GLEN ROSE, Texas _ Far away from the oil players and the natural gas speculators, in the bountiful arid brush that bullies the horizon in every direction, somewhere between the Texas pricklypear and the Mexican persimmon, the tasajillo kidneywood and the hairy woollygrass, the quarterback and the rattlesnake were bound to meet.
You might say it was destiny. Kismet.
The quarterback was 17-years old at the time and chasing a deer with the girl who would later become his wife. The deer had stopped and so the couple stood so very quiet and still a few yards away watching with gentle curiosity. They flashed wide eyes to one another and the animal seemed to meet their gaze. In the late afternoon of a late summer day, they shared a moment, the deer, the quarterback and the girl who would later become his wife, until the ground in between them suddenly began to move. The deer sprinted away in silence, leaving only the sound of cicadas.
Sometimes it really is just the song of insects or the wind rustling through a pile of dry leaves. The quarterback, however, knew otherwise. Call it outdoors instinct. He had spent his childhood wayfaring the hinterland of Central Texas, from sunup to supper call and back out when there was no school or football practice. For a bit, his father rented a foreman’s house on a ranch that spilled a good 600 acres and the family had the run of it. So he knew to scoop behind him the girl who would later become his wife as the rattlesnake rose from a dusty cover into striking position. The spade-shaped head and the face emblazoned with black stripes that run diagonally, like Zorro’s mask, and the half-inch fangs identified a western diamondback, which feeds on prairie dogs, gophers and chipmunks and bites more people than any other venomous snake in the United States. It was quite big – five feet long, the quarterback quickly estimated, knowing that a rattlesnake strikes one-third to half its body length – and it angrily hissed at them. And then he remembered something he saw on the Discovery Channel.
The quarterback slipped off one of his boots – this is why real outdoorsmen wear them – attached it to the end of a stick that he picked from the ground and dangled it in front of the hissing western diamondback. The rattlesnake struck the boot. The boot danced and the snake struck again. And again. Nearly ten times the snake struck the boot. Until finally the snake recoiled and lay lifeless on the ground. What do you know? It worked. That show on the Discovery Channel reported that a rattlesnake will play dead when prey doesn’t fall victim to its spectacular bite.
So the quarterback reached down and plucked the rattlesnake by its neck and held it out. With his other hand, he retrieved the .38 caliber handgun fastened to his hip and fired a round into the rattler’s head. He then used his favorite pocketknife to cut off the rattles. Thirteen of them!
They were his prize of valor and the antidote to the old Cherokee legend that says he who kills a rattlesnake will soon see others; and should he kill a second one, so many will encircle him whichever he may turn that he will become dazed at the sight of their glistening eyes and darting tongues and will go wandering about like a crazy man, unable to find his way out of the woods.
“Like a rabbit’s foot,” the quarterback would say later, “their rattles are good luck.”
Kevin Kolb relays the story of the quarterback and the rattlesnake while standing on the bow of his Skeeter fishing boat, a sweet water ride more befitting at first blush for South Beach waverunning until he shows you the Hummingbird fish finder with high def transducer, temperature probes, GPS antenna and interlink system that turns fishing into catching. The company with the slogan “Eat. Sleep. Fish” gives Kolb a new boat every year because he’s a legitimate largemouth bass fisherman and an all-around outdoorsman who happens to be an NFL quarterback – correction – now a starting NFL quarterback.
If you don’t know of him, you will. (A little juicy nugget for you fantasy freaks to file away before your draft: A former scout by the name of Dave Razzano – who worked for three different teams that made it to five Super Bowls over 22 years – predicts Kolb will throw 30 to 35 touchdown passes this season. By comparison, Donovan McNabb slung 22 last year.)
Speaking of Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb (pronounced cob), as in the ancient fireproof building material that consists of clay, sand, straw, water and earth; or as in “corn on the”, is the reason the Philadelphia Eagles shipped the franchise quarterback to Washington. Kevin Kolb is Aaron Rodgers. After three seasons as an understudy, Kolb could no longer learn anything more by watching from the sidelines from under a ballcap. Meanwhile, Kolb’s rookie contract was expiring, McNabb was growing older, the story of the “Donovan McNabb Philadelphia Eagles” was growing even older, and the landscape of the team was growing younger. The team’s choice wasn’t as difficult as you might think.
