The video montage that played prior to Donovan McNabb‘s retirement ceremony stirred old memories, and refreshed you on how good No. 5 was when he was in his prime. The stats that flashed on the screen reminded you that he is the franchise leader in every major passing category, and may very well be the greatest quarterback in Eagles history. The glowing words from Brian Dawkins and Brian Westbrook and Jeffrey Lurie showed the kind of respect he has earned from some of the franchise’s keepers. And the tears that welled up in the quarterback’s eyes suggested that his time here meant more to him than he’d like to let on.
Viewed from this angle, it makes perfect sense that the team would decide to honor McNabb by retiring his jersey. They will do so on September 19 when the Eagles host Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs.
But as we know, McNabb’s time in Philadelphia can not be looked at from one angle alone. Like a prism, you can examine his career from a slightly different vantage point and a burst of new colors will be introduced.
His relationship with the team, and this city, was complicated. It wasn’t the most natural fit. There was never universal acceptance — in either direction.
Lurie was asked if this dynamic was studied when deciding whether to retire the No. 5 jersey.
“Everything was discussed. It is a very rare and unusual decision to retire a number,” said Lurie. “You don’t want to in the moment decide exactly what that relationship was. I think we’ll look back. And looking back currently, when Donovan was here he led the NFL in jersey sales multiple years, by far the most popular jersey in Philadelphia. I remember the time when it was Donovan’s turn to do the autographs at Lehigh, and we had people sleeping over for two days to be first in line to get his autograph. We couldn’t sell enough season tickets. That continues, but that’s because of the franchise-changing winning ways that Donovan led. There was no doubt in my mind when he came back with the Redskins that he would get a standing ovation. I know our fans — they understand.
“Players connect in different ways. And it’s not always the organic connection of a Brian Dawkins. It’s very hard for a quarterback to have that organic connection because you are going to have so many ups and downs, and I think most of us recognize it’s the hardest position in sports, both on a personal level and an organic level. It’s just brutal. You’re not always going to have that organic matching, and Donovan had to fight a lot of criticism from crazy critics from around different issues. He was a path-breaker, the highest African American [quarterback] drafted ever at the time, and there was a lot on him. But I just think that he will go down as incredibly popular and at times criticized as every quarterback is in every market.”
McNabb recently told Philly Mag that his return to the NovaCare Complex for Dawkins’ retirement ceremony was a sour day for him. That was just last year. He explained why on Monday.
“In any marriage or any relationship, you want it to kind of be storybook,” said McNabb. “You watch over the years guys like Jerome Bettis ride off into the sunset and you see some of these guys who have been with one franchise and can retire there and close the door on your career.
“I thought that I would retire here. And the way the way things kind of went on with the trade, it left a bad taste in my mouth. The only time I had been in Lincoln Financial was when I was with the Redskins and we played here, hadn’t been in this facility until Dawkins had his retirement, and at that point I was still a little upset. I was able to put it behind me and move on, and we’re here.”
Lurie and McNabb have conflicting accounts of that Easter Sunday when he was traded to the Redskins.
“I remember I had to make the call to Donovan,” said Lurie. “Tears were coming down talking to him and telling him he was traded. And I tried to reassure him that he would always be an Eagle and I hoped we were delivering him to a coach who was a really competent offensive coach in Mike Shanahan, and I wished him well. It was a tearful moment.”
McNabb contends that he was roused from a nap by calls from his agent, who broke the news to him. He then turned on the TV and it was everywhere. He did not speak with Lurie, he says, until a couple weeks later.
At least as of last year, McNabb was not totally over the way things went down at the end of his career in Philadelphia. It’s a safe bet that there are several things about his time here that he hasn’t fully gotten past. Similarly, not everyone in this town is ready to put differences aside and honor the franchise’s top QB. But more and more seem to be. And chances are, the stances on both sides will further soften as time goes on.
“I look at the relationship [with the fans] just like a marriage. You have some great times, you have some tough times. Hey, one thing’s for sure. I told the fans that I would bring a championship here. My goal was to have them parade down Broad Street. Now the Phillies did it first. But you know, I apologized to the fans because that was my goal. I feel like I let them down. I don’t regret anything that happened throughout my career here. The fans, they truly appreciate the effort I gave.”
Afterwards, as McNabb was reflecting on the day ["I even shed tear. How about that?" he said] the former QB was asked if he felt like returning to the facility this time around felt like coming home.
“Absolutely,” said McNabb, who was getting ready to wrap up his session with reporters.
“And I’m leaving.”
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