What Donovan McNabb Says and What Donovan McNabb Means

Going face-to-face with the Eagles’ most polarizing quarterback for this month’s career-spanning Philadelphia magazine interview.

Donovan McNabb is running late. It’s 11:30 a.m., and the ex-Eagles quarterback was scheduled for a photo shoot and interview at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square. The occasion—a comprehensive look back at his career, timed to his retirement ceremony on Sept. 19. A little tardiness wouldn’t usually be a big deal, but for the fact his agent made it clear that McNabb only had an hour to spare. When he arrives just before noon, he’s relaxed and low-key, shaking hands and posing for photos with a football. The shoot goes well and fast. Now, though, we’re officially into overtime and the reporter—me—hasn’t said a word to McNabb yet. I’d hoped for a lengthy sit-down; what if he bails after 20 minutes?

There was no need to worry. Over the two hours that followed, McNabb didn’t so much as glance at his watch. What I didn’t fully realize until I transcribed the interview was how, in print, McNabb seemed to spin conflicting narratives about himself. He would say he didn’t care what people thought about him, then explain—at length—why those perceptions were wrong. Even some of the simplest questions elicited layered answers. McNabb said he’s not concerned about whether he’ll end up in the Hall of Fame. Yet he also knew precisely how his numbers stack up against the quarterbacks who are already in Canton. As well he should—the fourth line of his biography on McNabb’s own website says his 98 wins place him 12th in NFL history, behind eight Hall members and three more sure to end up there.

In person, as he was so often on the field, McNabb’s emotions stayed in check, never running too hot or too cold. Whether he was admitting he held a deep grudge against the Eagles after he was traded to Washington, or recalling the euphoria of his first and only NFC Championship victory, McNabb kept cool. He laughed at times, expressed anger at others, and dropped a couple expletives. All along, he spoke calmly, like a man who, at least outwardly, had come to terms with his legacy and his place in history.

McNabb played coy about what he expected on the day his No. 5 is retired by the Eagles. In his usual style that either outraged or entertained Birds fans, he joked about seeing Andy Reid again and perhaps dusting off his air guitar. Nothing he said during our conversation will change your mind about the man. If you think he’s the greatest quarterback in team history and never got the respect he deserved, you’ll find proof for your argument. If you think he’s a whiner who should stop talking already, there’s plenty of ammo here.

Meanwhile, last night, McNabb made an appearance in his new role on Fox Sports Live, the nightly hour-long centerpiece for the fledgling Fox Sports 1 network as it takes on ESPN. Dressed in a crisp dark-blue suit with a white pocket square and striped pastel socks, McNabb predicted “big things” from Michael Vick under Chip Kelly and moderated a segment on Johnny Manziel. Not surprisingly, he was comfortable on-camera. It’s early in his television career, but so far, he’s better than most ex-jocks who transition to broadcasting. Those hoping he’ll go away are in for a long football season.

Maybe you’re one of the fans McNabb says “didn’t understand” who he was and continues to be, without apology. “I couldn’t care less what people say on the outside,” he told me. I doubt that’s true, but it’s the story he’s sticking to. As for indisputable quotes, love him or hate him, Five was right on with this one: “Anytime a McNabb says something, it’s a big story.”

Read Richard Rys’s “Donovan McNabb Looks Back” from the September issue of Philadelphia magazine.