It was June of 2002, and I was walking past the cafeteria inside the otherwise deserted Philadelphia Eagles practice facility when I spotted a single, silver-haired gent seated in the corner of the room by himself, eating a late lunch.Over his shoulder, out a nearby window, you could just begin to make out the steel skeleton of the magnificent Lincoln Financial Field. In between bites, he craned his neck upward at the mounted TV to watch bitter-sweet highlights from the Detroit Red Wings' victory parade. After one trip to the NFC title game, you could already tell -- just by the way Jeffrey Lurie silently pushed his peas and roast beef around his plate while envying the Red Wings -- that the Eagles were antsy for their championship and for their victory parade. Since buying the team in 1994, Lurie had methodically built the Eagles into a respectable franchise. When the finishing touches were put on the team's state-of-the-art practice facility, Lurie had these words engraved near the Eagles main meeting room: The important thing is to start ... to create a plan and then follow it step by step, no matter how small or large each one by itself might seem. Step by step, the Eagles have followed that plan all the way to Jacksonville and the doorstep of the franchise's first Super Bowl title. And as I packed my bags Tuesday for my own trip to Jacksonville (Media Day at the Super Bowl isn't really for the media at all and the event feels more like a week than a single day) it struck me that by some form of dumb luck, I've managed to Forrest Gump my way right along with the Eagles on their improbable journey. The first time I ever wrote the words "Super" and "Bowl" in association with the Eagles was in the summer of 2001 while standing in the 100-degree shade at a high school track in Phoenix. Donovan McNabb hangs there in the summer, and on this day, he was going to run through one of his notoriously bizarre offseason workouts. The rest of the athletes had been warming up and stretching for 15 minutes preparing for the grueling workout when McNabb pulled up in his black Mercedes. He sprang out of his car, smiled that trademark grin of his, cinched up his shoes and joined in without even a single toe-touch. Even with a few extra offseason pounds around his waist, McNabb then proceeded to, rather effortlessly I might add, crush every single competitor in every single drill while mercilessly cracking on anyone who stepped into his line of vision, including myself. McNabb dropped back with a bungee cord attached to his waist and threw a perfect 50-yard bomb. He ran sprints in sand. He walked on a balance beam. And when trainers tossed rubber dog toys (honest) at him to work on his reflexes he snagged every single one yelling, "Look at me, I'm Derek Jeter!" Afterward, he sipped Gatorade in the shade and quietly told me all he wanted to be was the best. And long ago his dad, Sam, had taught him the only way to do that was to outwork everybody. That's when I wrote it. McNabb. Super. Bowl. It was only a matter of time.
Later, when a high school kid started yakking after the intense workout, McNabb stood over him giggling and yelling, "You've reached EEEAAARRLL, I'm not in right now, but please leave a message, and I'll call you right back." It was amazing to me how one moment McNabb could be as serious as a General and the next moment he was back to being the Joker. He was that rare quarterback who could lead and at the same time keep everyone loose.It was head coach Andy Reid who first clued me into McNabb's split personality. Reid said the only other quarterback he knew like that was Brett Favre whom he had coached in Green Bay. You know if you can catch him at the right moment, Reid can be one of the more engaging personalities in the game. Each season, he fills a thick, leather-bound journal with notes, poems, drawings and football anecdotes. And he enjoys talking about writing and books -- not that he has much time to do either, though. The last time I was in Reid's office he had that same Lindbergh quote from the practice facility on the wall behind his desk. Of course, what I was truly interested in was the bobblehead doll of Philly legend John Chaney that sat perched over Reid's right shoulder like a guardian angel. In February of 2000, Reid was entertaining his most coveted free agent, mammoth tackle Jon Runyan, at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on South Broad Street when Chaney charged up to the table to give Runyan and his wife Loretta their official Philly-style welcome. "Remember you're coming here for these coaches," Chaney chortled. "Don't come here for these fans. Because I hate these fans. I've been here all my life, and I hate them all." A classic love-hate Philly moment if ever there was one. "He was absolutely beautiful," Reid recalls. The 6-foot-7, 330-pound Runyan, a high school hoops star and a fan of Chaney's, signed three days later for $30.5 million over six years. He was the first one to make it cool to come play in Philly again. And he has anchored the Eagles line ever since. It was the first of many prescient front-office moves by Reid, Lurie and team president Joe Banner. Lurie and Banner had grown up together in, of all places, Massachusetts, rooting for the Patriots and spending endless hours in Fenway dreaming of one day running their own team. After college, Lurie parlayed his family's vast fortunes into a successful movie studio. Banner worked as a sports radio reporter/producer for WCAU in Philly, developed a chain of retail clothing stores in Boston and worked in the nonprofit world developing City Years, an urban Peace Corps that gets young adults from a variety of backgrounds to donate a year of their time and work together in 13 cities across the country. Which, if you think about it, is a lot like building and nurturing the chemistry on an NFL roster -- minus all the Ferraris of course. Shortly after buying the team, Lurie called Banner and left a message on his answering machine that said, "Hey, are you ready to help me run this team?" And when Banner told his mom he was going to Philadelphia to be a capologist she wondered out loud why someone with such a gifted mind would want to throw it all away to go sell hats in Philly. At first mom seemed to have a point. When Lurie and Banner hired Reid the Philly press called them "Dumb and Dumber." In his office, Banner has a giant wood conference table that's polished to a such a brilliant finish your elbows slide off the edge. Banner is a guy who once bailed on a family vacation, survived an airport bus accident and jumped on two planes to make a stadium finance meeting. Banner and his staff dissect every single deal each season. Not just the Eagles' deals. Every deal in the entire NFL. So, I say this in the nicest possible way: numbers excite him. This was the first time it occurred to me that the real power in the NFL doesn't belong to the 350-pound nose tackles or the bulldozer backs. It's the skinny, pale guys with glasses and pocket protectors who contort and control the salary cap who wield all the clout in this game.
