If the shopping mall is the modern-day town square, then the sprawling Franklin Mills Mall would have been the perfect place for Eagles fans to offer an apology to their team's best player, running back Duce Staley. On a recent Saturday afternoon Staley ventured to the shopping center for a promotion that billed him as "the No. 1 back in the NFL." (Actually he's fifth in the league in rushing, with 1,136 yards.) During his hour-long appearance he signed hundreds of pieces of Eagles paraphernalia at a table sandwiched between a faux-jewelry store called Impostors and a confectionery known as the Fudgery. Yet during that time no one—not the teenager with the foot-high Afro, the family of five from South Philly, the balding Dairy Queen manager nor the man in the cashmere coat and loafers—bothered to utter the words, "Uh, Duce, sorry about all that nonsense with Ricky Williams."
"An apology?" asks Staley, who is trying to become the first Eagle to lead the league in rushing since Steve Van Buren in 1949. "From our fans?"
After stepping in for injury-plagued Charlie Garner last season, Staley—despite a hernia that required a pain-numbing shot before games and that many weeks kept him in bed until Tuesday afternoon—started 13 times for a team that finished 3-13. A 1997 third-round pick out of South Carolina working for the league minimum, Staley led Philadelphia in rushing (1,065 yards) and receptions (57).
Last April, Eagles fans showed their appreciation for Staley's courageous effort by demanding that the team draft Williams, the Heisman Trophy-winning back out of Texas, and booing when Philly instead used the No. 2 pick to select Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb. Those close to Staley say he felt betrayed by the campaign for Williams, who even had Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell in his corner. "It makes you wonder about people's football smarts," says one member of the Philly front office. "Did they think we were going to run the wishbone? Give me a break."
The Eagles knew what they had in Staley. A month after the draft they rewarded him with a six-year, $16 million contract extension, which included a $5 million signing bonus. "Our fans just had no freakin' clue," says Philadelphia center Steve Everitt. "They didn't appreciate what they already had. I'd bump into people, and the first thing they would say is"—here Everitt assumes the voice of a whiny four-year-old—" 'We want Ricky Williams. You'd better draft Ricky Williams.' I'd jump on them and say, 'What are you talking about? Have you ever seen Duce run?' "
Since the start of the 1998 season the 5'11", 220-pound Staley leads the NFC with 2,913 yards from scrimmage. This year he has scored five touchdowns and piled up 1,416 yards from scrimmage, accounting for an NFL-high 42.6% of his team's offense.
Staley's secret is that he still prepares and plays like a rookie worried about losing his roster spot. "I do play with a lot of rage," he says. "I just keep all the whispers that I've heard about me inside—until the game starts."
Staley was a wide receiver in high school in Columbia, S.C., and for two years at Itawamba Junior College in Fulton, Miss., before switching schools and positions in 1994. After rushing for 1,116 yards and earning first-team All-SEC honors as a senior at South Carolina, Staley made an immediate impact in Philadelphia. As a rookie in 1997 he ranked fifth in the NFC in kickoff returns with a 24.2-yard average and finished third on the Eagles in special teams tackles, with 15.
Staley has been a one-man wrecking crew of late. During a 15-yard run against the Giants on Oct. 31 he dragged linebacker Ryan Phillips "like a dude riding a dogsled," says Everitt. The following week Staley, who dedicates each game to a relative to keep himself motivated and focused, cut loose for 140 rushing yards against the Panthers. While protecting the pocket in a 35-28 win over the Redskins on Nov. 14, he knocked blitzing linebacker James Francis off his feet with a vicious forearm shiver. Washington abandoned its defensive game plan and switched to an eight-man front, but Staley still gained 122 yards on 28 carries, his fifth 100-yard performance of the season.
Colts defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was so concerned about Staley before his team's Nov. 21 game at Philadelphia that he collected clips of the back's best runs and showed the Staley highlight reel to Colts defenders on the eve of the game. " Duce Staley is the best-kept secret at running back in the league," says Indianapolis president Bill Polian. "He runs so hard, he works like the devil out there, and he never gives up. He is the epitome of everything you want your running back to be."