“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.
By 2000 and 2001 you were an elite quarterback—big numbers, dramatic comeback victories. Then you showed guts in 2002 against Arizona when you played with a broken fibula. What do you remember from that game?
Oh, man. I was with Brand Jordan. They didn’t send my rain-type shoes on time, so I went from Jordans back to Nike. I was slipping out there. I scrambled left, tried to give two guys a move, buy some time.
I remember getting grabbed from behind. They checked my ankle on the sideline, taped it. We rallied, came back, great game. We go back in the locker room and they x-ray it. Bam: “You broke your ankle.”
You didn’t have any idea how bad it was during the game?
No. I’d never broken anything, never had surgery. They said they can put a pin in it, you’ll be back in three to four weeks. We were on our playoff run. So my mom came in, she’s a registered nurse, and I’m like, “I’m not just jumping to surgery—nobody cuttin’ on me.” What’s the other option? We can let it heal itself. That would be six to eight. My mom’s like, “We’re not having surgery. I’m not having my son, 20 years from now, going through metal detectors and having to get scanned with a plate and screws in his foot.” Didn’t have surgery. It healed cleanly. After the game, I went to the [Washington] Wizards game and said to Mike [Jordan], “Where were my shoes? I broke my ankle, man.”
So it was Michael Jordan’s fault you broke your ankle.
I told him that. He said, “You did what? I’m sorry.”
I interviewed you in the fall of 1999, and you said this about being booed at the NFL draft: “I looked at it as a challenge and came out to prove them wrong.” It seems like over the years, you forgave but never forgot.
That’s 100 percent accurate. You dream of hearing your name called at the draft. I heard the whole process on Angelo Cataldi wanting to get the bus to go up and boo me. Why would you do something like that? To me, it was just another one I put on the list of proving people wrong. Was I pissed off? Yeah. It was embarrassing. That goes down in history. That’s something they keep showing—memorable things at the draft, me getting booed.
Did that make it tough to warm up to the fans here?
No. It was not tough at all. It’s just me and my team out on the field. I block out the fans. I feel like it’s just like practice. I’ve always said, the game is played during the week. Sunday is like, you take your kids to the candy store. You had a great week; today, treat yourself. That’s how I treated games—it was an opportunity for me to just have fun. I feel like we’re showmen, as athletes. We’re paid to put on a show.
You let your personality shine through at times.
All the time.
Sometimes the fans responded to it. Other times …
They didn’t understand it.
There was the Michael Jackson “Thriller” dance, and picking up the phone on the sideline against the Giants. And the one that bothered people the most …
The air guitar. This is the thing people don’t understand. I brought the air guitar out at training camp. Everybody loved it. Leonard Weaver had the drums, DeSean Jackson was rapping. It was like a band. We were having a good time. When I brought the air guitar out in the playoffs, that wasn’t to throw it in anybody’s face. That was me showing that we’re loose. If we’d have won the game, wouldn’t nobody have said nothing about the air guitar. We’d just lost to Dallas [the week before] because I felt like we came into that game thinking too much of the result. The whole week, it was, Let’s get back to being who we are. Let’s be loose. And people took it—he’s not focused. You can hate me all you want to. When I’m on that field, I couldn’t care less.
Let’s go back to 2003. NFC divisional playoff vs. Green Bay. The play.
Fourth and 26. The one that Freddie “Boom Boom” Mitchell will always live by. There’s an Eagles bar in Arizona, that’s all they talk about—fourth and 26 and the Super Bowl.
You don’t sound too impressed by fourth and 26.
’Cause we didn’t make it to the Super Bowl. Should we have made it more than once? Absolutely. As a quarterback, you get measured by wins and losses—we won, obviously, more than we lost. You get measured by your numbers—I had great numbers. You’re measured by your Super Bowl wins. As a quarterback, I wish I could have won a Super Bowl.
Three straight NFC championship games. James Thrash and Todd Pinkston were your top wideouts; in 2003, they combined for three touchdowns. Do you think Andy, Jeff Lurie and Joe Banner should have found better receivers for you early on?
