It was 1999. My television was tuned into the NFL Draft. This was that special draft that would define my formative years as an Eagles fan. Teenage me was ready for the new millennium and with it, the hopes of a city champion.
I had been dazzled just months earlier by a hulking, dreadlocked jackrabbit. He could cut a corner like a Maserati—a blur of burnt orange, steamrolling into the end zone. This was the Texas Tornado, Ricky Williams.
As a kid, the likes of Eddie George and Warrick Dunne wowed me. The type of game changers I came to love. Power with grace- more horse than bull. The adults and pundits could reference Marcus Allen and Tony Dorsett until they were blue in the face, but it didn’t matter. These were the grid iron soldiers that inspired my awe; historical perspective couldn’t hold a candle to what Saturday football offered. Just like the Adrian Peterson’s and Mark Ingram’s after him, Ricky Williams fit this mold. 1995-1998 was his wheelhouse.
Ricky ended up with 6,279 yards in his college career—shattering the record held by that other guy, Tony Dorsett who could muster just 6,082. It took 22 years for the record to hold, but a quiet mild mannered Californian had snatched it away. Meanwhile in Wisconsin, a bruiser named Ron Dayne took notice and broke the record just a year later. But it was Ricky who we remember just as the summer of Slammin’ Sammy and McGwire overshadows Barry Bonds. He left with the Heisman along with plenty of other accolades, but for fans of pro ball, he became attainable. On that draft day in 1999, the possibility of drafting the Texas RB meant you were granted the opportunity of a franchise changer.
So I sat enthralled, watching Paul Tagliabue shuffle his papers in front of the raucous crowd. My beloved Eagles had that year’s second pick—Ricky Watters had spurned his career with a quote regarding alligator-arming a ball across the middle of the field. The stately Watters responded “For who? For what?” We had a chance to replace that Ricky with a new one.
Tagliabue stepped to the podium and spoke those sweet words every Birds fan wanted to hear. “With the first pick in the 1999 draft, the Cleveland Browns selection is from the University of Kentucky, quarterback Tim Couch.” Music to my ears. Ricky was ours.
No jeers were heard that day from the crowd. The Browns expected Couch to be the next Bernie Kosar. He played about as well as a La-Z-Boy and easily became one of the biggest draft busts in the history of the league.
I guess we’ll forever mock the stupidity of a boo over the equal stupidity of a misinformed cheer. Fickle fans so easily become historical revisionists.
The next few moments were stunning. Tagliabue relays our front office pick; the crowd waiting to coronate Bob Marley with biceps. Then the Bue drops 5 words that haunted like the number on his eventual Midnight Green jersey, “Donovan McNabb, quarterback Syracuse University.”
I felt like a dropped baby. The camera cut to a stockpile of enraged hooligans led by Shaun Young, the guy you see in the Linc’s end zone donned in face paint, a doo rag and shoulder pads. A true chorus of boos were shed on 5 that day. And it was unfair that the Carrier Dome Kid felt the brunt of years of pent up frustration before he took a snap- the fact that a scrambling quarterback had been a tried and failed experiment in Randall Cunningham or the lackluster first round picks, just a few years prior, of flops Mike Mamula and Jermane Mayberry, when the Eagles could have snagged Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis instead. But even more so, the inclusion of Mr. Campbell’s Chunky Soup, meant the exclusion of Ricky Williams.
In fact, Ricky went #5 that day, with the Bengals opting for Akili Smith and the Colts reigning in the U’s Edgerrin James just before him. And who was there to pick him up? Ditka. And Ditka’s God so the fact that Iron Mike tied his apple cart to Ricky’s yoke (Ditka gave up eight picks to the Washington Redskins in order to move up and draft Williams, thus becoming the first team in NFL history to only own one pick over the entire draft,) should never be questioned. There he was a few weeks later, with Ditka on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, wedding dress and all, “For Better or Worse.”