Out of respect for McNabb’s highly successful tenure in which he accomplished everything possible for a quarterback except win a ring, going 1-4 in championship games and 0-1 in the Super Bowl (and a little poker strategy by Any Reid and new general manager Howie Roseman), the Eagles portrayed the decision as angst-filled when the truth is they were trying to move him for much of the offseason. There were just no takers at the team’s asking price of a first-round draft pick for McNabb, who at 33 was five years younger than Brett Favre when the Packers traded him to the Jets. Finally, on April 5, the Eagles settled for a second-rounder in 2010 and a fourth-rounder in 2011 from the division-rival Redskins. Herein lies the biggest difference with the Favre trade. Knowing the Vikings lusted after Favre, Green Bay opted for less in return and moved him to the AFC. The team also inserted a poison pill so the Jets couldn’t turn around and flip Favre to a team inside the division, or risk surrendering three first-round draft picks. That provision also prevented any potential third team from sending him to the NFC North. It took Favre retiring and unretiring for him to land in Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Eagles openly embraced the notion of facing their guy twice a season, which says oodles about Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb.
The stars begin to fade as the night sky over Central Texas thaws incrementally moving forward from the east, the precursor to daybreak. As we leave the center of town, not far from where Kevin Kolb lives in the offseason with his wife and two daughters, it is still terribly warm, the temperature in the upper 80s before the sun even arrives with its late June might.
Located 54 miles from Dallas-Fort Worth, Glen Rose was once a trading post along the Paluxy River, near Comanche Peak, and officially became a town in 1859 when a federal Indian reservation was abolished. By the 1900s, the area’s natural springs had brought forth healers and witch doctors and snake-oil salesmen, but the real potions arrived later with Prohibition. Whiskey in the woods, the bootleggers boasted of Glen Rose during its rise to a Texas moonshine capital. To keep afloat during the Great Depression, townspeople also sold dinosaur fossils from what is now Dinosaur Valley State Park. Most of the fossils dated back to the Jurassic Period, while some others might have been created from recently deceased relatives.
Rural land quickly spills outside Glen Rose, and Kolb, driving his black pickup, boat in tow, opts to enter the property of the Ten Triple X Ranch further down from the lakes that we’re fishing because old Joe Mitchell’s road is a much better drive. Joe Mitchell made his fortune by pioneering the dial around long distance business – allowing customers to get discounted long distance rates by dialing 10-10 plus an access code. Cell phones soon arrived and Mitchell bought this 8,500-acre ranch, an outdoorsman’s paradise featuring several lakes and spring-fed creeks that are home to bass, striper and catfish, and rolling hills that offer the likes of elk, whitetail deer, fallow deer, black buck antelope, Corsican rams, Spanish goats, buffalo and turkey.
The sky lightens just after 5 a.m., and you can see animals rollick on the side of the road. “Look,” Kolb points. “There.”
An antelope buck chases a doe.
“This time of the year,” he explains, “the bucks usually run together. Then when mating season begins, they start fighting each other. Sound familiar?”
Kolb likes to talk wildlife. He likes to explain wildlife, especially to the cityfolk whose only encounter with green is the leaf of basil in the red sauce and the grass that grows between the cracks of the sidewalk. He explains like a quarterback. He explains like a quarterback who’s the son of a coach.
He’s explaining wild hog hunting now. How it’s tradition here because the hogs destroy the crops. How you send out your American bulldogs to track the hogs and they’ll bay when they have one encircled and then you haul ass in your truck to find them. How to take the hog down, you need to carefully get behind it and grab its hind legs, flip it over and stab it in the heart. He said he hasn’t hunted hogs since he’s been in the league but recalls the time one scared the devil out of him. See, you have to know these pigs aren’t lovable pigs nicknamed Babe. They’re mean, aggressive, snorting razorbacks, the kind of swine the meth dealers put in a pit because they eat through bones. And that one time, he went to snatch one’s back legs and his dog let go and so he let go and got all turned around and he looked back and the fanged pig headed full speed for him. The pig was two feet in front of him when his dog recovered and detained it. “They’re really good eating,” Kolb says. “Very tasty.”
Kolb backs the trailer to the edge of the water, and suggests I wait on the makeshift dock. Wearing Nike sandals, he hops out and in moments, without need of any help, has the boat running on the lake. The sun peeks from above the horizon, and the water glistens from an early morning bath of light. The sky has a bluish-purple hue. I look down at my cell phone. I can’t get service on the sprawling ranch long distance built.