You remember when I said—and anything I say, in Philly, becomes a story to this day—it’s important to get some playmakers? We brought in Asante Samuel, we brought in three or four players. I said playmakers—somebody who can change the game with a pick or a play.
In 2004, you successfully lobbied to sign Terrell Owens and finally had a true number one receiver. Why did things click so well?
We’d played in the Pro Bowl together. He understood my ability, and I understood his talent—find a way to put the ball in his hands. He’ll make everything else happen after that. If you have a great receiver, the quarterback looks great.
That’s what made it so devastating when things went south. He could have been your Jerry Rice.
It was like music. People in training camp were like, Whoa, this is something we have never seen. Because of the music we were making on offense, at quarterback and wide receiver—and this is the funny part that people don’t focus on—the defense elevated their game. Special teams elevated their game. Coaches’ confidence grew. We were going into games thinking how much we were going to beat teams by. That was one of the most exciting years, because I felt like as a team, everybody came together. We had parties together. We watched Monday Night Football every week together. It was a team. That was something I felt like, early on, we were missing. Then it was shattered in ’05.
What went wrong?
Everybody wanted to be a star. That’s the problem with a lot of teams. When you make it to the Super Bowl, all of the sudden, everybody feels like, “This is my chance.” Everybody had websites, everybody was doing TV segments or shows. Everybody’s doing other things.
What changed in your relationship with T.O.?
DM: Great player, but just didn’t understand the team atmosphere. It’s unfortunate, but I continued on with my career and he continued on with his.
Let’s talk about the Super Bowl.
Everybody talks about it to this day, but if you watch film, I never threw up in the Super Bowl. When they try to say I was tired at the Super Bowl, y’know—Freddie or T.O., even my center Hank Fraley said I was tired. Everybody blew up on that. It’s like, first of all, I got dumped on my head three times.
It seemed like that Tedy Bruschi hit knocked the wind out of you.
Was I tired? Yeah, I lost my wind because I got dumped on my head. This whole conditioning thing—I ran three days a week. If you ask any of my teammates, I’d be on the treadmill running after practice.
You threw three touchdowns, but do you still think about the three interceptions?
All the time. The first one to Westbrook, we had him. Then it faded on me. The second one, I think Tedy Bruschi might have intercepted while I was trying to squeeze one in there to T.O. Those stay with you. When you pass for 357 yards, that’s like the second highest or third highest in the Super Bowl. And we were right there. But one thing I’ve always said—I don’t think football players should be remembered by the Super Bowls that you win. You get measured by your legacy. Wins and losses, yards, the way you changed the game.
The perception of you seemed to shift among the fans after the Super Bowl. Did you feel that?
There was a shift because the team was different. Some fans blamed me, and they loved T.O.—it was Donovan’s fault. But as a quarterback, that’s what you go through. Blame the quarterback, blame the coach. What was funny, when everyone was saying “Donovan’s not doing this or that,” we won 10 or 11 games. We were in the playoffs. People got so accustomed to making it to the playoffs, it wasn’t how many games we were going to win. It was what we did in the playoffs. “It’s Super Bowl or bust this year.” Yeah, it’s Super Bowl or bust for everybody.
Is there anything you could have done differently to manage the T.O. situation or hold the team together?
No. It just died out, right in front of our eyes. I tried. We had players-only meetings. We had one-on-one conversations. All stuff I like to keep behind closed doors. Brian Dawkins and I were roommates for years in training camp. We would just talk about different issues, things that were going on. It was like, what could we do? Brian and I both came to the conclusion there was nothing we could do.
It seemed like Dawkins got the credit as the leader of the team.
And well deserved. He was passionate.
The fans gravitated more to his style—fiery, intense. You were the laid-back guy. Did that bother you?
Not at all. I couldn’t care less about what people say on the outside. It ain’t about who looks good. It’s about winning football games. Brian and I are like brothers. We still talk to this day. Brian would get everybody fired up. Then he’d come to me—“Do your thing.” And I would be who I am. There’s ways of leading. The problem a lot of times, someone gets fired up, raaaaah! and all that—that works for a period of time. But then it dies out. Brian and I knew that. We led in the right way. I don’t need to cuss and head-butt and get in your face. You drop three balls? “Look, man—don’t worry about it. I’m coming back to you. This next one’s gonna be the big play. Nobody will remember you dropped three.” I’m that guy. I’m an easy target because I’m not that raaaaah! guy.
