At age 11, the younger McNabb son showed promise on the athletic field. His coach in the Dolton Boys Baseball League asked Wilma McNabb if her little boy could play football.
“No way,” she told him. Donovan was too small and slight. Sean had started to fill out and was playing tackle.
“I didn’t want Don to get hurt,” she says. “The coach kept coming around. I finally gave in.”
Donovan started tossing footballs in organized games at age 12. But he always played more than one sport. He would compete with anyone at any game.
“Don had the natural ability to emulate what he saw,” his father says.
Sports became his way to break barriers with the neighborhood kids in Dolton. Any game, any court, any time. Sean remembers Donovan playing street hockey with the neighbors.
They called Donovan “Little Sean,” much to Donovan’s chagrin.
“I’m going to make a name for myself,” he said to his parents.
“What are you going to do about it?” his father asked.
“I’m going to be the best basketball and football player in the family. And I’m not going to Sean’s high school.”
Sean went to St. Francis de Sales; Donovan chose Mount Carmel—after he was recruited by football coach Frank Lenti.
Mount Carmel is in high gear the day I visit Coach Lenti. The gym in a new athletic facility teems with boys attending summer basketball camp. The Carmelite school near Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side is one of 40 high schools in the Catholic diocese that give kids of all races and classes a boost in academics and athletics.
A big poster of 17-year-old Donovan McNabb looks down on the basketball court: 1994 Hall of Fame.
“We recognized early on that Donovan was gifted,” says Lenti, who grew up not far from Mount Carmel and has been coaching there for 26 years. He’s taken his football teams to 28 state-title games and won 9.
“He was a long and wiry kid, but you could see the potential once he put on a little muscle,” he says. “We thought he might vie for the Heisman Trophy one day.”
Lenti recalls an Illinois state playoff game when McNabb dropped back to pass and was about to be sacked by two tacklers. “Somehow he jumped to avoid them, emerged from the pile, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown. It looked like trick photography.”
Lenti saw the kid’s value beyond throwing and running.
“I would tell him, ‘I need you to loosen the troops up,’ ” says Lenti. “He was very good at it, even if it meant impersonating the coach. Don always had a jovial side.”