“Isn’t it just perfect?” Kolb remarks, happy the moment is not lost on me. He retrieves several elaborate fishing rods from a floor compartment and toys with them. He gets his rods and reels for free, too, because he’s a largemouth bass fisherman who just happens to be a starting NFL quarterback. He inspects a shorter rod and nods, “Since you have no experience, you’re going to use a ladies’ one, OK?”
Kevin Kolb casts like a quarterback. The reel begins from behind his ear and arcs high in the air until it dips softly into the water creating a small ripple. From day one, dating back to the seventh grade, he was a quarterback.
Kevin Kolb was raised to be a football hero and with all due respect to the other positions in the sport that have gained popularity throughout the years, I do believe a plot by the agents, only a quarterback can be a football hero in the lyrical meaning of the term. Backs don’t run in this game the way they used to, even down at junior high where it’s not uncommon in Texas to feature over 100 different pass plays in the gameplan, and runners, like receivers, who are intrinsically selfish, bearing the temperament and perpetual frown and aloofness of show cats, can never be leaders, and that is a football hero prerequisite. Defensive players hunt and thrive in packs. They are emotionally unrestrained, way too primal for that title. See, a football hero must offer the depth to have a backstory and the intelligence to understand one. He must play the martyr and the general, conquer circumstances and vanquish foes. Here in the bible-thumping land of “Friday Night Lights”, the gospel is always literal, especially when your father is a coach. Though there was that brief time when dad suggested he focus some on baseball because he feared a lack of size for his son – dad being 5-foot-11 and mom 5-foot-5 – Kevin Kolb most assuredly would be a quarterback.
How do you raise a quarterback? You begin with the innards. You rid that inherent wish we all have to blend into the group and force him to take a footstep out in front where it’s lonely and cold and implore him to speak.
In Kolb’s case, his father employed him a messenger to his team. Deliver his orders. Tell them to fall out on the field for practice. Tell them that work today would take place in shells. Tell them whatever for the pure sake of telling them, is what his father did, and so Kolb recalls that childhood moment when his innards toughened into tire rubber. He was in fourth grade, while most of the players on his dad’s team were in eighth grade, and there was this one kid who rode him harder than the rest. He teased the coach’s son into tears because he could. Because fourth grade to eighth grade might as well be cub to lion. Because it was a good way to get back at the coach for being the coach and barking like a coach. Surely, the coach knew, and equally sure, the coach knew that he couldn’t fight the future quarterback’s battles. He would have to have to wait for his son to say enough.
And so there was this one time that one kid rode young Kevin Kolb extra hard, and Kolb challenged him to a tug of war with the bath towel wrapped in electrical tape the team sometimes used and Kolb beat him. And Kolb was so emotionally charged, brimming with fear-breaking sick and tired, that he then beat that one kid with the towel wrapped in electrical tape into submission, whipping him to the ground.
“I beat him until they had to pull me off him,” Kolb spits. “They were like, `Kevin … stop!’ Stop! Kevin, stop!’ That kid was a little punk. I was never going to let that happen to me again. I was never going to let anyone make me feel that way again and I never did.”
That day young Kevin Kolb gave future Kevin Kolb the gift of fortitude, essential for a football hero at the highest level. Consider how harrowing for the quarterback that raw, wind-swept day in Baltimore the weekend before Thanksgiving in 2008. The Eagles’ offense had sputtered in the first half against the unrelenting pressure of one of the league’s best defenses, and Donovan McNabb was throwing worm balls again. That was thing with McNabb. As spectacular as he could be at times, he’d encounter these spells of horrific accuracy. McNabb has a howitzer arm and during these moments that usually occur when he is under duress, the ball sprays out like a shotgun blast. Sometimes it sails wild high, sometimes it skips off the ground like a rock skimming a glassy pond.
Now these spells could last anywhere from a half to three games, given McNabb’s streaky nature, and often spelled a crisis of confidence. His puffed demeanor would deflate, and he would begin to mope. Well the postseason was looking bleak for the Eagles that year and frustration from all those years of almost was becoming intolerance and the unthinkable call occurred at halftime.
Kolb admits now that he was incredibly surprised. And overwhelmed. McNabb had never been benched before and here he was suddenly subbing for a perennial Pro Bowler against a most treacherous defense, with the game hardly a blowout. The Eagles trailed by only three and were due the second-half kick. A second-year man at the time, Kolb had only made a handful of throws in a real game and hadn’t at all practiced with ones. He was spinach green.
