Donovan McNabb, all-America: While the
nation knows the Eagles quarterback as a football player, we here in
Syracuse remember that he played basketball. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Yet if you’re a Syracuse fan who can
remember when our football program wasn’t an embarrassment, you have to
keep a warm spot in your heart for McNabb. Donovan is everything you
could ever ask for from an athlete, except one thing—a champion. He
puts up the statistics, he wins the awards, he makes the thrilling
plays and he does it with a style all his own. He is a genuine person
with humility and a sense of humor, the kind of player who you would
like your kid to admire.
He even hammed it up on TV with his
mother on the Campbell’s Chunky Soup commercials. But for all that good
soup, he never seemed to have the fire in his belly to take his team
all the way. For five of the last eight years he has gotten into the
playoffs, once he even got to the Super Bowl, but in the end he was
turned away. Until a few weeks ago, he seemed destined to retire and
await his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame without a ring on his
From the lovefest of Central New York to
the hothouse of Philadelphia, where his first-round draft selection in
1999 was greeted with boos, Donovan has reacted to the cheers and the
jeers with equal grace. He has quietly done lots of good things for
causes he loves, including his alma mater, and most especially the
cause of kids with diabetes.
People who rate football talent have
always known he has the arm of a champion. The question has always been
“Does he have the heart of one?” At times he has seemed to take defeat
with excessive nonchalance. He has suffered injuries that took him out
of the action when his team needed him most. And at the nadir of the
season, when he had to struggle to tie the lowly Cincinnati Bengals on
Nov. 15, the quarterback who has once again been denied a trip to the
Super Bowl acknowledged in public that he didn’t know the NFL rules.
Like George Bush replaying the Florida
vote in 2000, he thought he could keep playing overtime sessions until
he won. The rules say that you get one 15-minute overtime; still tied,
you go home.
You could imagine Bush in such a spot,
telling us what he believed in his heart as if the law and reality were
mere assumptions or opinions. No matter. Donovan went home with a tie
against the Bengals.
In the next few games McNabb set
personal records for turnovers, and the angry hordes in Philadelphia
divided into two camps: those who wanted McNabb benched, and those who
wanted his cherubic coach, Andy Reid, sent packing. In November it
seemed likely that in the postseason the Eagles brass could unite the
two factions by firing them both.
Then Reid took drastic action. On Nov.
23 he benched Donovan, sat him down for the second half of a miserable
game against the Baltimore Ravens. Watching from the sidelines was a
new experience for the two-sport Orange letterman. (Don’t forget he
also played second string for our basketball team that went to the NCAA
Finals in 1996.)
He didn’t like the benching, but he
didn’t complain. He didn’t blame anyone else, and with the mercurial
wide receiver Terrell Owens gone to Texas, there was nobody on the team
eager to blame him. Then it happened, piece by piece, Sunday after
Sunday. Donovan just started to play better and better, rolling over
one team or another, finishing the regular season by crushing TO and
In the Jan. 11 conference championship
game he took down the defending champion Giants and Eli Manning, who
still has a few ghosts of his own to live down. All that remained was
to defeat the perpetual losers, the Arizona Cardinals, and outplay the
fabled but aged Kurt Warner, in order to advance to Tampa on Feb. 1 to
serve as the warm-up act for the E Street Band’s halftime show.
But it didn’t happen. This may have been
McNabb’s last year with such possibilities. Those knees and that arm
now have nine NFL seasons stitched on to the five years he spent at SU.
If he could have taken home the Lombardi Trophy on Super Bowl Sunday,
none would have been happier than the good people of Syracuse, who have
to duck for cover whenever we go anywhere and face the question: What’s
going on with that football team?
The rap against McNabb’s college coach,
Paul Pasqualoni, was that he was a nice guy who developed good students
and good athletes who were also expected to be good citizens. This was
something his other coach, Jim Boeheim, is rarely accused of. But there
is the matter of the ring and the banner hanging at the Carrier Dome,
and the persistent belief of many that in sports it doesn’t matter
whether you’re a good guy, it’s all about the final score.
And the final score in Arizona didn’t
leave proponents of the good guy theory smiling. If McNabb had won, we
would have been proud to say he is one of us. Even more, we could say
to anyone who cares to listen that he is a good guy—and a champion. And
what’s wrong with that? Except he didn’t win, so all we’ve got to do is
wait until next year.