By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Donovan McNabb steps to the podium. Dozens of microphones push toward his face. The skin between his eyebrows creases deeply as he listens to the question.
"What does it mean for you to be here?"
McNabb stares down at the podium. He shifts his weight on his feet.
"Well," he says, "I mean, uh...."
The veteran quarterback shakes his head, momentarily at a loss for words.
And then, his thoughts collected, McNabb forces himself past the verbal filter. He lifts his gaze and locks eyes.
"It's a new day for me," McNabb says, his voice confident. "Obviously, you try to learn from the past and your mistakes and how you can become a better player, as well as a better person."
The reporter wants more details. "How do you become a better player and person based on what you've been through?" she calls out.
McNabb audibly sighs. His reply comes more quickly this time. "With my experience of being in Philadelphia, and obviously, of what happened in Washington—and the way that it happened—there's ways of learning from it."
The 34-year-old quarterback is once again the even-keeled warrior who played in six Pro Bowls and led his Philadelphia Eagles to five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl. The baggage from his divorces—first the Eagles, then the Redskins—seems to fall away, and McNabb stands before the press like a new man.
But the reporters want to dwell on the past.
"Is there still some part of you that has a chip on your shoulder?" one asks.
McNabb smiles again and shakes his head.
"You know, that whole 'something-to-prove' deal," he says. "I've moved past that. For me, it's just going out and just being who I am, and doing what I do."
The media continue to lob questions: How much is your salary? How do you feel about training the rookie? Are you even in shape?
McNabb answers politely, even cracks a few jokes.
But as the press conference winds down, McNabb takes control: He wants to talk about what this Vikings season means to him.
"It's about winning," he says. "That's what it's all about: holding up that trophy."
To underline his intentions, McNabb says it again for the reporters scribbling notes: "I want to be the one up on that podium. That's what this game's about."
MCNABB IS USED TO REJECTION.
Back in 1999, he was a hot-shot rookie, a double-threat quarterback out of Syracuse. Scouts were saying he could take a team to the Super Bowl.
But the rowdy bunch of Eagles fans bused to Madison Square Garden to watch the draft that year weren't so keen on McNabb. They wanted running back Ricky Williams. When head coach Andy Reid used his first selection—the No. 2 pick overall—to scoop up McNabb, the Philly fans actually booed.
McNabb tried not to let it spoil his day, but he couldn't hide his disappointment from his mom.
"Ma, they booed me," Donovan said.
"Naah, I didn't hear that," Wilma McNabb said.
"Yeah, they booed me."
"The guys wearing Philadelphia Eagles jerseys."
Donovan figured it would die down once Williams was picked. So after the New Orleans Saints chose him fifth overall, McNabb went back out.
The Philly fans booed him again.
Philly can be tough on its heroes: The town famously threw snowballs at Santa Claus. But Coach Reid thought that if anybody could handle it, McNabb could.
"Andy said they felt, among other things, that Donovan was wired right for Philadelphia," says Paul Domowitch, a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. "They just felt that Donovan could withstand the scrutiny, the criticism, the media, the passion, the fans here—everything that goes with playing in Philadelphia—as opposed to a Daunte Culpepper that year or Akili Smith, or some of these other guys who probably would have—in their minds—just wilted under the pressure."
Besides, the Eagles stunk—they hadn't been to an NFC championship in 20 years.
McNabb turned that around. In his first four years starting for Philly, McNabb led the Eagles to three NFC championships.
His biggest opportunity came in January 2003, the NFC championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccanneers.
Philly had every advantage. McNabb, back after eight weeks off to heal a broken fibula, was highly favored over Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson. McNabb had better weapons, including running back Brian Westbrook. To cap it off, the Eagles were at home—and the Bucs weren't used to playing in the cold.
The game started with fireworks. The Eagles returned the kickoff to Tampa's 26-yard line, and two plays later, running back Duce Staley sprinted for 20 yards to score the first touchdown of the night. Not bad for 52 seconds.
But after the sensational start, the offense dried up. McNabb accumulated just 92 passing yards in the game's first three quarters and notched two fumbles and an interception. It was his worst game since his rookie season.
By far the most devastating of his mistakes was the interception. It happened during a late fourth-quarter drive. The Eagles were at first and goal at the Buccaneers' 10-yard line, with 3 minutes, 27 seconds on the clock. Philly was down 20-10.
McNabb tossed a pass toward wide receiver Antonio Freeman.
But the throw was too slow. Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber sprang up and intercepted it, then raced 92 yards into Tampa Bay's end zone. Horrified Eagles fans watched in stunned silence.
McNabb didn't cry. He didn't throw a locker room tantrum. After the game, he just confessed his sin.
"I played poorly," McNabb told the waiting reporters. "I"m pretty hard on myself, and I'm pretty sure you guys will be very critical of me as well. To let you know, I played poorly today."
The headlines about McNabb's failure ran for months. Philly fans constantly called talk radio to berate him as a hopeless choker.
