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J.A. Adande

Eagle Eyed

Chicago Will Be Watching McNabb Closely as He Returns Home for Game Against His Former Favorite Team

January 18, 2002|J.A. Adande

CHICAGO — There's a photo that has been passed around quite a bit in the football coach's office at Mount Carmel High this week. It was taken the last time Donovan McNabb played a big game at Soldier Field.

The Mount Carmel Caravan had just defeated Bogan, 31-14, to win the Prep Bowl that day in 1993. In the picture, six coaches are standing on the Soldier Field sod. Four players are kneeling in front of them, including McNabb on the right side. And the little third-grader in front, the team's ball boy that year, is Frank Lenti Jr.

Lenti recalls another memory from that day. It's of McNabb, in the midst of everyone else's pregame excitement, lying down on a trainer's table with his helmet on his stomach.

"Just getting a quick rest in," said Lenti, who is now a junior at Mount Carmel. "I know he was excited about it, but he was relaxed."

Some Chicago Bear fans are hoping that McNabb will be so fired up about bringing the Philadelphia Eagles back to his hometown for Saturday's divisional playoff game that the jitters will affect his ability to play quarterback. The folks at Mount Carmel know better.

"Don has a way about him, he's able to loosen up the troops," said Frank Lenti Sr., the head football coach at Mount Carmel for the past 18 years. "He had an act that he used to go into that he'd have everybody in practice cracking up. If we had a week where we had a real big game, or I thought the kids were a little too tight, I'd kind of turn him loose."

McNabb might do impersonations. Or tell jokes. Or break dance. He used to tease Frank Jr. by sending him out for deep patterns, then holding onto the ball.

It was no surprise to Lenti Sr. that the TV cameras caught McNabb dancing his way through drills at Eagle practice this week.

"That's Donovan," he said.

By now, Eagle Coach Andy Reid knows McNabb well enough to know that the pressure of performing in front of family and friends won't get to him.

Like most great quarterbacks, "They kind of thrive on that stuff," Reid said. "Donovan is no different. He's going to enjoy coming back home. I think it can be a positive experience for him--and a positive pressure for him."

"I'm excited," McNabb said. "I think my teammates are excited. I'm not the only one from the Chicagoland area. There's about three or four of us [including fullback Cecil Martin, who went to Evanston Township High, and linebacker Barry Gardner, a Thornton graduate who went to college at Northwestern]. We're excited about the opportunity of going back home and seeing old family and friends and also competing in the legendary Soldier Field."

By Tuesday, McNabb had already heard the questions so often that he had the responses ready.

"Yes, I was a Bears' fan. And yes, I visualized playing with the Bears," McNabb said.

He rooted for the Bears against the Eagles in the teams' last playoff meeting in what has become known as the Fog Bowl. He remembered cheering when Sean Landeta--now his teammate with the Eagles--whiffed on a punt for the New York Giants against the Bears in another playoff game on their way to a Super Bowl XX victory.

"I was excited about the Super Bowl, I was excited years after that, even when they didn't make the playoffs. I just continued to visualize putting that blue and orange jersey on and trying to lead the team to a Super Bowl one day."

The Bears didn't get a high enough draft pick to land McNabb, who went to Philadelphia with the second pick 1999. (The Bears got stuck with Cade McNown). Eagle fans booed McNabb on draft day. Now they celebrate him as much if not more than reigning NBA MVP Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers.

McNabb has been winning converts and proving people wrong since he left Mount Carmel, a school of 800 boys on the South Side that has won eight state football championships under Lenti. While with the Caravan, as part of a stellar athletic career that also put him on the basketball court with future Boston Celtic Antoine Walker, McNabb ran an offense that relied on the run 70% of the time.

"Coming out of high school, some of the quote-unquote talent scouts, the prognosticators, they said he's not a good enough passer to be a Division I quarterback," Lenti Sr. said. "I'd said all along he was more than adequate, he was very good. We just didn't need him to do those things all the time."

By the time McNabb left for Syracuse, some coaches were predicting that he would win a Heisman Trophy. He finished fifth in 1998.

Even when McNabb was booed on draft day, Lenti didn't worry about his prospects.

"I knew eventually he'd win the people over because he's that kind of person," Lenti said. "He's got that kind of personality, that kind of great character."

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