Donovan McNabb’s feud with receiver Terrell Owens has called everything — his play, his character, even his blackness — into question. Can he handle being our quarterback?
On a brisk day in December of 2004, Sam and Wilma McNabb, a quintessentially American couple from the quintessentially American suburb of Dolton, Illinois, stood on the doorstep of Terrell Owens’s New Jersey home, holding in their hands a quintessentially American expression of love and concern.
A fruit basket.
“He’s doing an interview with Michael Irvin,” said T.O.’s friend and assistant, Carlos “Pablo” Cosby, opening the door and inviting them inside T.O.’s palatial Moorestown McMansion. The McNabbs — Sam, 51, and Wilma, 50 — nodded politely and made their way into the foyer. There they casually made small talk as they waited for their son Donovan’s friend and teammate to finish his interview in the next room.
They were on a mission of kindness. A few days earlier, T.O. had broken his leg in the middle of a game against the Cowboys, and they wanted him to know that they were with him. To the McNabbs, there was nothing particularly unusual about this. Not only did they view themselves as the Eagles’ “team parents,” but they had developed a fondness for T.O., who lived only a few blocks from Donovan and his wife Roxie and who had been to the McNabb house often.
After a few minutes, T.O. emerged from the other room. The McNabbs hugged him, then presented him with the fruit basket. They just wanted him to know, they said, that if he needed anything, all he had to do was call.
As they walked out the door, they had no idea that just a few months later T.O. would, as Sam McNabb puts it now, “turn on all of us.”
IN SO MANY WAYS, Sam and Wilma McNabb epitomize not only the American Dream that each generation can do better than the one before it, but also Martin Luther King’s dream that color should never be what holds us back. They met in high school, got married shortly after graduation, put themselves through school, bought a house in the suburbs, and did their best to infuse in their two young sons the solid, middle-American values that had served them so well. The problem? It is now those same middle-American values that seem to have put their son’s football career — at least in Philadelphia — at risk.
The irony of the T.O.-Eagles saga is that in the end, the person least affected by all the high drama is T.O. himself. This month the controversial 32-year-old receiver finds himself in an identical spot, give or take a few details, to where he was two years ago, when he was a controversial 30-year-old receiver: humping a new book, counting a new multi-jillion-dollar signing bonus, ready to save a new team trying its best to be blind to the threat of his crash-and-burn personality. It’s déjà vu all over again.
T.O. is the same. It’s those who got caught in his wake who have been changed — and none more than Donovan McNabb and his family. Thanks in large part to the brouhaha brought on by T.O. last season — specifically, the charge that Donovan McNabb lost the locker room in trying to rise above all the rancor — the quarterback enters this, his eighth season as an Eagle, with a host of questions hanging over his head. Curiously, the questions are less about his football ability than about who he is as a man. Is he tough enough? It was T.O. himself who put that into play last year, whining that what the Eagles really needed was a “warrior” like Packers quarterback Brett Favre (this despite the fact that McNabb played most of last season with multiple injuries). Is Donovan strong enough to lead the team? Some of his own teammates raised that question. By the end of last season, the man normally known as “5” around the team locker room was being called, by some of his fellow Eagles, “Baby Boy.”
Most curiously, there is this question: Is Donovan McNabb black enough? Last November, none other than the head of the Philadelphia NAACP, Jerry Mondesire, suggested that the answer was no. By refusing to run, rather than pass, as much as he had in the past, Mondesire wrote in a column in the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, McNabb had sold out the unique contribution African-American quarterbacks can make to the game. He was, in short, Clarence Thomas in a football helmet.
On one level, all of these charges are absurd. In seven seasons as the Eagles quarterback — six as starter — Donovan McNabb has taken the team to four NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. How is it possible that all that counts for nothing? Part of the answer is Philadelphia’s odd predilection for devouring its own. Donovan is now on the brink of being pushed down the same thorny path as Wilt Chamberlain, Mike Schmidt, Charles Barkley and so many other Philly stars: No matter how good he is, he will never be good enough.
