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Great Expectations
Comments () | Published August 19, 2010

Too jovial, at times, for Sam and Wilma McNabb.

Sean McNabb played the alto sax; Donovan chose the cornet. The McNabbs rented the cornet. Their son dutifully carried it to and from school; his parents figured he was playing in the band.

The school sent notes home alerting parents to a band concert.

“We went to the concert,” says Wilma McNabb. “We sat down, the students filed onto the stage, we couldn’t wait to see Donovan. We kept looking. We listened to the first piece. No Donovan.”

They found him at home, his cornet in its case by his side.

“Why weren’t you at the concert?” Sam asked.

“What concert?” Donovan said. “I guess they didn’t tell me.”

“I guess you better tell us the truth,” his father said.

Donovan had made a trade with the school janitor: If he helped clean the gym, the janitor would play hoops with him. The McNabbs ordered their son to hang up his basketball shoes for six months, and they returned the cornet.

“Don had a mischievous side,” says Wilma. “He was always trying to be the comedian to get out of chores. He could be a bit lazy, too.”

So Sam McNabb would rustle him awake very early in the morning to complete his chores.

Sean McNabb says he found the key to success at an early age: “If you do what you’re asked, you get what you want.”

Donovan says Sean was his idol, but he didn’t adhere to that motto.

“I did have a lot of lip,” Donovan admits.

College recruiters started knocking on the McNabbs’ door when Donovan was a junior.

“Quite entertaining,” Sam McNabb recalls. One day he picked up the phone and the caller said, “Hi, Sam, this is Tom. Guys from the other coast there?”

Tom as in Tom Osborne, then the coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The school from the other coast was Syracuse, where Mount Carmel coach Lenti had connections to the coaching staff. They ran similar offensive systems.

Donovan was a versatile athlete, and he could have played basketball or many positions on the football field. But he wanted to play quarterback.

At least three colleges—Illinois, Georgia, and Minnesota—told him that the quarterback spot wasn’t open to him. He could be a receiver or a running back. Race never came up in the discussions, but it seemed clear that the schools didn’t want an African-American calling the plays.

“Who wants to play running back when you’ve been playing quarterback?” McNabb says. “And playing it well. That’s what I was meant to play.”

McNabb accepted the offer from Syracuse. It was known for its communications program, and McNabb hoped to become a broadcaster.

“And,” says Wilma McNabb, “it had a history of playing black quarterbacks.”But by all accounts, he lost most of his lip at Mount Carmel. His father worked security at the basketball games.

Says Lenti: “Sam would always be there if we weren’t to take care of any foolishness.”

Says Wilma: “He did have to pipe down.”

“Mount Carmel challenged me in so many ways,” Donovan says. “Academically and athletically. I learned to set goals. I worked hard. I earned a scholarship.”

The McNabbs added family financial rewards. They paid Donovan $5 for every touchdown he scored. They made him go to summer school but sweetened the deal by paying him for top grades.

“I’d say that plan worked out,” says Wilma.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 08/19/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles