Donovan McNabb shook hands with a stranger this week.
That stranger was "doubt."
McNabb, the five-time Pro Bowl quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, never had much use for his new companion until this season. He built his distinguished NFL career around two more familiar colleagues, talent and hard work, and had no use for uncertainty.
But when he looks down, he sees a surgically repaired right knee encased in an ugly and confining brace. When he raises his head, he hears an entire city screaming for his departure. When he's unable to sleep at 2:30 a.m., he wonders if he's reached the two-minute warning of a fabulous career.
Doubt triggered McNabb's playing of the race card this week. He's not sure about his future in Philadelphia, the shelf life of his body or the confidence of his coach Andy Reid.
What's provocative here is that McNabb, the man who guided the Eagles into four NFC title games and one Super Bowl, was right. Black quarterbacks always have been held to a higher standard because they weren't even allowed to be quarterbacks until the last 40 years or so. It's an uncomfortable truth, one that McNabb refused to address publicly until now, a fact that makes all of us squirm in our seat.
But right he was.
I'm positive McNabb's predecessors -- James Harris, Doug Williams, Warren Moon and the rest -- nodded approval this week when he said in an HBO interview, "We (black quarterbacks) have to do a little extra."
There have been times when McNabb did everything, from passing for touchdowns to running for first downs, and it never was enough. Radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh pounded him during his thankfully short tenure on TV. Goodness, even an NAACP official questioned McNabb's playing style. The point was something like, "He stays in the pocket too much and doesn't run with the ball like a black quarterback should."
And that's reason No. 3,531 why we still have a long way to go in race relations.
McNabb's résumé should have rendered him untouchable in Philadelphia. Yes, I understand the City of Brotherly Love loves nothing for long. Its fickle fans have ripped everyone from Santa Claus to Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. Its icon is a mythical street pug named Rocky. It's a great sports city with tough fans who accept winning and nothing else.
But when McNabb surveyed the league, he saw quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning comes to mind -- granted the kind of lenience and patience over the years that he's never experienced. His proof is today's state of affairs. McNabb, who hasn't finished three of his last five seasons due to injuries, is struggling.
The Eagles are 0-2 going into today's game against Detroit. He can't throw or run effectively because of his still-recovering knee. His wide receivers lack the skill to help him. It's instructional to know that McNabb's best season coincided with Terrell Owens' arrival in Philly.
A clue to McNabb's argument can be gleaned from his NFL career.
Remember, he was booed by Eagles fans the very moment his name was announced as the No. 2 pick of the 1999 NFL draft. Still, he kept himself above the fray and developed into one of the league's best players. Only now, he's vulnerable -- 9-13 as a starter the last three years as the fan base remembers how replacement Jeff Garcia (now at Tampa Bay) rallied the Eagles into the playoffs in McNabb's absence.
The conventional wisdom chastised McNabb for the timing of his words, but consider: He turns 31 in November. When is the correct time for airing out something that definitely bothers him? After he's retired?
I disagree with the younger black quarterbacks in the league, especially Vince Young of Tennessee and Jason Campbell of Washington, who seem oblivious to McNabb's plight. Sniffed Young, "It's not my fight."
Wrong. It always will be Young's fight, as it was Joe Gilliam's fight and Marlin Briscoe's fight.
Every quarterback, regardless of race, gets verbally strafed in the NFL. McNabb accepts the everyday baggage that comes with the job but questions the double standard that unfairly shrinks his margin for error.
It's why doubt has crept into his game plan.