With every new question, Banner brought out 10 new pages of data and spreadsheets to back his claims. By the end of our conversation, the table was filled with, essentially, the entire blueprint used to rebuild the franchise. And I wondered if I could scoop up all that stuff and jump out a window, just how much that data would be worth to someone like Daniel Snyder. Stealing is wrong, I decided. And leaving via the window would have been rude.From the get-go, Banner believed in identifying players the team wanted to re-sign and re-upping their deals long before they became free agents. When he did this, GMs from around the league would call him up and ask him, Have you gone completely nuts? Now it's standard procedure. One of the players that Banner locked up early was safety Brian Dawkins. A few summer ago, I traveled to Jacksonville to watch B-Dawk train during the offseason with Tim Catalfo (a k a Obake) an extreme fighting world champion who is a cross between the Terminator and Yosemite Sam. The gym was dingy. The mats needed a good scrub. There were crusty cotton balls in every corner that had turned brown from dried blood. And there was a hole in the wall -- and by that I mean you could see clear out to the parking lot -- that seemed to be the exact shape of a quarterback's head. As B-Dawk worked out that day, I sat next to his wife, Connie, his high school sweetheart who worked several jobs to help them make ends meet at Clemson. Connie also helped B-Dawk through his tumultuous rookie season in the NFL when he put so much pressure on himself that he almost snapped. Dawkins has developed into one of the baddest safetys in the game and the warrior heart of the Eagles, but I betcha didn't know that it took him a full semester of high school to work up the nerve to ask Connie out. So it's kinda cool that B-Dawk will be playing in the Super Bowl just down the road from Raines High. This is just one of the many stories that, I'm sure, is being overlooked in light of T.O.'s now world-famous bad wheel. Another is the contribution made by Eagles o-coord Brad Childress. Don't get me wrong, T.O.'s great and all but last year when Philly had three good backs but not one great one, who do you think came up with the Threeagles attack? And when T.O. was signed who do you think transformed the team into a more vertical hybrid of the West Coast? And again when he got hurt, who do you think customized the attack closer to the line of scrimmage to better suite McNabb and Brian Westbrook? This week, who do you think is in charge of neutralizing Willie McGinest at the line of scrimmage? I spent some time in Childress' office earlier this season and in the short time we talked, I'd say 25 pages of data on that week's opponent were either dropped off on his desk or slid under his door. I think Childress is one of the sharpest minds in the game, destined for a head coaching job if he so chooses. Of course, he'd never admit to that. He's one of the rare folks in the NFL who take what they do very seriously without taking themselves all too seriously. That day, he joked about how Reid would sometimes call him in a panic at 11:30 on a Thursday night to ask him if they had enough short-yardage plays for the tight end in that week's game plan. Childress is one of the few people on this earth who can tell Reid to relax. We joked about an incident at a minicamp practice during the early stages of McNabb's career. After one dropped pass an anonymous voice bellowed from behind the hedges that surround the team's practice fields, "Eh, McNabb! Use betta trow 'em harder dan dat on Sunday, pal." Shoot, McNabb got off easy I told him. After my column on the 2003 NFC championship game, one of the nicer emails I received was from someone called JP at UPenn: "Your daughter's first poopy was infinitely prettier than anything you've ever written. Don't ever come to Philly again, because we've got your picture on ESPN.com and Philly fans don't forget." ... And a few other four-letter words I think I'll leave out. Up until last Christmas, however, threats to my well being had only come in written form. That all changed while covering McNabb's annual appearance as Santa Claus when I strapped myself into the vehicle of PR guru Rich Burg affectionately known as The Silver Bullet. (I trusted the Eagles p.r. staff. After all, a few years back they had lent me a pair of long pants so I could attend a tour of the stadium site.)
While trailing the police escort that was shuffling McNabb to appearances at several local children's shelters, The Silver Bullet somehow got funneled between rush hour traffic and a cement median. Rather than slow down and merge back into traffic, Burg lurched onto the shoulder and gunned The Bullet, missing the guardrail by, oh, half an inch, as toys, maps, empty cups and all the memories of my young, wasted life, bounced around the interior of the van.At that point one of us, I can't remember who, yelled out something like, "YEEEEHAW!" Indeed, the risk to life and limb ended up being well worth it. We made it to the appearance and as McNabb handed out presents and smiles to the kids, I talked for a long time with his father, Sam, about the ugly incident involving Rush Limbaugh. For the most part Donovan had tried to hide the pain, anger and sadness he was feeling. But it was palpable and right there for everyone to see in the eyes of his father -- a man who, like any of us, had hoped things would be better for his son. At that moment, you just kinda knew. If McNabb could overcome something as ugly as this with such profound class and dignity, what could possibly stop him in his quest for a Super Bowl championship? Nothing, it turns out. Which is why I never again stepped foot inside The Silver Bullet. After all I had experienced with this team during the last five years I, for one, wanted to live to see the day when the journey ended and they had at long last reached both the end of their plan and the pinnacle of the sport. David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.