“When I got drafted, I was a block over,” a wistful Donovan McNabb says from a conference room at the Marriott Marquis overlooking Times Square. Dressed casually in dark jeans, a white polo and sandals, McNabb is here in Manhattan for the NHL draft—tomorrow, his nephew will be the seventh pick—and a little blown away by how his life has come full circle. Back in 1999, he was a kid from Syracuse with a cannon arm and no idea what lay ahead on his journey through the NFL—an 11-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles, five NFC championship games, one Super Bowl, bones and records broken, Terrell Owens, cheers, boos, and enough controversy to fill months’ worth of sports-talk chatter (which is fitting, as he is now a commentator on the newly launched FOX Sports 1 network and hosts a daily show on NBC Radio from Phoenix, where he lives). With the ceremony for the official retirement of McNabb’s number five set for September 19th—the day Andy Reid returns to town as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs—the 36-year-old sat down for a wide-ranging look back at his career. Throughout our two-hour conversation, he is every bit the guy who became one of Philadelphia’s great sports lightning rods. Love him or hate him, he’s proud of his career, unapologetic, and eager to reflect on his legacy as perhaps the greatest—and certainly the most hotly debated—quarterback in Eagles history.
Let’s start with your early memories in the NFL. What was that first Lehigh training camp like?
It was like a track meet. You come out of the starting block, and your first couple years are like your first steps in the 100-yard dash. Do you come out fast? For me, it wasn’t as fast as I wanted, because we had Doug Pederson. The exciting part about it was, the maturation process started once my name was called [at the draft]. When I rode back to Philadelphia from New York, we opened up the playbook. It was me and Brad Childress and Mike Dougherty, the videographer. That’s my guy. He’s like, “Hey kid, you’ll be a star in Philly.” Yeah, I hope so.
How did it feel when you were the backup and the hype built for you to start in 1999? The fans were vocal. I remember Sign Man writing THE FUTURE IS McNOW on a banner.
It was frustrating. I was pissed off at Andy. I’m thinking to myself, I need to be in there. As I look back on it, it was a great idea on his part. He gave me the confidence each game—you know what you’re seeing, you know how to prepare.
How was your relationship with Andy Reid in those years?
The same as now. We’re very close. He’ll say, “How you doing, kid?,” and he knows the answer already. He knows I got something on my mind.
That sounds very father-son.
More like teacher-student. And I say that in a great way. I learned from him.