"The way he played was very, like, nonchalant—that's kind of the attitude he gave off," says Shaun Young, an Eagles fan known as "North End Zone Nightmare" who wears shoulder pads and war paint to every home game. "He always had a smile on his face."
A few months after the devastating loss, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh rubbed salt into McNabb's wounds on national TV.
"I'm sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," Limbaugh said during his short-lived career as a color commentator for ESPN. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well."
Even McNabb, who tended not to sully his hands by stooping to answer his critics, openly admitted that the remark stung.
"It's somewhat shocking to hear that on national TV from him," McNabb said. "It's not something that I can sit here and say won't bother me."
When it felt like the whole world had turned against McNabb, one man still had faith. Coach Reid had secured a 12-year, $115 million contract extension for McNabb and tried to shield his star player from press scrutiny.
"I don't think this was about Donovan," Reid told the press after the debacle with Tampa Bay. "I could have done a better job, and that's where it has to start."
The next season, McNabb rose from the ashes and returned to the conference championship. But midway through the second quarter, the Carolina Panthers leveled him with a nasty hit that separated his rib from its cartilage, an excruciating injury that makes breathing difficult. McNabb insisted on staying in the game, but wasn't the same afterward, and had to be pulled in the third quarter. The Eagles lost 14 to 3.
The next year, McNabb led the Eagles all the way to Jacksonville for the Super Bowl. McNabb's stats in the game were fantastic. He passed for 357 yards—tying for the third-most in Super Bowl history—and threw for three touchdowns.
But he also threw three interceptions.
Late in the fourth quarter, Philly trailed New England 24 to 14. The Eagles offense was moving sluggishly, as though they had all the time in the world. It took them 12 plays to gain 49 yards.
With 3:26 left on the clock, McNabb called the huddle. He'd taken a couple of hard hits in a row, and the last had left him gasping. The offense regrouped for nearly 30 seconds, as the quarterback coughed violently.
Then the Eagles finally closed the deal. McNabb threw a 30-yard touchdown to Greg Lewis.
But it was too little, too late. The clock read 1:48. The Eagles didn't have time to complete the comeback and lost the Super Bowl, 24 to 21.
The day after the game, Eagles center Hank Fraley appeared on local TV to defend McNabb, saying Donovan was "almost puking in the huddle."
By that afternoon, the comment had seeded an urban myth: The Eagles lost because McNabb was sick. It didn't help when loudmouth wide receiver Terrell Owens fed the flames in an interview with ESPN.
"I wasn't the one who got tired in the Super Bowl," T.O. spat.
This time, McNabb couldn't let the comment slide.
"I wasn't tired," McNabb responded. "Whatever comments have been made, I don't know if it was directed toward me...I just wanted to set the record straight—I wasn't tired."
Over the next three years, McNabb spent countless games on the injured-reserve list, and the Eagles never advanced further than the first round of the playoffs. In 2007, the team drafted rookie Kevin Kolb, McNabb's heir apparent.
In 2008, McNabb took the team to the conference championship but again failed to deliver.
"It got to the point where nothing but a Super Bowl championship was good enough here for the fans," says Domowitch, the sportswriter. "It started to take its toll on Donovan. He wanted to win a Super Bowl, but I think he had a little trouble dealing with the fact that if he didn't get that, nobody was going to be satisfied."
In the spring of 2010, the Eagles traded McNabb to Washington.
He was supposed to be the Redskins' savior, but quickly became a scapegoat. After an initial 13 to 7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins lost three of the next six games.
The decision was bizarre, but Shanahan's explanations to the media were even stranger.
First, he claimed that McNabb didn't know the two-minute drill well enough. Then Shanahan said the veteran's hamstring was bothering him and McNabb's cardio wasn't up to snuff.
The manic behavior continued a few weeks later when Shanahan gave McNabb a lavish five-year, $78 million contract extension—albeit with an escape clause for the team.
And McNabb wasn't earning that hefty paycheck. His quarterback rating dropped to a career-low 77.1, and his interceptions skyrocketed to 15, a career high. It was McNabb's worst season since his rookie year.
In mid-December, Shanahan leveled a mortal blow: He benched McNabb for the rest of the season.
"Clearly, Mike Shanahan wouldn't be making the move if he had confidence in Donovan McNabb," said Adam Schefter, the NFL analyst for ESPN. "The Washington Redskins' marriage with Donovan McNabb is over. It's over."
This spring, the Vikings picked McNabb up. McNabb's contract in Minnesota is a $5 million, one-year deal, making him the lowest-paid veteran quarterback in the NFL. He's got just one year to prove he can change his destiny.
"In every other way, his career has been fulfilled, with one exception: winning a championship," says Ray Didinger, an Emmy-winning analyst for ComcastSportsNet in Philadelphia. "If he does that—if he were to win a Super Bowl—then I think you seriously put him in the discussion for a Hall of Fame."
MCNABB STANDS ON the sidelines, waiting patiently.
