SB Nation

Jon Bois | August 21, 2013

Haunted by stupidity

From the moment he was drafted, Donovan McNabb has been the target of all sorts of horrible nonsense

Up until April 17th, 1999, by comparison, Donovan McNabb's life doesn't seem to have been all that stupid. His family endured racially-motivated vandalism while living in an all-white Chicago neighborhood, and that is certainly very disgusting and stupid. But he was raised by parents who presumably loved him very much, he quarterbacked his high school team to a state championship, and he received a full scholarship to Syracuse, which is a perfectly fine school. While there, he studied broadcast journalism, set several all-time passing records, and even got to play some basketball under coach Jim Boeheim. It sounds like a very nice time.

But on April 17th, 1999, the Philadelphia Eagles used their second overall draft pick on McNabb instead of superstar running back Ricky Williams. The second that happened, it sounded like this.

And from that precise instant forward, everything that has happened to Donovan McNabb has been the stupidest bullshit that has ever happened. Stupid ideas, stupid rumors, stupid conversations, stupid food, and stupid jerks. If you were to tell me that the booing gentlemen above are themselves stupid jerks, you might well be right, but their booing is so immediate, damning, loud, and perfect that I prefer to perceive them as a poetic abstraction.

The fans in the building that evening -- six of them in particular -- were not fans at all, but dumb evil spirits. Each represented a different type of stupid, and each promised, through their ghostly shrieking and hissing and booing, to rain dumbness upon the existence of Donovan McNabb in the years to come.

And God, did they ever. Never in my lifetime has such an inoffensive, innocent athlete inspired such colossal dumbness in his fellow humans.

★ ★ ★




In July of the present year, former Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard was asked whether Donovan McNabb threw up in the huddle during Super Bowl XXXIX.

Yes, he did [...] I think it was more so, walking to the line of scrimmage, I think. [...] I saw it. It just happened. He was walking up, and you know. What can you do?

The Fox broadcast catches most of McNabb's walk toward the line of scrimmage.

Three possibilities:

1. McNabb somehow vomited so quickly upon walking to scrimmage that he was back to normal by the time the broadcast cut back to the field.

2. McNabb can, and does, barf with such understated grace that he can just do so while strolling and without doubling over. In addition, he vomits in such volume that it is visible from where Sheppard was standing on the sideline, about 30 yards away.

3. McNabb did not vomit.

Option 3. sounds most likely, but it seems prudent to examine eyewitness accounts. McNabb's firsthand testimonies are in red.


The only reason this has ever been discussed is that Hank Fraley, McNabb's center, told a TV station days later that McNabb was "almost" throwing up. Now, of course, the --

wait a second. This is stupid. This is so stupid. Now, McNabb was tired -- he's said so himself -- and if within the context of Fraley's comments, it's clear that he was just trying to illustrate how much effort and energy McNabb was giving. Instead, the myth has grown as a testament to McNabb's failures.

He certainly didn't play a great game. While one of his three picks came off a desperation throw in the final seconds, the other two were pretty awful-looking -- a first-quarter throw into double-coverage in the end zone, and a fourth-quarter short pass down the middle that sailed well over his receiver's head.

It should also be considered, though, that in this game, McNabb was one of only three quarterbacks in Super Bowl history to throw for at least 350 yards and three touchdowns. The Eagles couldn't establish much of a running game, leaving McNabb to account for nearly 90 percent of the team's total offense. In total, he threw 51 passes; of the 94 quarterback starts in Super Bowl history, only Jim Kelly made more attempts.

Furthermore: yes, Donovan McNabb imaginarily puked because he was a big stupid weak baby, but he concluded that drive with a crucial 30-yard touchdown strike. It seems to me that given how he finished the drive, a mid-drive vomit would serve as a badge of honor. That this myth has been upheld, only to cast him as a weakling in the eyes of so many people, is counterintuitive and super-stupid.

★ ★ ★




This spirit worked in tandem with the first spirit to blanket McNabb, and indeed us all, in unfiltered stupid. While the Donovomit worked to cast McNabb as a weakling who couldn't perform in the clutch, the second wanted us to forget all the times he stepped up.

If you didn't know any better, you'd think folks perceived injury prone-ness as an indicator of an athlete's mental/spiritual constitution. Once again, folks draw a logically flimsy conclusion that ought to speak well of McNabb, only to run the other way with it. Suppose his bones were made of peanut brittle and he had snap bracelets for ligaments. If he transcends that to piece together a 13-year NFL career, that's impressive, right? No?


