Donovan McNabb walked back to the waiting area in Madison Square Garden where relatives and friends had gathered to celebrate with him the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. He had just been selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the second pick of the NFL draft, and now it was time to sit back with his loved ones and savor his professional coronation, reflect on all the hard work that had made it possible and look forward to the long and glorious career that surely lay ahead.
Moments earlier, however, it had become official at last: McNabb, a 22-year-old quarterback, had shaken the hand of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, donned the green hat of the Eagles and...been booed. By Eagles fans. His fans, he thought. McNabb knew Philly was a tough town, but he wasn't even in Philly yet.
A couple of hundred Eagles fans just couldn't wait until McNabb crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge to voice their displeasure, so on draft day, April 17, they bused to New York City. There they booed him before he put on an Eagles uniform.
As a star at Syracuse for four years, McNabb had been noted for his poise, his unflappable game-day demeanor, but this time he was knocked for a loop. "Did you hear that, Mom?" he said to his mother, Wilma, as she greeted him in the waiting area. "They booed me." The McNabbs had been warned—Philly fans booed Santa Claus, after all—but still they were taken aback by the fans' reaction. The Quayle for President committee has been cut more slack than McNabb, a three-time Big East offensive player of the year. "They booed him before he even got drafted," says Wilma. "He was introduced to the crowd, and they were booing. The Eagles hadn't even picked him yet."
Mostly they booed him because he made one egregious mistake: He wasn't born Ricky Williams. Perhaps it's something McNabb should work on. "I guess the whole town was rooting for Ricky," says McNabb. "What could I do?" In the weeks leading up to the draft, an eclectic band of Eagles fans had set out to persuade the team to draft Williams, the Texas running back who set the NCAA Division I record for career rushing yards and won the 1998 Heisman Trophy. It didn't matter that the rebuilding Eagles were in desperate need of a quarterback, preferably one who could run the West Coast offense that was being installed by new coach Andy Reid. Williams was the sexier choice. He was the middle square in pro football's version of Hollywood Squares, the amiable guy with the tattoos, the rapper agent and the cool dreads. In Philadelphia mischievous radio talk-show hosts and silly politicians did everything but hold hands and sing Master P tunes in support of Williams.
It's a good thing that Philly mayor Ed Rendell doesn't have a large city to run, because he took the time to go on the radio and make a plea for the drafting of Williams, even urging listeners to call the Eagles, which fans did by the hundreds. (On our next show: Andy Reid talks about school vouchers and his solution to the city's mass-transit problems.) A resolution that urged the Eagles to draft Williams was even submitted to the City Council, though it was ultimately defeated.
McNabb, meanwhile, was raw meat for bloodthirsty Ricky People on the talk shows and in the newspapers. "The team tried to prepare him for this sort of thing," says McNabb's agent, Fletcher Smith. "They asked him several times, If the fans are not supportive, can you handle it?"
The Eagles were 3-13 last season and aren't expected to make great strides in the first year of the Reid-McNabb era. Will McNabb be able to handle the inevitable adversity? Off the record the Eagles say this is one category in which he projected better than Tim Couch, the quarterback whom the Cleveland Browns took with the first pick. According to one member of the Philadelphia organization who spent time with several of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round, "Couch was looking around the city like, 'Wow, look at all the concrete.' Donovan didn't bat an eye. He's from Chicago [suburban Dolton, Ill., actually]. This city doesn't intimidate him."
The morning show on WIP, Philadelphia's carnivorous sports radio station, gave out tickets to the draft in New York and chartered a bus. Other passionate Ricky People found their own way to the festivities. If the Eagles were to choose someone else, the party would be strictly BYOB—bring your own boos. The Eagles did choose someone else, because team executives knew what they needed, and it wasn't more politics. It was a quarterback who could run the offense and handle the pressure, on the field and off. "He knows how to make people miss," says Reid, who's hoping McNabb can survive pass rushes and impatient Eagles fans with equal aplomb. Maybe he can make them all miss.
"They don't know it yet, but they're going to love him in Philadelphia," says Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni. "It's a great marriage. In that city, with that offense, if they just give him a chance, they'll find out what a special player they've got."