"Everybody he meets is his friend, and he has a way of talking to people that makes them feel he's really paying attention," says Philadelphia receiver Na Brown. "One day he invited some of the offensive guys to his house for dinner—it was pretty much the whole offense—and when we got there, his mom and dad were cooking. There was something about being there that's hard to explain, but he made you comfortable, like you were home."
McNabb spent his early years in a tough neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. He was eight years old when Sam and Wilma moved the family to suburban Dolton, Ill. Donovan so idolized athletes that he ripped their pictures from magazines and papered his bedroom walls with them. However, it was Sean, Donovan's elder by four years, who seemed destined to be a pro athlete. Donovan briefly worked as a manager for one of Sean's school basketball teams, and when Donovan's time came to go out for football, he went to Wilma for permission. She said he couldn't play. When the coach called Wilma at home, she told him her boy was too thin. Wilma relented only after the coach convinced her Donovan wouldn't get hurt.
"We used to think Donovan was going to grow up and be a comedian," says Wilma. "It looked like he was going to be another Eddie Murphy. But then he got serious about football. He's still serious about it, but he has a good time playing it."
The McNabbs were among the first African-American families to live in Dolton, and though most people in the area welcomed them, not everyone was so kind. Before the McNabbs settled in, vandals broke into the house, urinated on the carpets, knocked holes in the interior walls and spray-painted obscenities on the exterior walls. Someone later broke windows and exterior lights on the house. The situation improved when Donovan befriended a gaggle of neighborhood kids and invited them to dinner. The McNabb home was so nicely furnished and had so many TVs and VCRs that the kids assumed the McNabbs were rich. "We are rich," Donovan told them. Asked what his dad did for a living, he seemed to forget that Sam worked for the power company. Or perhaps he was angling for a laugh. "My dad works for the gas station," he said.
The hostile reception and the way the family dealt with it proved to be an important experience. Sixteen years later, when Philadelphia fans booed Donovan on draft day, Sam knew his son could handle it. "What we learned from our move to Dolton is that not everyone will be happy for you when you make a success of your life," says Sam. "I'm constantly reminding Donovan that although he's enjoyed great popularity, not everyone's happy for him. They'll boo him again if given the chance, and they'll say ugly things about him. What's important to understand is that it's going to happen and not to let it rattle you or stop you from being the person you are."
Donovan made people laugh as a kid, and he's still making them laugh. Among his teammates he's famous for imitating the fiery, heavyset Reid, pulling up his shorts until the waistband nearly reaches his chest, then stomping around the locker room like somebody killing bugs. McNabb is also famous for imitating Dowhower, the offensive coordinator. Come to think of it, he's famous for imitating practically everyone he meets. "Most quarterbacks are reserved," says Michael Strahan, defensive tackle for the New York Giants. "They're not tire joker type. Donovan is the exception—he has a good time even on the field."
"I'll tell you who he reminds me of," Reid says. "I've gotten to know Bill Cosby very well, and Donovan kind of looks like Bill, and to watch Bill, well, it's like watching Donovan. I was sitting with Bill at a 76ers game, and he was with this kid who had an ice cream cone. The kid started nabbing ice cream all over his face, and he got some on Bill, and Bill didn't care. The faces Bill made to make this little kid happier, they reminded me so much of Donovan."
At the NovaCare Complex, McNabb hangs around for hours in the locker room telling jokes and talking to anyone who'll listen. He talks about how much he likes red beans and rice. He talks about how nobody's allowed to touch Excalibur, his pool stick, which "has only my prints on it." He talks about how you can lose two pounds in 10 minutes in the sauna if you keep it at the right temperature.
McNabb lies on the floor and begins to stretch. At least it looks as if he's stretching. No, McNabb isn't stretching. He's sprawled out like a kid in his living room. It isn't long before other players join him on the floor. McNabb starts to get up, then flops back down. Gets up, flops again. Still on the floor, he challenges his teammates to a race. If any were to accept, McNabb likely would lose, because these are skill people who've run faster 40s than he has, but he challenges them nonetheless. It's all bluster, and all designed to make them laugh.
"He's always wanting to compete," says Johnson. "He'll compete with you at anything. If you get up from the table for more food and leave your Hawaiian Punch there, he'll drink it. You have to take it with you or it's gone. You go in the sauna when he's in there, and he has to stay in longer than you do. It gets so hot it feels like the air will burn you. One day we were in the sauna and I couldn't stand it any longer and I said, 'You win, Donovan, I'm getting out of here.' He jumped up and said, 'Whew! Thank you, C.J., it's about time.' "