“I’ve told Donovan this is a defining season for him in Philadelphia,” one person close to him says, and implicit in that is the possibility that he will be permanently marked as undeserving of his teammates’ respect or unworthy of our devotion — but at least he knows the stakes he is playing for.
More troubling, though, is that he is confronting a similar self-destructive vibe within the black community, a vibe that says achievement and acceptance in the world at large — once the very heart of the King dream — are now to be viewed with cynicism and suspicion. For Sam and Wilma McNabb — who have stood by their son through all sorts of controversies, though never anything quite like this — it is not only baffling, but outrageous. Wilma McNabb spent much of last season hobbled by a painful back, only to see the pain miraculously disappear shortly after the season ended. “Somebody asked me if it was sympathy pain, and I’m wondering if they’re right,” she says.
For her husband Sam, however, the past has been harder to let go. “Black-on-black crime,” he called it last year when T.O. and Michael Irvin assaulted his son’s character, and he is not about to back away from that now.
“There is no rule or law that’s written that says that black-on-black crime is reserved for poor or impoverished people,” Sam says one day in late June. “The ironic thing about the comment I made is that no one ever asked what the crime was. Oh, how could he say that, he’s a millionaire and all the people who have lost kids to shootings and murders and stabbings are hurt and appalled by it. They are not. They were not. Because there were crimes that were committed. And they were done by blacks to another black. And the crime was defamation of character.” Sam McNabb doesn’t hold back. “And that truly is a crime.”
IN THE BEGINNING, of course, Donovan and T.O. seemed to be a good combination not only on the field, but off. T.O. flew out to Donovan’s off-season home in Arizona to work out with him before the 2004 season, and after the season started, the two frequently hung out together. T.O. regularly hosted a Monday Night Football party at his house — at which Donovan, dubbing himself “Ivory the Bartender,” poured drinks. Meanwhile, T.O. was a frequent guest at the McNabb house in New Jersey, joining Donovan, his dad, and other Eagles players in the basement for long conversations about football and life. Though they came from different backgrounds — T.O. was raised by a strict grandmother in a small Alabama town, Donovan by his parents in a middle-class Chicago suburb — each was bright, athletically gifted, and extraordinarily determined.
So what, exactly, happened between the quarterback and the receiver? In his new book about his two seasons with the Eagles, T.O. blames an incident during a Giants game late in the 2004 season as the catalyst. He had noticed that Donovan seemed to be throwing the ball his way less and less as the season went by — T.O. suspected Donovan was jealous of all the attention he was getting from the fans and the media — and after one play, he went back to the huddle and told Donovan that he was open, that he should throw to him. “Shut the fuck up,” Donovan snapped. A pretty typical heat-of-the-game moment — but from then on, the relationship was never the same. Donovan has corroborated the incident, but to this day he and his family seem baffled as to why T.O. took things so personally. In the end, they suspect it was about jealousy — not Donovan’s, but T.O.’s.
Whatever the case, by the time T.O. demanded that his contract be renegotiated in early April — just two months after the Super Bowl he had worked so hard to play in — it was clear his problem wasn’t just with the Eagles organization, but also with the Eagles quarterback. To his mind, they had likely become one and the same, so he sniped to ESPN a week after lobbying for a new contract, “I wasn’t the one who got tired in the Super Bowl.”
Donovan’s initial reaction was what you might expect — he was pissed. “Just keep my name out of your mouth,” he warned T.O. publicly a couple weeks later, at an off-season mini camp that T.O. skipped. But he also knew that a feud between the two of them wasn’t something he wanted. For starters, among their teammates, T.O.’s contract battle wasn’t exactly unpopular. Eagles management had long been viewed as ruthless by the players, and so the fact that a team superstar was now challenging that management was not only delicious, but also, to some, just. If Donovan — already viewed as the team’s favored son — came out against T.O.’s contract demands, he risked being viewed even more suspiciously.
