It may not be cool to say among bitter Philadelphia fans, but I'll say it: Donovan McNabb is one of my all time favorite athletes.
But it wasn't always that way.
I was fifteen when the Eagles drafted McNabb on a miserable Saturday afternoon in 1999. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was barely able to finish the second syllable in "McNabb" before being drowned out by the droning jeers of the jaded 'Philly Phaithful'.
I didn't know Donovan McNabb from the cashier at my nearby drug store. All I knew was our stupid new coach Andy Reid had drafted him, and we still sucked.
The previous two years made it hard to be an Eagles fan. The last two years under the combative Ray Rhodes saw the Iggles go 6-9-1 and 3-13 respectively.
When 1998 rolled around, so awful was my team, I couldn't bear to wear my insulated Eagles parka to school. Sure, it'd be 7:30 AM in December, and I'd be shivering outside my junior high school in a lighter flannel jacket, but damned if I'd be identified as an Eagles fan. That parka collected more dust than an old photo album.
I had no team. I didn't adopt another team; I just had no team.
And with McNabb, I listened to the local media when they said we should have drafted Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams at running back, despite having the highly capable Duce Staley in that spot. Just another dumb decision, I figured, by a dumb team.
1999 gave me little reason to renew any optimism. The Eagles looked a little better, finishing at 5-11, but they were still the same old worthless team. My only happy memory that year was seeing Michael Irvin lay motionless on the Vet turf, his career over, after Tim Hauck contorted his spine like a crazy straw (which I, in hindsight, regret cheering for.....maybe).
But in 2000, something unthinkable happened. McNabb made me believe again.
The Eagles flipped their record around, going 11-5, and making the playoffs for the first time since 1996. While Jim Johnson's defense deserves much of that credit, it was McNabb who resonated most with me.
Between the end of the Randall Cunningham era and the rise of McNabb, the only offensive player that struck a chord with me was Ricky Watters, but he was about as likable as a paper cut on your tongue.
McNabb, on the other hand, demonstrated a playful humility in his first year as full-time starter. Compensating through grace, confidence, and poise, the second-year star made do without a quality wide receiver or worthwhile running back (after Staley went down for the year in early October).
He avoided the rush with sidesteps and dodges of near-Matrix form. He leapt over defenders like they were track meet hurdles. McNabb made up for deficiencies around him by playing his heart out, and the Eagles won a lot of close contests that year.
The overtime wins over the Cowboys and Steelers, the opening day Dallas massacre, the narrow upending of Washington to close out a perfect November, and the one-sided playoff win against Tampa Bay made me a McNabb believer for good.
For my 17th birthday, I received a McNabb jersey; my first Eagles uniform since I got one of Andy Harmon (look him up) during the good half of the Rhodes era. Until I added ones of Jeremiah Trotter, Duce Staley, and Corey Simon as time wore on, I donned my "Five" proudly each football Sunday, until the number stitching crinkled up after multiple washings and I replaced it.
When I think of my time cheering for McNabb, I see how Redskins fans feel today with RG3, Panthers fans with Cam Newton, Lions backers for Matthew Stafford, or even Bengals fans with Andy Dalton. When your team has been down for a bit, and you think "Well, we'll never win anything", someone comes along to inspire you, and makes it fun to be a fan.
Forty-year-olds in Philly today can tell you about how Cunningham touched their spirit, as those in the fifties remember how Ron Jaworski won their support. Our grandfathers can share nuggets about "The Dutchman" Norm Van Brocklin, and how he and Chuck Bednarik led the way for the 1960 NFL Champions.
I'll be thirty later this year, so I fall right in line with the fans who grew up with McNabb's Philly genesis, and his metamorphosis into the franchise quarterback. Like other fans my age, we remember the good and the bad, though the self-loathing Philly temperament emphasizes the bad.
No, he didn't win the big one. Yes, he forgot the overtime/tie rule. Sure, he threw more balls at receivers' feet than he should have (to be fair, I'll take those over interceptions). And yes, he's known for making banal, ridiculous statements at times.
But look at the positives: he made it as far as Marino, Tarkenton, and Kelly did without winning it. He made it further than Fouts, Moon, and Cunningham. He made it two rounds further than Tony Romo probably ever will.
Only sixteen men in NFL history have more passing yards than McNabb. Twenty-six running backs have more yards than Ricky Williams did, and McNabb never chose toking up over his team.
McNabb retires with nine playoff wins as an Eagle; more than Jaworski's three and Cunningham's nada. His 32,873 yards and 216 touchdown throws are most in team history, topping second-place Jaworski in both categories (26,963 and 175).
But it's not the numbers that matter to me. It's the connection. Fans need more than a team to root for unconditionally; they need figures to live through, heroes to identify with, and players to want to see succeed.
Any Eagles fan griping about McNabb's jersey being retired, or this sudden one-eighty he's receiving from the Philly media, I ask you: how hard did you cheer when McNabb threw that touchdown pass into Chad Lewis' gut in the 2004 NFC Championship game?
I thought so.
Donovan McNabb made it fun to be an Eagles fan again. There were times when he made Eagles fans want to puke along with him, but that will never outweigh the great times he brought us. At least, that's how I see it.
No Eagle will ever wear No. 5 again. But I can still wear mine.