For four days now, he's been locked out of practice as the NFL finalizes the new collective bargaining agreement. His team has been playing without him for 45 minutes.
"Donovan!" hollers Rick Spielman, the Vikings' president of player personnel, waving McNabb onto the field.
As McNabb dons his purple Vikings helmet for his first practice, a stream of water splashes the right side of his face, dripping down his beard and onto his neck. Fellow quarterback Joe Webb has just baptized McNabb with a splash from his water bottle.
"Welcome to Minnesota!"
McNabb trots onto the field with a grin on his face.
"I love being here, because it gives us an opportunity to spend time together," McNabb says. "I think it's important in training camp that you do—because that's when the bond is built."
McNabb's enthusiasm marks a dramatic departure from last year, when Brett Favre didn't even bother to show up for training camp. McNabb, on the other hand, gushes about the opportunity to get to know all his new teammates.
"He seems like a rookie," says Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, "because he knows how to have fun playing the game. He has a youthful spirit, and it really resonates with the rest of us."
McNabb bugged his eyes out dramatically—as though they were going to pop out of his head. "You know what," McNabb said with over-the-top enthusiasm, "That is a great question."
The guys cracked up. They recognized the impression of quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson, whose known for using the phrase "great question" in response to nearly every question he's asked.
Peterson appreciates McNabb's easygoing demeanor.
"It's not like he comes into the locker room and he's just goofing off," Peterson says of McNabb. "But you know, you're talking to him, you're sitting around relaxing with him in a group, you're going to get a laugh."
McNabb was that way even back at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, where Coach Frank Lenti relied on the young quarterback to keep things light. Once, in a tense week leading up to a game against a big rival, Lenti asked McNabb to do something to relax the team. McNabb promptly dropped to the turf and performed a perfect breakdancing backspin.
"He always had that ability to remain loose—and yet, poised—around the kids, the team," Lenti recalls.
Cut-up McNabb doesn't show up in press conferences, where he studiously avoids all controversy and speaks in a smooth, almost hypnotic tone.
But evidently, that's only to the reporters' faces.
"He'll walk away from your interview and he'll be mimicking some things that you've done," says Coach Leslie Frazier. "He's terrific at that. So, if you've got any quirks, don't show them in front of Donovan."
MCNABB SLUMPS INTO his seat behind home plate at Target Field and digs into a basket of nachos. Beside him, backup quarterback Joe Webb munches on the salty chips.
The food is definitely better than the baseball. McNabb and Webb watch as the Twins slide deeper into disaster. The Yanks hit three homers and score twice as many runs as the Twins.
But McNabb and Webb are happy taking in the Minneapolis skyline. And unlike the loudmouths in Philly, the fans around them are too Scandinavian-polite to interrupt the bliss.
Then the incognito evening comes to a screeching halt when the Jumbotron flashes a picture of McNabb and Webb, in their polo shirts and matching Twins baseball caps. All of Target Field at once realizes that two football stars are in their midst.
But McNabb doesn't even notice—he's too busy laughing at something a guy sitting nearby has said.
Unlike the majority of football players, who tend to live in suburban Eden Prairie, McNabb has made Minneapolis his new home—Uptown, specifically. He's been to Seven Sushi on Hennepin, Manny's Steakhouse on Marquette, and Rainbow Foods in Uptown, where he was spotted with his wife in the meat department.
"We were just confused, because it was like, why is he at Rainbow?" says Dylan Thomas, a reporter for the Southwest Journal who saw McNabb at the market. "It's like, how could you not have seen Lunds?"
Welcome to Minnesota, Donovan. We've got plenty of nice grocery stores.
One sunny afternoon after practice, McNabb walks toward the locker room and rattles off his Minnesota plans: He's going back for more Lynx games and can't wait for the Timberwolves season to start.
"I missed the State Fair," McNabb admits glumly. "But I'll be going to whatever else you guys got here."
McNabb steps over the threshold and into the hallway that leads to the locker room.
"I'm not doing ice-fishing," he calls over his shoulder.
MCNABB RELAXES AT a corner table on the rooftop of Stella's Fish Café in Uptown. Dressed in an orange shirt and loose-fitting jeans, he chats amiably with fellow Vikings player Bernard Berrian and two of their friends.
The other Stella's patrons, mostly guys out for a beer, clearly recognize McNabb. The young men at the table nearby try to furtively snap photos with their cell phones. They're not so discreet. Everyone around them sees what they're doing.
McNabb and his friends ignore the flashing cell phones and stay until nearly midnight. The entire time, no one approaches, until a nosy reporter finally stops by the table to say hello.
"We're just having a few cocktails," McNabb explains.
He makes small talk about Uptown's competing rooftops before the reporter politely bows out.
But the floodgates have opened. A trio of blond guys in loose-fitting shorts approaches to shake McNabb's hand. The waiter stops by with a plate and a request: The executive chef wants McNabb's autograph.
Donovan signs with a flourish.
This place is starting to feel like home.