I first met Donovan McNabb in 1999 in New York after the draft. He'd just been booed relentlessly by Eagles fans. On the stage, he looked understandably flustered. Off it, something different happened.
I watched McNabb gather himself and almost literally scrub the embarrassment right off his face as he walked off the stage. There was a stubbornness there, a refusal to allow a bunch of trolls booing him to ruin one of the greatest days of his life.
That was the first time I saw the McNabb Face. I would see it many more times after as I covered almost all of McNabb's career. Win or lose, McNabb would present the calm demeanor of a person never troubled. Good game…McNabb Face. Horrible game…even more McNabb Face.
McNabb was always determined to show that nothing bothered him. Even when we'd speak one-on-one: McNabb Face. He rarely let his guard down.
After McNabb's second arrest in less than two years for suspicion of driving under the influence, we saw, yet again, him keep his stone-faced demeanor intact. Or, at least, try to. On his radio program, he made one of the more bizarre statements I've ever heard from an athlete (via Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio):
There was a story that was released, and I want everybody to be cognizant of it, because I am very aware of it, handling the matter at this particular point. But at this point, I have no further information, and as we continue on with the situation, then we'll let it handle as it will handle itself.
McNabb Face. Nothing's wrong. I'm fine. See, I'm making a nice little statement. See, even in my mugshot, I'm smiling.
All good, people. Relax. It's OK.
Except we know that someone who gets two DUIs isn't fine. Something's wrong.
According to the Associated Press:
A police report stated McNabb's vehicle rear-ended a car driven by the wife of a Gila River tribal police officer and McNabb appeared to be impaired.
"While Donovan spoke, I noticed a strong, fruity odor on his breath. I noticed Donovan's eyes were watery and very bloodshot and his speech was slurred," a Gilbert officer wrote in his report.
The officer also wrote McNabb was unable "to stand without visibly swaying back and forth and side to side in a rotational pattern."
McNabb's first DUI arrest resulted in a day in jail. This time, McNabb could get more significant time.
A spokesperson for Fox Sports, for whom McNabb is currently an analyst, did not return an email seeking comment. He is "stepping away from his NBC sports radio show—at least temporarily—to deal with 'personal issues,'" according to TMZ.
Over the past few weeks, while working on another story, I have heard some of the same things TMZ reported. People close to McNabb that I've spoken to have been concerned about him for some time. They say he has refused advice to take car services in the past.
I'm told that after the first DUI arrest, McNabb's friends tried to show the danger he was putting himself and others in. They said McNabb didn't seem to digest the point. The fact he now has a second arrest seems to back that.
One person close to him said he hopes this arrest shakes McNabb into realizing something needs to change.
These people also say McNabb has had difficulty in retirement, something many players have faced. It's not easy going from stardom to civilian life.
If you had asked me years ago who would be the player most likely in retirement to get two DUIs, McNabb would have been last on my list. He wouldn't have even made the list. So everything I've learned about him the last few weeks has legitimately stunned me.
Many may forget how put-together, how in control McNabb seemed during his career. It's worth remembering. This is a man who was solid as a house of bricks, one of the best of his generation. He should be remembered as one of the most important figures in recent NFL history.
McNabb was booed that day in 1999 because Eagles fans wanted Ricky Williams. The top five players drafted that year were Tim Couch, McNabb, Akili Smith, Edgerrin James and Williams. McNabb was the best of that top five and the only player from that group of quarterbacks to have great success.
No, McNabb wasn't Tom Brady, but he had a Brady-like effect on the Eagles. He was one of the top three or four quarterbacks I've covered in the past 25 years at carrying a team on his shoulders. Once, in 2005, Andy Reid had McNabb throw 25 straight passes—no running plays. He led the Eagles to five conference title games and a Super Bowl.
If there is a legitimate criticism of McNabb, it's that he choked in some of those title games, but he got there—something the Eagles haven't done since. It's no coincidence that since he left Philadelphia in 2009, the Eagles have had a hodgepodge of has-beens and wannabes at quarterback and haven't won a playoff game.
McNabb was stable and often electric. His decision-making could be putrid, but it was balanced with great accuracy, a fact that is often lost when discussing his career. He was the first player to throw for 30 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions in a season. His career interception percentage is among the lowest of all time.
To me, McNabb is among the most underrated players in league history. He's a borderline Hall of Famer.
And now, here we are with this great player, this man who was always placid on the surface. Maybe, just maybe, underneath that cool exterior was something else.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.