What’s more, he knew having T.O. on the team gave the Eagles the best chance of returning to the Super Bowl. And so privately that off-season, he phoned T.O. He left several messages saying he wanted the two of them to put any disputes behind them and focus on football — they should get together and work out, as they had the previous year. It was an approach that jibed with the Eagles’ own early strategy in the T.O. controversy — they had people T.O. respected reach out to him and try to appeal to his pride and extraordinary competitiveness. Neither effort worked. Initially, T.O. didn’t even respond to Donovan’s messages. When they finally did speak, T.O. said he wasn’t interested in getting together with his quarterback — he wasn’t doing anything until his contract dispute was worked out.
Donovan’s decision to try to rise above T.O.’s comments about him was, he says, less a deliberate strategy than instinctive. “That was just my natural way of handling it. I tried to handle it the same way I handled the Rush Limbaugh deal: Hey, we all know what happened, now let’s move on.” (In 2003, Limbaugh said that Donovan was overrated, and that his star status was only due to a vast left-wing media conspiracy dedicated to proving an African-American could be a good quarterback.) If Donovan’s approach was instinctive, it wasn’t by accident. It was how he was raised.
In their climb up the economic ladder, the McNabb family — Wilma is a nurse by trade, Sam an electrical engineer — has borne its share of struggles. The most glaring began when they moved from an inner-city Chicago neighborhood to the quiet, predominantly white suburb of Dolton. On the day of the real estate closing, they went to their new house and found that the windows had been smashed, the carpets had been urinated on, and the words NIGGER GO HOME and other slurs had been scrawled on the walls. Welcome to the neighborhood, Mr. and Mrs. McNabb.
It wasn’t the only incident. “It was a living hell for about two years or so,” Sam McNabb says. Donovan became good friends with a white boy who lived across the street, and some people from the neighborhood began to harass them. Eventually, Sam confronted the neighbors. “They thought they were going to intimidate me,” he says, “but I wasn’t intimidated.” In time, the harassment ceased — though not before the FBI got involved — and the troublemakers left the neighborhood.
Nearly 25 years later, the memory is still fresh in Sam McNabb’s mind. “Things never change to the point where it gets that much better that you can totally forget,” he says. “We shouldn’t have been judged by our color, but by our character, more than anything else. But that didn’t happen.”
Though less extreme, there have been other racially tinged incidents along the way. When Donovan — a Parade magazine high-school all-American quarterback — was being recruited for college, some coaches suggested he switch positions, the implication being that he couldn’t handle playing quarterback. Even in the pros, there have been questions. When he was drafted, some critics saw him purely as a running quarterback, not an athletic passer along the lines of Steve Young or John Elway. And then there was Rush Limbaugh.
Always, though, the approach to handling controversy has been the same for the McNabbs: Don’t be intimidated, don’t retaliate, don’t get down in the gutter with the people coming after you. And remember who has your back. As Donovan, who was about eight at the time, says of the incidents when they first moved to Dolton, “That’s a learning experience as a kid. We were called racial slurs while we played, and people wanted us to move out. But we stood strong and just continued to stay tight within and trust our family, knowing that whatever situation would come, we would all be together.”
If you can’t trust family, who can you trust?
BY THE TIME THE EAGLES’ 2005 season started last September, the seeds of doom had been planted, deeply. To begin with, Donovan was hurt — he had shown up at training camp with pain in his abdominal area, and it would only get worse as the season progressed. Equally important was that T.O. was trying to make his own situation more important than the team. In phone conversations before training camp with coach Andy Reid, he promised he’d be a disruptive influence unless the Eagles renegotiated his contract or released him. He told his coach that he knew how Reid was wired, how much discipline he expected from his players, and that Reid wasn’t going to be happy with what he got from T.O.
And at training camp, he delivered on his threat. He refused to shake Reid’s hand or to speak to anyone but a handful of people on the team and in the organization. He showed up at one team meeting without his playbook; at another, he refused to open it; he slept through a third. It all boiled over on August 10th, when T.O. refused to attend a mandatory autograph session. He and Reid got into an argument about it, and afterward, Reid called Eagles president Joe Banner to say he was sending T.O. home for a week “to break the cycle of pain.” Banned, T.O. led a pack of reporters and camera crews back to his Moorestown house and began playing basketball and doing sit-ups in his driveway, creating the most freakish celebrity-athlete media moment since O.J. and Al Cowlings in the Bronco.
