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John Ed Bradley
August 22, 2007
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August 22, 2007

Coming Into His Own


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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, July 30, 2001

HE PAID $600 FOR THE SUIT, A LOT OF MONEY FOR something that would mostly hang in the closet. Still they booed him. � Anybody else, and you don't start by mentioning what the suit cost, but this is Donovan McNabb, and for the man to have shelled out that much for an outfit tells you how important the day was. It was a huge day: the one in April 1999 when the Philadelphia Eagles drafted him. Next to his wedding day and the days when his children are born, the day a football player is drafted by the NFL is the biggest of his life. That's what the players always say, anyway, explaining why so many of them break down and cry upon hearing their names called. � They show up at Madison Square Garden dressed as if for a coronation. They preen like peacocks. Compared with the others, McNabb got off cheap. The suit was a blue double-breasted, over a blue shirt and a blue-and-orange tie. The shirt and tie cost extra, McNabb points out. "I got an allowance when I was growing up," he says, "and I always tried to hold on to that, tried to make it last. I guess I never got over it."

He gets it from his dad, the practical gene. (To a man, McNabb's Eagles teammates call it a tightwad gene.) Donovan inherited other genes from Sam McNabb as well: the work-ethic gene, the pride gene, the humility gene, the gene that makes him want to win at everything he does. Sam and his wife, Wilma, instilled in Donovan an appreciation of the fundamentals, and one of these was the merit of a life lived with an eye out for tomorrow. "Just because you have it, doesn't mean you have to spend it," Sam taught him.

So when Donovan studies a restaurant menu and refuses to order anything marked Market Price, that's Sam's influence. When he buys a house for less than $400,000 in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood although he could afford a mansion on the old, moneyed Main Line of Philadelphia, that's Sam too. When Donovan tries to get a better deal on a leather coat that's already reduced by half, who else but Sam?

Sam has worked for the power company in Chicago for 25 years, most recently as a quality-control man in the reliability department. Reliable only begins to describe Sam, and Wilma, too. They used to build TV shows around couples like this. Wilma was the attractive mother whose counsel her children sought when they wanted to unburden themselves of secrets. She seemed to spend the better part of her life in the kitchen, despite having a full-time job as a registered nurse. Sam was the all-powerful, all-knowing presence who sat on the edge of his son's bed at night and dispensed pearls of wisdom while Donovan, the little knucklehead, looked on with a dewy-eyed mix of awe and bewilderment.

When Donovan and his big brother, Sean, were growing up, Sam also lectured them about the importance of showing class and "humbleness," as he called it. He believed that if you were nice to people, they would be nice to you. These were "the traits you carry with you for a lifetime," he told the boys, never imagining a day when his hard-won homilies would be trampled by a bunch of wack jobs from Philadelphia.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that with the second pick, Philadelphia had chosen McNabb, the quarterback from Syracuse. Donovan came to his feet and heard what sounded like an ocean roar. The booing actually had started earlier, when the names of the players in the greenroom were announced and McNabb's incited catcalls from a boisterous contingent of Eagles fans who wanted the team to take running back Ricky Williams of Texas, the Heisman Trophy winner. As McNabb strode across the stage, the noise intensified to the point that it was almost riotous. He stared, mystified, at the audience. "I was shocked," he says, "but I wasn't as shocked as my parents were. It heated me up. I was ready to put on the pads right there, to show them I was a good pick."

When he came off the stage, he found his mother crying. A moment passed before it occurred to him that her tears were of happiness and excitement, not anger and embarrassment. "Were they booing you?" Sam asked, perplexed. Donovan didn't answer right away. He couldn't answer. He was laughing so hard that his body shook and his stomach hurt. "Yes, they were booing me," he said at last. "They're still booing me."

Other families might have started for the exit, heads bowed. But these were the McNabbs. The McNabbs laughed.

AS ANNIVERSARIES GO, THIS ISN'T ONE THE quarterback cares to celebrate. During the week leading up to the NFL draft in April 2001 McNabb was so busy preparing for the upcoming season that he had no time for the past. He spent each day working out at the Eagles' new practice facility, the NovaCare Complex, across from Veterans Stadium. He lifted weights, threw passes, did some running, met with coaches and reporters and clowned around with teammates. At night he played basketball. "Donovan's usually the first player to arrive and the last one to leave," says Andy Reid, the team's coach. "He's always here."

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