Were the last couple years here tough?
No. Understand, with me—I’m like a shield. Everyone’s been throwing bullets my way. I just keep walking. Ping! Ping! That’s all you hear. People couldn’t get under my skin.
How would you describe your relationship with Jeff Lurie over the years?
I love Jeffrey; he’s a great owner. He took a chance on Andy. Andy and Jeffrey took a chance on me. It worked out well for us. Was I upset when I got traded? Absolutely, because I wanted to retire as a Philadelphia Eagle. I wanted to have that parade. I’ve apologized to the fans. My goal was to bring a championship to Philadelphia. I didn’t succeed in that.
When you were traded, who were you angry with?
Everybody. Because I didn’t like the way the situation was handled. When you get traded, you at least have an idea of what’s going on. Nobody’s telling me anything.
The writing was on the wall, though.
The writing wasn’t on the wall, because we just went 11 and five. [laughs] My agent’s talking to Joe [Banner] and Jeffrey. What’s going on? If you’re thinking about trading me, just say it.
Andy had said you were his starting quarterback.
I called Andy: What’s going on? “Nothing.” Hey, just tell me: Are y’all thinking about making a move? Let me know so I can prep my family. But everybody was so quiet. They’re talking to teams—my agent knew, I knew. C’mon, Andy. This is year 11. I know what’s going on. Just be honest with me.
Have you resolved those feelings since then?
I have. I didn’t talk to anybody for a while. I started talking to Andy again a little bit about what was going on when I was in Washington. I remember talking to Brian Dawkins when he went to Denver. He said, “Look, what we had in Philadelphia, we’ll never have again. But here in Denver, at least [head coach] John Fox is trying to bring it here. What we built in Philadelphia was special. But it helps your process when you have a coach that understands and is trying to build the same thing here.” We didn’t have that in Washington. I loved playing in Washington. But I didn’t have the privilege, like Peyton [Manning], of bringing his offense to Denver. It just didn’t work out.
Did your time with Washington and Minnesota give you a different perspective on the Eagles?
I never forgot what happened in Philadelphia. Those were great years. I would have loved to have had another couple years after that and just say, “Thank you, I’m done.” But it didn’t happen that way. I sold my house when I got traded. Never even touched foot in Philadelphia until I played there as a Washington Redskin. I hadn’t even been back to the facility until Brian Dawkins retired. It was a sour day for me. I was pissed off to go, but [Brian’s] like my brother. I went for my brother. I felt the same as Brian—you turned your back on me. You basically pointed the finger at me. Things haven’t been right in Philadelphia since [I left].
The fans were harder on Andy when he left than they were on you.
I know. Nothing went right that season. And they didn’t have me to blame.
Your parents were very vocal at times in your career—your mother Wilma writing about the team’s “bittersweet” success when you were hurt in 2006.
[laughs] Again, anytime a McNabb says something, it’s a big story.
Your father compared your trade to Washington on Easter Sunday to Christ’s resurrection. Was there anything they said that you wished they hadn’t, or that you disagreed with?
No. I’m privileged to have my parents still alive, still together, to continue to provide wisdom and guidance for me. They were always there for me. My mom, when I got hurt with my knee [in 2006], said it was bittersweet to see the team was winning and she can’t see her son out there playing. When I got traded on Easter Sunday, I was asleep. It’s amazing how a lot of stuff we say gets magnified.
Did you ever speak with Rush Limbaugh after his comments about you as a black quarterback?
No. Rush then got caught up with his Percocets or whatever. Don’t come to me unless your kitchen’s clean, because it will come out. Everyone who’s started up with me has somehow got caught up in something.
On the day you were drafted, you mentioned breaking down barriers; your agent, Fletcher Smith, made race an issue in your rookie contract negotiation. How much do you think race was a factor in how you were perceived throughout your career?
