Over the course of his decade long stint in the city of Brotherly Love, I’ve experienced every possible emotion from elation and suspended disbelief when the Eagles reached the Super Bowl to the depths of despair and frustration after the Carolina NFC Championship playoff loss in 2003.

I’ve been through a lot as a lifelong Eagles fan.  I recall sitting in a monsoon at the Vet, wearing my mother’s ridiculously large Morton Salt yellow slicker and rain hat, watching miserably as the hated Emmitt Smith rushed for 237 yards on a dreary Halloween in 1993. I downed as many $8 beers as the girl at the concession counter would allow. Following the 12 remaining people out of the stadium after the final clock expired, my tears mingled with the rain.

When Randall Cunningham broke his leg during a Jets game that same year and Eric Allen handed him the football after scoring on a defensive touchdown, I suddenly knew, as a 25 year old, what it was like to feel unconditional love.

More recently, after our best receiver in a decade left the team, I loyally marched down to the Linc and sacrificed my expensive # 81 T.O. jersey for the Howard Eskin-led burning ceremony.

The day the Vet became the only stadium in the league to have its own jail system, I was perversely proud.  I later cried when the crumbling Vet was blown to smithereens, the only football stadium I had ever known.

So, when I found myself living in New York City with a free pass to the 1999 NFL Draft, with the Eagles holding the 2nd overall pick, you can imagine that I felt as if I had won the lottery.

On Draft Day, I carefully set three alarms for 7 a.m. to make sure I got there for the 10 a.m. door opening.  Standing in a line that snaked around Penn Station by 9 a.m., I heard a painful screeching noise as six yellow school buses pulled up. Grown men with green and white face paint, intoxicated despite the early hour, squeezed out of every available slice of window, screaming. A tall, lanky 40-ish male exited the bus holding a black sickle, dressed head to toe in green and white, his shock of salt and pepper hair standing straight up. I recognized him as Angelo Cataldi, the brash host from the local sports radio station.

As the buses emptied, Cataldi led the group’s chanting.  I don’t know what genius at the Garden decided it was a smart idea to serve beer at 10 a.m. to people who made it their job on football Sundays to start drinking at 6 a.m., but I’ve never seen so many people shriek with glee when spotting a concession stand.

Following the crowd, I noticed men and women in blue security shirts grow wide-eyed as the men in face paint ran with their two allotted beers towards the plush red seats like kids in a school yard.  A dozen or so event staffers immediately ran to set up red velvet ropes,  yelling for the Eagles fans to sit in the newly cordoned off section.

At a long table near the stage, ESPN’s commentators sat, getting ready for the broadcast. I watched each physically recoil as they got a glimpse of the rowdies. A few minutes later, a security guard was placed in front of their desk.

After what seemed like hours, the Eagles went on the clock. With seconds to spare, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue finally stepped up to the podium. It was almost impossible to hear anything over the roar of the crowd.

“With the second overall pick of the 1999 draft, the Philadelphia Eagles select Donovan…..” Ear splitting boos cascaded down, drowning out Donovan’s last name. Multiple cameras swung away from the stage to the fans jumping up in down in indignation, their hands, and perhaps even a middle finger or two, waving wildly in the air. McNabb walked onto the stage under the glaring lights, amidst the din, and showed what would turn out to be the most negatively talked about facial expression in Philadelphia: his “smirk-smile.”

Feeling pure disappointment at not getting a top caliber running back, I felt an overwhelming urge to boo. Ricky Williams was “the man!”  According to the experts, he would win us a ring! But, I held off joining the boo birds, as compassion won out.  I noticed a small group of family in front of the stage that had stood up trying to clap louder, hugging McNabb as he walked down the stairs.

From my third row seat inside Madison Square Garden, I watched McNabb auspiciously begin his career as an Eagle – committing the first of what would turn out to be countless sins: his name was not Ricky Williams.

Over the last decade, I have watched in disappointment as McNabb’s completions to the ground became a statistic and a promised Broad Street parade never materialized. Play calling, the lack of a top wide receiver (minus the T.O. debacle), and a series of brittle running backs were all factors in his inability to win the big one. But witnessing McNabb conduct a six minute drill against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, unable to score three points to tie the game, summed up all that was wrong with him as a quarterback.

When McNabb was traded to the Redskins this winter, I had a little celebration party. This fall, I look forward to see what the Eagles defense does when McNabb takes the field  and the fans welcome him back to the Linc “Philly Style” on October 3rd.  I can already picture the “smirk-smile.”

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