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It is a cold and clamorous place, and Donovan McNabb prefers to avoid it like a blitzing defensive lineman. Last Saturday night at Veterans Stadium, the Philadelphia Eagles' elusive quarterback was grateful not to be cooped up in the frigid skybox controlled by his mother, Wilma, who insists on opening the windows whenever the home team has the ball. "Donovan has to feel me when he's playing, and I have to feel him," Wilma explained seconds before die start of die Eagles' NFC divisional playoff game against die Atlanta Falcons. A few minutes later, when McNabb trotted onto the field for the first time since Nov. 17, Wilma slipped a fur coat over her MCNABB MOM jersey while the suite's two dozen other occupants shivered and shook their heads.
The windchill was 20°, and on McNabb's second snap time seemed to freeze. Eight weeks removed from breaking his right ankle, McNabb, on second-and-10 from the Philly three-yard line, faked a handoff and scooted to his right. Five yards deep in the end zone, the quarterback was chased by Falcons strong safety Gerald McBurrows, who was a lunging tackle away from giving the visitors an emphatic two-point lead. Tension swirled through the stadium: Would Donovan run? Could he? "Move, baby, move!" Wilma screamed. Dutifully, McNabb sped out of the end zone, beat Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking to the first-down marker along the right sideline and kept going, finally sidestepping out-of-bounds after a 19-yard gain.
"That's what I'm talkin' about!" yelled McNabb's father, Samuel. Meanwhile, Eagles coach Andy Reid and his players breathed sighs of relief. "That run was what I was waiting to see," Philadelphia wideout Antonio Freeman said after his team's 20-6 victory. "When I saw that, I said, 'He's back,' and I'm sure everyone else did too."
Perhaps the person least moved by the scamper's symbolism was the man who turned the corner, literally and figuratively. "It was no big deal, because I knew I was back," McNabb said. "It kind of shocked me that they'd give me the opportunity to make a play like that. But I figured, if that's the way they feel, I'll roll with it."
Though that would be McNabb's only substantial scramble—he finished with 24 yards rushing—his passing prowess (20 for 30,247 yards, no interceptions) helped the top-seeded Eagles roll into the NFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season and move within one victory of their first Super Bowl appearance in 22 years.
Having pushed so hard to return to the lineup—McNabb's cardiovascular workouts at the team facility were so intense that tired trainers had to administer his exercises in shifts—he was eager to trumpet his restored vigor to the Falcons. After the early run, said Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan, McNabb "was smiling, looking over at our sideline and letting everybody know he wasn't hurt." Earlier in the week Buchanan had cast doubts upon McNabb's mobility, going so far as to say that the Falcons would be more concerned about facing third-string passer A.J. Feeley, who had started Philadelphia's final five regular-season games.
"We don't know how mobile McNabb's going to be," Brooking said last Friday night, "but we're going to get after him and find out real quick."
Adding to the drama was the sprinter's duel between McNabb and Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, who was gunning for his second consecutive playoff upset. The two had become fast friends during Vick's recruiting trip to Syracuse in 1997, when Orangemen quarterback McNabb took the eventual Virginia Tech star to a women's basketball game at Manley Field House and played the roundball oddball. "Five minutes after I meet the guy, he stands up in front of the band and breaks into this hilarious dance," Vick recalled last week. "Everybody in the gym was laughing."
Despite McNabb's demure public persona since arriving in Philadelphia, his teammates know him as an ever-smiling jokester. Even the tightly wound Reid laughs at the memory of the scene he happened upon before a team meeting in 2000, about 15 yards from his office in the Vet. "I walked out into the hall, and I thought I heard my own voice," Reid recalls. "I peeked in and saw Donovan imitating me cold, and he had the place in stitches. Then he saw me, and he just sat down and froze."
That's a sensation with which McNabb is all too familiar, thanks to his mother. After injuring his leg early in the Nov. 17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals—McNabb stayed in the lineup and threw four touchdown passes before he was diagnosed with the break—the quarterback watched Philly's final two home games from the skybox, shuddering and complaining each time his mother would open the windows to watch Feeley run the offense. "Apparentiy A.J. has to feel her too," Donovan scoffed. Wilma's retort: "That's your field; this is my box."