Kolb picked up a first down on his first drive and everything after that was a terrible blur. Like a man in freefall, the game whizzed at him – and soon by him. The pass that introduced Kolb to Philadelphia occurred midway through the fourth quarter and followed his first real sustained drive as an NFL quarterback. Suddenly he started to feel comfortable. He hit DeSean Jackson in the flat for 15 and found him again on a quick out for 11 and found him two more times for big gains and then his tight end over the middle and soon he had marched 69 yards to the Baltimore 1. Following a failed sneak attempt, Kolb dropped back play action and he just never saw Ravens super safety Ed Reed. Few do, especially in that situation, so close to the end zone, with all the room of a rowhouse. Reed snatched the throw and returned it 108 yards for a touchdown the other way.
“I’m still sick over my decision there,” he says. “No excuse.”
Kolb makes a face. He acts like the play just happened. Meanwhile, we float in the middle of Lake Mitchell and his line is in the water and he has since played in two more games, enjoying considerably more success. With McNabb down early, Kolb made his first NFL start last September 20, against the eventual Super Bowl Saints, and threw for 391 yards and in a sloppy 48-22 loss. Though his stats were certainly inflated and he was picked off three times, including another one that went back the other way for a long touchdown, 97 yards by Darren Sharper, he showed progress. And the following week, during a 34-14 victory over the Chiefs, he played flawlessly, slowing the game further, working calmly through his progressions, making the right reads. He threw for another 327 yards and two touchdowns, winning the NFL Offensive Player of the Week award and becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards in each of his first two career starts.
This is why that scout Dave Razzano projects Kolb to have such lofty numbers in 2010. “I think he’s got all the attributes,” he says. “He’s been successful his whole life. He’s the son of a coach. He was born with a ball in his hand. I compare him to Aaron Rodgers. Last year Rodgers had 30 touchdowns and 7 picks. I can see Kolb throwing for close to that number. Maybe a few more picks, but he wasn’t a big interception guy in college. The more he plays, the better he will get.”
How do you raise a quarterback? After the innards, you move to the head. And here is the crapshoot. Here, Razzano says, and you can just see him and all of the other scouts and general managers and coaches stab frantically at their noggin.
“The longer you do this,” he rants, “the more you realize that about 70 percent of quarterback is from the neck up and all of the Jamarcus Russells and Kyle Bollers and Rex Grossmans and Cade McNowns and all these guys that don’t pan out, they all have one thing in common: They’re all goofballs, both on and off the field. You know these guys that eat it, breathe it, sleep it? These are the guys that you want.”
Like Drew Brees. Texas Drew. Kevin Kolb loves Drew Brees the way the prep players at Kolb’s old Stephenville High love him and love his old backup at Stephenville, Jevon Snead. Seriously, the preppers followed Jevon Snead at Ole Miss last year the way they followed Brees and Kolb. It’s a Football Texas thing. It’s why Kolb says they have everything at Stephenville High that they do in Philadelphia, down to the pregame inflatable helmet. “I ran out of that thing from when I was a freshman in high school,” he says. “Heck, we had four or five guys whose job it was to take care of that stuff. We had an outsourced training staff, with training tables. They’d tape you up before the game.”
So if Kolb could be anyone in the NFL he chooses Brees. It’s why Purdue recruited Kolb coming out of Stephenville High and why he thought about going there. And now Brees is a champion and Kolb believes it’s because of his competitiveness and Texas drive. What would Drew do? Drew would study and watch film until he had cottonmouth from staying up so late and bust it in practice and Kolb can darn well relate because that’s how coach’s kids approach the game. And so there was this one time, according to one eyewitness, in which backup quarterback A.J. Feeley admonished Kolb for busting it too hard in practice because McNabb wasn’t and therefore Feeley wouldn’t and therefore Kolb was showing them up in front of the coaches and Kolb refused to bend. He just shrugged and moved on.
Meanwhile, one former Eagle said that McNabb felt threatened by Kolb the moment the team drafted him with its top pick (a high second-rounder) in 2007. At the time, McNabb felt that the team had bigger needs than drafting his heir apparent, and who could blame him? The Eagles were his team. He won all of those playoff games.