This chart does not tell us who was hurt for the longest time (for example, Peyton Manning's neck kept him out an entire season, and he's near the bottom), and since NFL teams sometimes use injury reports as tools of gamesmanship, it shouldn't be treated as precise. But it does indicate how many different injuries, major or minor, these guys sustained.

McNabb played through nagging injuries to his back, wrist, and knee, among others, and he also suffered a broken ankle, torn ACL, and sports hernia. That he played through injuries hardly makes him special, but if any among us are comfortable with calling an NFL quarterback "weak" or "soft," we'd probably better pick someone else.


When I think of the Heroic Hurt Quarterback, I recall three instances in particular: Steve DeBerg finishing a game with a broken finger and an exposed metal pin sticking through it, Byron Leftwich finishing a drive with a broken leg and relying on his teammates to carry him down the field, and ... McNabb's entire 2005 season, really.

Entering Week 2, his chest was busted up so badly that he had to wear specialized shoulder pads. It was kind of ridiculous. He looked like a 10-year-old whose older brother tied pillows on him and told him to go jump off the top of the staircase.

That day, McNabb threw for 342 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. In terms of passer rating (155.4), it remains one of the 20 most dominant quarterbacking performances since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970.

As his chest healed, a groin injury surfaced on his injury report. It was later classified as a sports hernia, which meant two conflicting muscles in his groin were playing tug-of-war until one of them started to rip away. By all accounts, this is an absolutely miserable experience. McNabb's numbers dipped, but he continued to play through the hernia until Week 9, when he ripped his groin beyond all utility while trying to make a tackle. It's sort of a wonder to me that he made it that far at all.

During that 2005 season, the Eagles fell from a Super Bowl team to a 6-10 disappointment, and the fans let McNabb know. His superstar wideout, Terrell Owens, completely sold him down the river, and an NAACP figure used him as the centerpiece of an antagonistic and thoroughly useless conversation about race. Starting for the Eagles that season was a thankless enterprise, and it just might have been the least pleasant campaign an NFL quarterback has ever had.

★ ★ ★




Lots of people said lots of very stupid things about Donovan McNabb. Let's concern ourselves with the two most memorable occasions.

Donovan McNabb gets too much credit because he is black.

I don't think [McNabb]'s been that good from the get-go. I think what we have here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.

- Rush Limbaugh, 2003

If you are an immensely rich and successful white American, you ought to think especially long and hard before you forward the argument that a black American has it easier on account of his race. And, uh, maybe think 10 times longer than that if said black American has a job that is basically designed, on an institutional level, for a white guy.

Black players had sizable representation at nearly every position on the football field, but prior to McNabb's entry, one could almost count the number of notable black quarterbacks in League history on one hand. That isn't an accident; the sample size is far too big for that kind of luck. Black players were simply discouraged from quarterbacking and steered toward other positions, or they were under-recruited, or were scouted with unusual scrutiny that scared teams away.

All this could, as a matter of fact, play right into Limbaugh's assertion that there was special interest in a black quarterback doing well for this very reason ... but again, if it's a guy like him saying this, his premise had better be absolutely right.

He wasn't.


McNabb was good from the get-go. At the time of Limbaugh's remarks, McNabb had played three full seasons and maintained a cumulative passer rating of 82.2. That figure is very close to Favre's in his first three seasons, and far better than those of Troy Aikman and Drew Bledsoe.

Passer rating does not take rushing into account. Not only was McNabb the best running quarterback in football during those first three seasons, he ranked 33rd in total rushing yards among players from any position. Taking his ground game into account, one could argue that he was an exceptional quarterback for a player his age.

Limbaugh resigned from ESPN shortly after making those remarks, which served to galvanize the perception amongst Limbaugh's millions of radio listeners that McNabb was some sort of privileged French dauphin carried around by the P.C. Police™ on a gilded palanquin. It couldn't have been some AM radio host in Cincinnati to say that, huh? It had to be one of the most influential political figures of the 21st century?

Nope. For Donovan McNabb, shit didn't go any other way.

Donovan McNabb insults his race because he doesn't like to run anymore.

In 2005, J. Whyatt Mondesire, owner of a Philadelphia newspaper, wrote a column that jumped to odd conclusions, contradicted itself, and ... frankly, it wasn't good writing. The only reason anyone cared about said column was that J. Whyatt Mondesire was also the president of the Philadelphia NAACP.