Both fan bases had to move on that day. One, yearning for the elusive sage, but stuck with a signal caller known by few, the other, forced to cheer for a basketful of eggs held by a hothead honcho. Both received articulate, yet burdensome Black perplexities.
Now, over a decade later, both players have become obsolete. After mired careers of controversy, the Ricky Williams/ Donovan McNabb debacle can finally be put to bed. Their names tied to one another, so heavily criticized for various reasons, have become washed away in the proverbial NFL sandscape. Williams has just opted out of a contract, completing a one year stint with the Baltimore Ravens, his retirement. McNabb has become a life raft searching punchline—a lost orphan in the ether of post-glory, taking career advice from bag boy turned legend, Kurt Warner.
Both careers have been solid, yet no titles are owned between them. If they share sad states of affair, the misconception between both athletes is that they were misunderstood. Both athletes.
I’ll give credit where credit is due. About 10-20% of our population has a variant of clinical depression or social anxiety disorder, but in no way can I judge what was ever going on in Ricky’s dome, nor the outrageous choice to set fire to a plant. On draft night, Williams sat in the corner, with the trash can as his companion; he recants in the insightful documentary, Run Ricky Run. He took interviews from reporters through a visor shielded gaze, helmet strapped on, guarded from the unknown.
McNabb was just the opposite. He was jovial and frolicking, always grinning when everyone wanted a 4th quarter scowl. He teased opponents with chest bumps and moonwalks. His scampers for first downs, were always maddeningly met with airmails or worm burners on 3rd. I understood McNabb- a good player, never a great, with a body of a lion and the heart of a lamb.
Williams came off as the guy that we all wanted to anoint. The Texas Tornado who could take the NFL by storm. He ended his meandering career with over 10,000 yards, the 26th player ever to do so, but he never let football define him as a man. Yoga, pranic healing, meditation and yes, marijuana use, were also parts of Ricky’s world.
The media skewered these guys, but in a world in which Schadenfreude rears its ugly head more often than not, I’m siding with Ricky on this one. Minor race relation issues that made ant hills into mountains hid McNabb’s underpinnings, where Ricky’s ganja fueled off seasons became the talk of the town, driving the great sleaze king Joe Theismann (who’s son was busted on cocaine possession ironically) to claim heresy through addiction. McNabb never seemed to have enough weapons (a passive excuse if there ever was one,) but Ricky never had the guts. T.O. was run out of town because he was too loud and McNabb couldn’t confront an ego, Ricky was run out of town because he was too quiet.
Williams has been quoted saying that during games he had simultaneous thoughts of Hall of Fame stardom one moment and complete indifference the next, the startling fear of success always shroud under the pressures of media attention. This is serious psychoanalysis, but all I got on McNabb is that he gets the vomit inducing, in-game jitters.
McNabb seems to have committed his life to sport and only sport. Ricky left on his terms, onto another chapter in the search of the soul, eventually fading away from his role in assisting Ray Rice. McNabb remains a defeated man, left looking for employment north of the border. His last relevant moment in the league was getting punked by his kicker for an ice cream cone for jersey swap in the Minnesota tundra.
And really, what difference does it make if we had chosen Williams instead? Plenty of talk has been bandied about the years of the ungrateful Eagles fan, doomed to destroy all that is karmic. How we would’ve murdered Ricky Williams if he had ever left town to light up. We would have landed our Ricky, he would have failed his four substance abuse tests in Philadelphia and we’d be stuck in the same rut, Lombardi lusting years later.
Or we could’ve become those New Orleans Saints. That same franchise, who took a gamble, paid for it in spades, rebuilt and won their first Championship just 10 years later. McNabb and the Birds are still searching for their first.
Maybe I could be more appreciative of Donny, who owns just about every Eagles statistical record of quarterback worth, (a ‘tallest-midget-in–the-circus’ stat for the hapless franchise,) but as it stands, my utmost respect lies with the priorities of the man who stuck to his guns, not the man who was always out of bullets.