During his week off, T.O. escalated his feud with Donovan. One day, T.O.’s assistant Pablo phoned Sean McNabb, who lives near his brother Donovan in South Jersey and is a close confidant. They decided they needed to get the two players in a room to work out their difficulties. Sean took the idea to Sam McNabb — Donovan knew nothing about it — who said it would work only if T.O. really wanted to talk and that Sean needed to find out if he would. By the time it all got back to T.O. a day later, he either misinterpreted the overture or decided to twist its meaning. That night, in a national TV interview, he called Donovan a “hypocrite” because he’d had a third party reach out to him, rather than approach T.O. himself, man to man. When asked whether he and his quarterback could successfully work together that season, he said, “I don’t think so, and I’m just being honest.”
“Keep my family’s name out of your mouth,” Donovan fired back at a press conference. And no, he added, he and T.O. didn’t need to speak to each other to be able to play together.
INITIALLY, IT SEEMED Donovan might be right. Through their first four games, the Eagles were 3-1, and though they played inconsistently, the problem wasn’t Donovan and T.O.; it was the defense.
And yet by early October, it was clear there was a cancer growing inside the team’s locker room. T.O. continued to behave in a way that makes one person in the organization liken him to “a 13-year-old in a constant state of rebellion”: sleeping in team meetings, violating Andy Reid’s dress code by wearing a sweatsuit on team trips, parking his car in spaces reserved for the handicapped and Eagles coaches. On October 7th, he said during a radio interview that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t sign with the Eagles; instead, he wished he could play with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning — not that that had ever been an option for him. Two days later, on the day the Eagles lost 33-10 to the Cowboys, T.O. “paid tribute” to his friend Michael Irvin — the former Cowboy receiver who had come out in support of T.O. in his contract plight — by wearing an Irvin jersey after the game.
As childish as the behavior was, there were some Eagles who clearly seemed to be in T.O.’s camp. Partly, this was in support of his fight with management, but you can’t help wondering if there was a street-tough thing going on when it came to their view of Donovan: Hey, Five, you just gonna take that shit? What’s more, even those who weren’t on T.O.’s side began to wonder why team leaders didn’t stand up and say something about the distraction he was causing. Part of the problem was that some of the leaders the team had relied on in the past were gone. Hugh Douglas had retired before the season began, and special-teams star Ike Reese hadn’t been re-signed by the Eagles. Donovan and his family wondered why those who were left — notably Brian Dawkins — declined to say anything.
And then there was Donovan himself. From his standpoint, he had done everything he could when it came to T.O. He had largely stayed above the pettiness, tried to reach out. It was T.O. who had the problem with him, not the other way around. You can’t talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you. Plus, he thought this was a way to show the younger players on the team how to handle adversity — rise above it, just the way Sam had taught him. “To tell those guys,” Donovan says, “okay, we all know what’s going on, but this is the way you handle situations like this.”
That said, he acknowledges the split that had developed on the team — a split that only grew deeper as his injuries and play got worse and the team’s performance continued to sputter. “You have to trust the guy next to you,” Donovan says. “You can’t lose your focus because you’re worried if he has your back, you’re worried how he may feel about you.”
THE SITUATION FINALLY EXPLODED in early November. In a game against Denver on October 30th, T.O. sprained his ankle and spent much of the next week in the trainer’s room. There were whispers — unfounded — that maybe he was faking the injury, and on the morning of November 3rd, Hugh Douglas talked about those rumors on Angelo Cataldi’s WIP morning show. A few hours later, Douglas — who’d been named a “team ambassador” after he retired — was in the Eagles’ training room when he and T.O. began to argue about T.O.’s injury. Suddenly, the two men were screaming at each other. Then punches were thrown, and as they were pulled apart, T.O. really got hot. He started screaming about his grandmother and other things that seemed to make little sense. Finally he made his way into the locker room and yelled, “Anybody else want a piece of me?” Standing in front of him was Donovan McNabb.