Since he was, it consumed popular sports discourse. Once again, this is the unique flavor of dumb bullshit that McNabb attracted. It couldn't possibly be a meaningful discussion about race. It had to be a stupid-as-Hell invocation of race that didn't help anyone understand anything.

Mondesire perceived McNabb's effectiveness at least as wrongly as Limbaugh did.


In 2004, McNabb ran about 60 percent as much as he did in previous years. That surely isn't the only reason his passer rating catapulted from a subpar 79.6 in 2003 to a stellar 104.7 in 2004, but it was also surely a major factor. Mondesire, it seems, just wasn't looking at the numbers.

Sportswriters fail to do that all the time, and since Mondesire wasn't even a sportswriter, he could have stopped here without his words living in infamy. Instead:

In essence Donny, you are mediocre at best. And trying to disguise that fact behind some concocted reasoning that African American quarterbacks who can scramble and who can run the ball are somehow lesser field generals than one who can summon up dead-on passes at a whim, is more insulting off the field than on.

McNabb had simply said that black quarterbacks are expected to scramble, which was and is absolutely true. I'll get personal for a moment: when the Louisville Cardinals recruited Teddy Bridgewater, my first thought was, "Oh cool, it'll be fun to see him run with the ball." I caught myself, looked up the numbers, and found that he almost never runs with the ball. Even if I found out he did, I still would have felt like a colossal idiot. Race-motivated presumptions dig in deep, and I'm guessing nobody ever had to tell Mondesire that.

But in trying to be something other than a running quarterback, McNabb was breaking from the standard set by nearly every other black quarterback of the last 30 years who had stuck around long enough to leave a mark. In the late '70s and early '80s, Doug Williams ran more than just about any other quarterback. The same went for Randall Cunningham in the late '80s, Rodney Peete in the early '90s, and Kordell Stewart, Jeff Blake, and Steve McNair after that. Warren Moon was the only real exception. That mold still had a lot of breaking left to do.

McNabb didn't like being typecast, because he's a person, and few people do. This is what it earned him.

But then you played the race card and practically all of us fell for your hustle. You scammed us man and there's no way any longer to refrain from "keepin' it real."

We could have remained silent too, if you had found another way to remain effective and a winner. But when your mediocre talent becomes so apparent it's time to call it out.

That hurt.

"Obviously, if it's someone else who is not African American, it's racism," McNabb told reporters attending his annual holiday party last Saturday. "But when someone of the same race talks about you because you're selling out because you're not running the ball, it goes back to, 'What are we really talking about here?'

"If you talk about my play, that's one thing. When you talk about my race, now we've got problems. If you're trying to make a name off my name, again, I hope your closet is clean because something is going to come out about you ... I always thought the NAACP supported African Americans and didn't talk bad about them. Now you learn a little bit more."

The NAACP, for its part, condemned Mondesire's column.

For some time, the futurist set has wondered whether sports might one day replace war, the reasoning being that our desires to conquer (as athletes), belong (as fans), and experience violence could be sated by a good game of football. The idea is entertaining if nothing else, and I can't help but wonder whether those are the only teeth we're cutting it with. I can't read these words from these political figures or remember the hundreds of Important Judgments upon No. 5 that I've read on message boards without thinking of it as sparring -- grandstanding without logic and for no apparent real purpose but practice. Practice for what? More practice, maybe.

We didn't even get into Bernard Hopkins essentially calling McNabb a "house negro" for growing up in the suburbs. The bullshit just kept coming and coming and coming, and it isn't done.

God, what got into everybody?

★ ★ ★




I try to keep an arm's length from geocultural exceptionalism, at least within the context of the United States. I understand that it's there, and that if I were to chance upon someone from Philadelphia, that person might well be different from his or her analogue in Wichita, Kansas, on account of where he or she is from.

At the same time, I know people from Philadelphia and Wichita and Los Angeles and Decatur, Georgia and Chicago, and in large part I can't pick out one of their character traits and explain to you why they're that way. This country is far more homogenous than its myths would have you believe. The Philly Sports Fan is surely not fundamentally different from the New York Fan who is surely not fundamentally different from the Alabama Fan. I'm suspicious of anyone who really believes otherwise to a particular extreme or another.

But I swear to God, if the Eagles boo Donovan McNabb at his retirement ceremony in September, it's gonna test me a little bit. Last month, asked him whether he expected to get booed:

I truly wouldn’t care. To me, it’s an appreciation for the people who truly respected what I did. I’ve always lived by the motto that you can’t please everyone. So, for me, if I get booed, it wouldn’t be anything new. If they cheer, that would be great. Obviously I’ll be out there with my family and the teammates I played with. If there are any boos, I will smile.