Herein lies the great contradiction of the Beautiful Sport. For McNabb, drafting a future quarterback was a breach of loyalty, even though he had suffered two serious injuries in the previous three seasons. McNabb’s former right tackle, Jon Runyan, once told me that he would never groom a young player to take his job. “Why in your right mind would you do that?” he said.
And in hindsight, McNabb was right. Kolb, in effect, took his job — or at least his spot in his town. It ended just so badly, with back to back awful losses to the hated Cowboys — one to end the regular season, the other in the playoffs. Afterwards, the young players on the team felt McNabb unfairly blamed them for the loss, most notably star wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
For two and a half months, with three quarterbacks on the roster, the Eagles became a dateline for rumormongering. Would the Eagles really consider moving McNabb? Or would they trade Michael Vick? Or would they dare part with Kolb? Of the three, he garnered the most value. Three years ago, when former Eagles GM Tom Heckert, now with the Browns, toyed with taking a post with the Falcons, pre-Matt Ryan, he said he would have traded for Kolb. “Whatever Andy wanted, I would have given him,” Heckert said at the time. “A one (draft pick), a two … two ones. No joke. Kolb is legit.”
The former player also said one of the reasons McNabb embraced Michael Vick so much last season was to block Kolb further down the depth chart and that McNabb texted Vick during the recent round of OTAs and asked about Kolb’s progress in the middle of the conversation. For the datebook, McNabb returns to Philadelphia on October 3.
Meanwhile, Kolb shrugs that McNabb was nothing but helpful during their time together. “He is a great player,” he says. “I learned a lot from him and he leaves some pretty big shoes to fill.”
And that is certainly true. Under Kolb, the Eagles will definitely look different in 2010, running more of a true West Coast offense. McNabb had the big arm. He could throw it a mile down the field or wait until he spotted color and fire away. Buying time to throw, he held the ball to make the big play. Kolb, conversely, will get the ball out and throw to spots. He’ll rely on touch and feather it into a mousehole.
Kolb will have a luxury that McNabb didn’t for much of his career in Philadelphia: a tandem of playmaking wide receivers in Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. A bitty blazer, Jackson glides more than runs, finding open space like a pioneer. He’s a coverage roller, an angle buster and ankle breaker, and he does it with flare and blare. Slightly bigger in stature, Maclin was a slot man at Missouri and plays the opposite on the outside in that his speed is quiet and he appears all hands.
“We’re young and we’ll grow together,” Kolb says. “As a quarterback, it’s about getting the guys around you to believe.”
Somewhere in Lake Mitchell there is a bull snake and the quarterback hankers for it, if only to frighten the cityfolk. Apparently the bull snake offers the width of a slinky and will wrap the length of the tree that peeks from above the waterline in the part of the lake that dips down twelve feet. Apparently, a bull snake can mimic the sound of a rattler, but is not poisonous. Kolb says it’s a friend because it feeds on rodents and lizards.
Right, it’s my friend?
He wants you to embrace his world. While he refuses to mix fishing and hunting in Philadelphia – because he wants it be all business there, the way coach’s sons think – he will wind up back here someday for good. Long after what he hopes is the wildly successful career of pro football hero, he wants to work his own ranch like Joe Mitchell.
Kolb is back to explaining fish again. How they seek the cooler water. The last fish he caught he said felt hot. “Look at it. It’s not healthy. They don’t want to eat when the water is this hot. They’re not aggressive. They don’t want to work for their food.”
Just then, Kolb’s line begins to pull. He’s already caught thirty-some bass. He’s looking for a large one, what he calls a lunker, what he also calls a “biggin.” The biggest one he’s ever caught was 12 pounds, 6 ounces, angling with Jaguars safety Sean Considine. He boasts that it happened in 25-degree weather because only serious fishermen fish on days like that. He’s fished many bass tournaments now. He finished in the top 5 now five times and has even won one. At one in Mexico, there were 288 boats and he came in 17th.
“I’m gonna chunk it back down to that grass line,” Kolb illustrates. “Gosh-doggit…gonna let him suck it down.”
In a moment, Kevin Kolb will reel in another one and Ronnie the Ranchhand will stop by the edge of the water and congratulate him.
“By the way,” Ronnie asks, “you see that bull snake?”
The quarterback shakes his head. He’s still looking for it. But he’s close.
Anthony L. Gargano’s third book NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football is due out this fall.