The perception among some in the locker room was that Donovan looked away — essentially backed down from a fight. Donovan has said he just wasn’t gonna go there. Was he weak? Maybe, as Sam McNabb puts it, “Sometimes it’s better to be a little bit stronger than to stoop down to someone else’s level.”
That afternoon, T.O. did an interview for ESPN from his Moorestown house — which by this point he’d put on the market. He was asked whether he agreed with something Michael Irvin had said a few days before — that if Packers star Brett Favre had been playing for the Eagles instead of Donovan McNabb, the team would be undefeated, rather than 4-3.
“I would agree with that,” he said. “I mean, he’s the guy. Obviously, a number of commentators will say he’s a warrior. He has played with injuries. I just feel like him being knowledgeable about the quarterback position, I just feel like we’d be in a better situation.”
The interview aired that night, and that was the end. The next day, Reid told T.O. to apologize to the team and sit down with McNabb to work things out or he would be suspended. “This locker room isn’t right,” Reid said. Meanwhile, Donovan held a locker-room meeting for the team, with T.O. in attendance. He said that if anybody had a problem with anybody else, he should talk to that person like a man. That same afternoon, T.O. held a press conference apologizing to the team, but he refused to sit down with Donovan. The next day, the Eagles suspended him, and his season was over.
ONE DAY IN LATE JUNE, Donovan McNabb is on the phone from Miami, where he’s just finished a photo shoot with some other elite NFL players. “I learned this a long time ago,” he says. “There’s only two people pretty much in Philadelphia who receive all the credit and all the criticism — and that’s me and Andy.”
It is both the joy and the burden of being the Eagles quarterback. And that’s also, it seems, the only way McNabb can make sense of how, after all that happened last season, he’s the one who enters this season looking bad — who must now step up and prove not only that he’s strong enough and tough enough, but that he’s black enough. T.O. ran roughshod through the team last year with his demands and bad behavior. Donovan tried to stay above the fray and act responsibly, yet all the questions are about him. Black-on-black crime.
“You try to think about it, but you can never come up with an answer,” he says when asked about the racial controversies throughout his career. “I mean, why did the whole Rush Limbaugh deal come up? No one knows. Why did the president of the NAACP in Philadelphia take a shot at me? No one knows. I guess when you deal with Donovan McNabb, you never know what can happen.”
And when you are Donovan McNabb, you never know what you’ll have to deal with. In the past, the question has been whether he’s good enough as a player to be the Eagles’ leader; now, it’s whether he’s man enough to handle the job. Which means that every comment about a teammate will be an insight into his mental state, every play a clue to his character, every decision whether to run or pass a measure of how devoted he is to his race. Games mean nothing other than what we believe they mean, and for some reason, we’ve decided that for this man, these games will define exactly who he is.
For the McNabbs, this is bewildering, confusing. All they’ve ever dreamed of is what their son dreamed of: that he become a star quarterback in the NFL, and get there by doing the right thing. “We wanted it because he wanted it,” Sam McNabb says. Somehow, it has all gotten twisted around, though.
Sam McNabb says he has one wish for the coming season: that it be free of controversy. Not that he’s banking on it happening. “It appears that they’re always unhappy with the guy they have here,” he says of Philly’s fans. Then, referring to Donovan, he says, “He’s taken them to higher heights than they’ve been in a while. But that’s never good enough. There’s always some controversy that’s created. What is it they want from Donovan that they’re not getting, other than a win in the Super Bowl? And if that should happen, what’s next?”
He is exasperated, in the way only a parent can be when things don’t go right for a child. Donovan himself, though, well, he has learned what his father taught him long ago: Don’t be intimidated, and don’t stoop to their level.
“Let everyone know that I love playing in Philadelphia,” he says as the conversation comes to an end. He starts to laugh, and his deep, serious voice takes on an odd tone, as if he is mocking both himself and the situation he finds himself in. “I love Philadelphia. I’m not looking to be traded to Dallas.” You can almost see his smile. “I love Philadelphia.”