Some might argue that the boo of the Philadelphia sports fan is more than just a boo -- that there are boos of subtle affection, and that if they do boo McNabb, that's just the way they roll. Not true, it seems, at least as far as retirement ceremonies go.


The flag-retirement ceremony, performed by Boy Scout Troop 303, was a rather solemn affair that elicited little fanfare. The crowd more or less went wild over the others. If you watch only one of them, watch that of McNabb's longtime teammate, Brian Dawkins.

Dawkins' highlight reel is accompanied by a dazzling light show, thundering pyrotechnics, and the adoring roars of the crowd. I get hyped up just from watching it. It looks like the reception of a returning 22nd-century general who conquered Eurasia and secured tiberium mines for his continent-republic. Philadelphia loves this man.

OK, now imagine McNabb getting a ceremony that looks like this, and then feel free to laugh your ass off.

It makes perfect sense that Dawkins, one of the best defensive players of his era, received such a bombastic show. Defense is all about PUNISHMENT and PAIN and DEDICATION and HEART and WAR and WARRIORS. They're free to wave for more crowd noise and mime irresponsible chainsaw operation.

The quarterback, relatively speaking, is muted. Every NFL quarterback is expected to maintain the demeanor of your friend's dad: Never getting grumpy or angry in front of you, with discourse roughly as meaningful as the, "Hey kiddos! how's your video game?" as he walks in front of the television to grab a beer. If you're a Cam Newton or Jay Cutler who doesn't quite adhere to this model, you're scrutinized endlessly, and fools whose understandings of psychology and metaphysics begin and end with Tom Clancy novels will try to deconstruct you in legions.

McNabb did adhere to the Friend's Dad persona in large part, but he also wanted to let people know he didn't enjoy being booed, call out racial issues, et cetera. In so doing, he was perceived as a pouty prima donna. Comments like this contribute to this perception. Last month, he was asked about what he thought of Philadelphia fans:

I thought they were true fans who loved the Eagles and loved the game of football. Opinionated, for sure. But they loved their teams. They just want to see winners. And over the years, we gave them that. But after a while, the wins didn’t become enough. It became all about winning the Super Bowl, which was understandable. That was the same attitude we went in with as players after we won the NFC Championship (in ’04). We felt we needed to win a Super Bowl. And that didn’t happen.

I've tried to find something in there to get mad about. All I can really see is a guy who talks about how difficult it is to play in Philadelphia (elsewhere in the interview, he recalls ex-Phillies great Jim Thome talking about how hard it was for him), while simultaneously acknowledging the fans' expectations as fair.

The Philly sports media hated that comment. HAAAAAAATED it. CSN Philly's Reuben Frank, in response to the above McNabb comments about getting booed at his ceremony:

He's got a persecution complex [...] Read that quote again. You want to know why the fans kill him? It's because of that kind of quote.

I had a great relationship with Donovan when he was here. He was great with his time, he was a good interview, he's never done anything off the field to embarrass the Eagles, but he just needs to shut up. I'm sick of this.

The more I watch Frank's comments in tandem with reading McNabb's comments, the more confused I get. He plays for a team -- and quite well -- for a decade-plus, he's answered with boos and mockery and scrutiny, and by acknowledging that this was tough, he has a "persecution complex."

Several Philly sports blogs gnashed their teeth at McNabb's words as well, with more than one suggesting that he fabricated Thome's comments. Surely Philadelphia never booed Jim Thome, the most lovable man in the entire world, right?

In the fifth inning of the Phillies 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates Sunday, Pirates' pitcher Kris Benson hit a high pop fly that Thome lost in the sun and dropped. Veterans' Stadium instantly erupted into a loud chorus of foul-sounding boos.

In Thome's next at bat, Phillies fans again booed Thome, even more loudly. One man loudly cried, "Go back to Cleveland, you dumb carcass heap," among a dozen other vile and expletive insults.

I still reckon that the reputation of Philly fans precedes them, and that if they really are more ornery than Chicago fans or San Diego fans, it's by a margin of 10 percent or less. But if they do follow up the warm reception for Dawkins by booing the Hell out of McNabb, the greatest quarterback in the city's history, I'll probably need to revisit this.

Lord God, that guy's a stupid-magnet.