It’s been a part. What percentage, I don’t know. Do I care? No. But it’s been a part. Look at the numbers. Look at wins and losses; look at the success rate of the team compared to whoever else you want. Angelo Cataldi can say anything he wants and people will call in—rah-rah-rah. Mike Missanelli—[another guy] that can’t stand me. Do I care? No. Howard Eskin. Bernard Hopkins. Bernard, you’re about 50 years old and you’re still bringing up something that happened over 10 years ago? That means I’m somehow relevant to you or people around you. My legacy is still growing. So for Howard Eskin on Fox 29 to bring me up to Bernard Hopkins? Bernard brings my name up to make his fights relevant. Why you still talking about me? Because my name still resonates.
What advice would you give to young guys like Nick Foles or Matt Barkley, who could become the face of the Eagles franchise?
Have thick skin. Enjoy the game. Enjoy it. That’s why I like RG3, I like Andrew Luck, I like Russell Wilson. I like [Colin] Kaepernick. These guys are out there laughing, having a good time and joking. But when a guy’s sitting there steel-faced, you’re thinking too much. Just go out there and have fun.
Did you maintain that attitude toward the end with the Eagles?
Yeah. I was able to maintain that in Washington and Minnesota. That’s who I am. The game can be taken away from you instantly. In a second. [snaps his fingers] And then what? My plan B was to do what I’m doing now—TV, radio. I miss the camaraderie, competing. Do I miss the actual games, the soreness? No. I run every morning, I work out. I talk sports. I love my life.
Tell me about your decision to retire two years ago.
You have to know when it’s time. I told [the Vikings] to release me. I called my agent: “Get me out of here. I’m done.” Everybody wants to play many years, win Super Bowls, ride off in a chariot, retire, confetti comes up, cheerleaders are dancing. You want to end like Jerome Bettis did. Like Ray [Lewis] did. But it could end the way it did for me that week. It’s tough to swallow. I continued to work out. I was ready to go if the right call was there. It’s funny, because I talked to Jim Harbaugh, [the San Francisco 49ers] were one of the teams I was thinking about. I said, “I’m all in. Just let me know.” He said, “Be ready. You’re on the short list for us.”
Who were the other teams?
Baltimore. Which is funny, because they both ended up in the Super Bowl. Which would have been really funny if I won a Super Bowl and wasn’t the starter. Those were the only two teams. I didn’t want to be a guy just waiting around—what you see T.O. doing, what you see Chad [Johnson] doing. I was done. And I was at peace.
Do you see yourself in Canton someday?
I don’t know. I didn’t play the game to make the Hall of Fame. I played the game to be the best at what I do while I’m doing it. If I make it, hey, that is outstanding. If I don’t, that’s not going to mess up my life.
RR: Do you deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?
If you want to measure guys by their numbers, then my numbers are comparable to all of them.
What do you imagine September 19th will be like, when the team retires your number five?
I don’t know. I remember being there with Brian for his press conference. I almost got emotional for him. I can’t promise you I won’t get emotional. Nobody has ever seen that side of me. To see Brian reflect on that, talk about our friendship—I was like, “Fuck, 11 years being here.” Then when they said nobody will ever wear number 20, which was well deserved, that is special. Then I heard they would do that for me. On my radio show, [NBC Sports host] Erik Kuselias asked me: Who would you put on Mount Rushmore for Philadelphia? To me, it would be Reggie White, Chuck Bednarik, Tommy McDonald and Harold Carmichael. If we had five heads, Dawkins. There’s a lot of people I’d put on there before me. I’ve never been a “me” guy. I’ve always been a team guy.
How do you think the fans will react?
I was asked that question when I was in Washington [before playing the Eagles at the Linc]. I didn’t know. They gave me a standing ovation. They booed when the offense came out, which I expected. But the standing ovation was special. It made me realize—they appreciate what happened. The fat guy [Reid] will be there. It will be a chance to say goodbye to the fans and shake the hand of the guy who took a chance on me in ’99. And I’ll get to tell Doug [Pederson] thank you. He was like a doormat my rookie year, like I was in Minnesota. The 19th is fun, man. I might bring the air guitar.
The city would go up in flames.
It probably would. But I’ve set Philly on fire for so long. [laughs]