Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reflecting On The End Of An Era

Among the events that transpired while I was off traipsing around Japan was the trade that sent Donovan McNabb from the Eagles to the Redskins. As an Eagles fan, I was rattled by the news even though the team had been shopping McNabb for weeks and it hardly came as a surprise. This is partially because I will no longer be able to root for one of my favorite Eagles players of all time, but even moreso because it has caused me to reflect on just how quickly time and opportunity can slip away.

McNabb more than any other player has defined the Eagles over the past decade, and like many sports fans who devote entirely too much time to their favorite team, I've found that the Eagles' fortunes have often influenced my own moods and habits, particularly in the autumn when there's a game every Sunday to set either a good or a bad tone for the remainder of the week. I remember with crystalline clarity the day on which he first became an Eagle - I was a high-school senior making visits to prospective college choices, and on the weekend of the 1999 draft I was visiting Colgate University in upstate New York, along with my mother. I remember sneaking out of the hotel at which we were staying on a rainy Sunday morning to tune the radio in her battered gray Subaru to a sports station, in order who to find out who the Eagles (who had the second pick, after the expansion Browns, by dint of having been the league's worst team the year prior) had picked. I wasn't surprised when I heard the news (it had been reported as nearly a fait accompli prior to the draft), nor as disappointed as many of my fellow fans, who wanted Texas RB Ricky Williams - mostly I was just hopeful, and a bit ashamed that a cohort of sports-radio-nitwit Eagles fans had embarrassed themselves by booing the pick. When he didn't start to begin the season, fans were almost as upset, but when he finally did take the reins in the season's tenth game, we began to see why the team had thought so highly of him.

Over the years, we watched McNabb mature from a dazzlingly talented but unpolished young phenomenon into a solid veteran quarterback without ever quite achieving the legendary status that at times seemed within his reach. From the beginning, he was a dangerous scrambler and improviser, with a stubborn, strong-legged strength that made him very difficult to bring down and deceptive speed that made him a threat to go forty yards with the ball under his arm any time he decided to tuck it down and run with it, but unlike most quarterbacks with those sorts of athletic gifts, he also appeared to have everything it took to succeed as a passer. In his first few seasons, I thought he was going to be the next Steve Young, and in 2004, his best season, it looked like he might have reached that level. Sadly, it didn't turn out that way, as injuries, inconsistency, and off-the-field controversy (some legitimate, but most contrived or blown out of proportion by an agenda-driven media) continued to dog him and he never really quite put it all together the same way again. As everyone knows, he never won the Super Bowl, and only sniffed it once, briefly, in 2008 after his one trip to it in that one great season. What portion of this was bad luck, and what portion can be laid at the feet of either McNabb or the Eagles' front office, is one of the great unanswered questions about his time as an Eagle.

Despite the fact that he never won it all as a member of the Eagles, and displayed a frustrating and baffling tendency to slip into deep funks at times, I always enjoyed rooting for McNabb in a personal way that I rarely enjoy rooting for professional athletes. He played hard and courageously (once famously throwing four touchdown passes on an ankle, it was discovered after the game, had been broken in the second quarter), and handled with near-consummate class and professionalism a succession of overblown "crises" that began with his booing on draft day and continued through his run-ins with Rush Limbaugh, the NAACP, and Terrell Owens. He never carped or criticized his teammates publicly, even when he had good reason to. And, unlike many high-profile athletes, he came across as genuine in his interactions with fans and media, without being a jackass. Professional athletes often seem to adopt as their public face either the self-promoting narcissism of an Owens or the glossy, patently artificial sheen of a Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, but McNabb was neither of those - I honestly got the feeling that the guy we saw in interviews - earnest, optimistic, generally mature and even-keeled but occasionally goofy or irritable - was the real guy. If I met T.O. or Michael Vick in real life, I very much suspect I wouldn't like them much as people, but Donovan always came across as the kind of guy I could get along with.

Now, he's gone, and his era as the Eagles' starting quarterback - an era that spanned the entire decade and more from 1999-2010, during which I started and completed college, moved around relentlessly (to two different countries nonetheless), changed jobs, apartments, social circles, and girlfriends numerous times each, and progressed from a high school kid to (possibly, finally, belatedly) a real adult, with adult worries and concerns and responsibilities - is over. He'd been around so long, and my life has changed so much in the time since he'd been around, that on some level it felt like he was a Philadelphia institution that would endure forever, the way Fairmount Park or the Art Museum or traffic on I-95 seem they will. Nothing, of course, is forever, and Donovan McNabb has now become the latest piece of my young adulthood to depart. I wish him all the best with the Redskins (except when they play the Eagles), I'll always remember the highlights of his tenure with the Eagles fondly, and I am excited to see his promising successor, Kevin Kolb, take the field next year. None of that lessens the sadness of seeing a good thing end, however.

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