★ ★ ★




Since his NFL career effectively ended in 2011, McNabb has transitioned to a career in TV commentary. It suits him quite well, given that one of the factors that drew him to attend Syracuse in the first place was their broadcast journalism program. He's good at it.

Take "good at it" in whichever connotation you'd like. Last year, upon signing with the Jets, Tim Tebow tweeted a couple harmless things about being excited to be a Jet and promising to play hard. McNabb:

There's no need to keep trying to have the fans behind you. Every time we look up, there's something that, he's reaching out to the fans, telling them "I love you, I'm working hard, I'm doing this."

There's no way McNabb actually cares about this shit, right? Right? I don't know. Maybe he really does give a damn about some player tweeting "hooray football," or maybe he's just acting in accordance with his job description.

In either case, he has absolutely earned it. He has won the right to skin the big dumb monster that chased him for over a decade and wear its hide like a raincoat. He could Skip Bayless his way through the remainder of his existence on Earth, and he would not come close to mirroring the cataclysmic swarm of stupid he sparked through little fault of his own and endured from all angles.

McNabb has joined the brand-new Fox Sports One. Time will tell whether the environment is conducive to actual meaningful discussion, or just another Sports Dummy Valhalla. At any rate, I hope he's however smart or stupid he wants to be, for any reason he would like. If all that bullshit didn't come with some spoils, it just wouldn't be right.

BAYLESS: Tim Tebow is the most unfairly over-criticized quarterback in the history of this league.

McNABB: Negative. I am. I am.

You ain't wrong, pal.

★ ★ ★




Campbell's Chunky Soup, which McNabb memorably endorsed throughout his career, has long been regarded as the Perrier of the "gas station food" set. It's less categorically toxic than frozen pizza, more dignified than a bag of Doritos, and more tastefully plate-able than a can of Vienna sausages.

It is also thoroughly dispensable and largely useless.


While it's inarguable that the vegetables in some varieties of Chunky Soup harbor oases of nutrients, the tagline of McNabb's soup testimony -- "soup that eats like a meal" -- implies caloric sustenance. In truth, a can of beef and vegetable soup contains only 240 calories, equivalent to a standard-size candy bar.

One would need to consume two full cans in order to rack up enough calories to constitute a proper meal, and by that point you will have consumed over 1,700 milligrams of sodium -- about 75 percent of the average American adult's recommended daily intake. Sodium is the chief currency of flavor, and you have squandered nearly all of it on broth and mystery meat. If you ate this for lunch, you will need to eat bread for dinner. Just bread.

And since a can commonly costs upwards of $3 at a gas station, you will have spent nearly $7 on this nonsense. There is a better way.


$1.50 = 1 pound stew meat
$3 = 1 pound boneless beef rib meat
$1 = 1 onion, diced
$1.50 = Carrots, diced
$1.50 = Celery, diced
$3 = Small red potatoes, quartered
$3 = Unsalted beef stock
$.40 = Fresh garlic, minced
$10 = A decent bottle of red wine (a Cabernet would be ideal)

Total cost: ~$25, or the price of approximately eight cans of Chunky Soup

KITCHEN ESSENTIALS: A large soup pot, a stove top, a wooden spoon, butter, flour, salt, pepper, spices as desired

Place the pot on medium heat. Roll the meat in flour until well-coated. Melt some butter in the pot and brown the meat on all sides, then remove. Heat the stock -- the microwave would do just fine.

Pour some wine in the pot to deglaze it. Scrape the bottom with a wooden spoon to mix in all the brown bits. Add the garlic, let it sit for 30 seconds or so. Then -- in modest batches, so as not to bring down the temperature of the pot too much -- add the onions, carrots, celery and potatoes. Stir occasionally, and allow it to cook until the onions are soft and translucent.

Season generously with salt and pepper, then add the beef and stock. Add some water if there's some room left over in the pot. Test the consistency. If you'd like it thicker, feel free to add some extra flour, stirring well. Cover the pot, bring it to a boil, then crack the lid a bit and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Allow it to simmer for a while -- an hour would be good, two or more hours would be ideal.

You now have an absolutely delicious beef stew, a wealth of servings that can be taken to work or frozen for later use, nearly a bottle of wine to enjoy, and the satisfaction of a job well done. Serve.


Producer: Chris Mottram | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

Jon has been with SB Nation since 2009. He is the author of the science fiction football story 17776, and producer of the documentary series Chart Party and Pretty Good.