The evolution of McMahon: wild to world-weary

JOHN EISENBERG

September 10, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

PHILADELPHIA -- Jim McMahon finally emerged from the shower 55 minutes after the game ended Sunday, slowly crossing the Eagles' locker room with all eyes on him, rubbing the small silver ring in his left ear, a one-man bonfire of style points.

He reached his locker and rooted through his scruffy Chicago Bears duffel bag, passing over the miniature baseball bat and magazines with big-breasted women on the cover. Finding his toothbrush, he continued around a partition, bent over and brushed his teeth in a water fountain.

Then he stood up, stared in a mirror and exhaled, and then, at the end of another day in the league Vince Lombardi once ruled, the quarterback reached behind his neck and braided his pony tail.

Across the hall in an interview room, a group of reporters awaited his words from the mountaintop. Randall Cunningham was elsewhere with his garbled knee, and McMahon suddenly was a starter again for the first time since 1989: too late for the job at a creaking 32, but born again nonetheless.

It is, by unofficial estimate, his fifth NFL incarnation. He was first a young, spunkaholic on a rising Bears team. Then he was a pants-dropping, rebellious-headband-wearing punk icon when the Bears won a Super Bowl. Then: a sour has-been in San Diego. Then: a nowhere man as Cunningham's backup.

But then Cunningham went down 15 minutes into the season, and McMahon was back in the epicenter with his spit and sunglasses and attitude, living Life No. 5 literally for better or worse, an entire season looming with his name on the lineup card, the Eagles without an alternative.

When his relief pitching led the Eagles to a 20-3 win in Green Bay that first week, he stared into a swarm of cameras and gave that crooked, subversive smile that once pushed his autobiography onto the best-seller lists. "Just like I remembered it," he'd said.

Matters were less pleasant Sunday, though. He was harried, inaccurate, got batted around. Before fleeing after the 26-10 loss to the Phoenix Cardinals, his teammates gave their version. The line let Jim down. No quarterback could win running for his life like that.

"Jimmy Mac was a bulldog," Eagles coach Rich Kotite said. "He didn't have time to throw."

There was some truth there, but it was also true that McMahon missed two receivers who were touchdown-in-waiting open, that he was slow on the scramble, that he was far from inspiring and apparently incapable of throwing more than 25 yards with any zip-a-dee-doo.

Of course, to expect weekly magic was to invest in the myth, not the reality. McMahon's real genius was being in the right place at the right time in the mid-'80s, a biker quarterback for the toughest team of the decade, a scene-stealing sideshow on a team that won with an immovable defense.

He never could scramble, had an average arm even before shoulder surgery. Yes, he was gutsy and smart and had a big-play flair, and his many injuries probably kept him from developing fully. But he fell in a hurry once the neon vanished and it was up to him to carry a team. The game is beyond him now, the pace too fast.

The Eagles picked him up because he had some wiles left and could run a team, which is backup fodder, and because Buddy Ryan loved his spiky attitude. McMahon was happy to have the job. Nothing like his rebellious reputation, he revels in the jock atmosphere. He even loves training camp, Kotite says.

As he slowly dressed Sunday, he surely had mixed emotions about crossing the hall to meet the press. His antagonism is legendary -- he once blew his nose on a reporter's shoes -- but it's hard to polish your arrogance when no one is watching. Besides, he craves attention. Why else would he break into a cartwheel running to pick up a kicking tee, as he did last year?

The interview room was packed, reporters stuffed into schoolroom seats, and McMahon appeared wearing a white T-shirt, gray beach pants, flip-flops, purple-tinted sunglasses, a welt and a Rolex on his left wrist and, inexplicably, a passel of colorful neckties thrown over one shoulder.

"What is this, the Super Bowl?" he said to an Eagles aide on his way in.

He gathered his hands together behind his back, put his chest out and kept his eyes fixed on a place high on the opposite wall. The impassive, palace guard stance. The rebel with a Rolex. "C'mon," he said impatiently, "let's go."

And went on to say: "I was pressing a little bit. That shouldn't happen when you've been playing this long."

And: "I took some hard hits today and got up. A lot of people in here probably think I can't take a hit. Look at the film."

And: "There were some big plays I should have made. I didn't, and I can take the heat for that."

Then he was through, moving away from the lectern and down a hall, two security guards close behind, the usual hubbub erupting in his wake. He would sneak outside, find his motorcycle, maybe go soak his bruises at the cop bar he favors. It would all be a terrific show, of course, if they didn't have to play the damn games.

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