Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in Bleacher Report's series on NFL urban legends. Part 1 looked at Bo Jackson's hard-to-believe 40-yard-dash time, Part 2 at Ray Guy's purported helium-aided punts, Part 3 at the NFL's first 1,000-yard season.
No city has a more complex relationship with its sports heroes than Philadelphia. And few sports heroes felt the brunt of that brotherly love/hate relationship as heavily as Donovan McNabb.
Back in 2004, McNabb was feeling nothing but love. His Eagles were by far the best team in the NFC, and with the help of Terrell Owens, McNabb brought the Eagles back to the Super Bowl for the first time in a quarter century. But everything went wrong in the fourth quarter of that Super Bowl against the Patriots.
In the weeks that followed the loss, a rumor began growing and taking on its own life, becoming a full-bore urban legend that turned a disappointing-but-hard-fought near-miss into a case of a quarterback who couldn't toss passes because he was too busy tossing cookies.
The story of the Super Puke is a great sports urban legend in a city full of them. People will talk about booing Santa Claus as if it happened two years ago (it occurred during the LBJ administration—and not the way you think) until I have great-grandchildren, and Philly fans will swear they saw McNabb vomit all over the field in Super Bowl XXXIX, just before some game-killing interception, until we are all too old to remember anything else.
But did it really happen? How well do we really remember that 2005 Super Bowl?
The legend: Donovan McNabb threw up in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX, either due to jitters or poor conditioning, and the incident had a major impact on the Eagles' 24-21 loss to the Patriots.
What we know: First of all, no one saw McNabb throwing up on television. I own a DVD of the game, watched it several times: No McNabb puking.
Don't take my word for it. Search YouTube. Nothing. Search Google. In this era of GIFs, surely it must be easy to find one of a quarterback vomiting during the 2005 Super Bowl. Nope.
You will find McNabb throwing up at the line of scrimmage against the Buccaneers on a 90-degree day in 2006, but that video is actually solid evidence against the Super Puke: If vomit video from an ordinary midseason game exists, why doesn't any exist for the same thing happening during the Super Bowl?
Second, the details surrounding the alleged puking have become hazy to the point of fabrication. McNabb did not doom the Eagles by throwing up during a key drive. The alleged incident took place immediately before McNabb threw a first-down pass on 3rd-and-10 and five plays before he threw a 30-yard touchdown pass that, after an extra point, cut the Patriots lead to three.
So yes, this urban legend is all about a quarterback's inability to lead his team back from a double-digit deficit against one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history with four minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
Now, something did happen with about three minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Just what happened may depend on your exact definition of "vomiting." Like any great Philly sports urban legend, this one involves just what was discharged from the superstar's mouth—and why.
This 2010 article by Peter Mucha from the Philadelphia Inquirer details the events well. To recap the details of that drive:
McNabb was chased from the pocket and thrown to the ground by Jarvis Green after throwing an incomplete pass to Owens on first down.
McNabb and center Hank Fraley had difficulty with the exchange on 2nd-and-10. McNabb collected the ball and lunged forward for no gain, getting hit hard in the back by Tedy Bruschi.
After two straight big hits, the Eagles huddled and needed 33 seconds to get off their next play, a first-down pass to Freddie Mitchell.
This is when the alleged puking happened.
Here are some of the things players said in the weeks and months following the Super Bowl:
Fraley on Comcast SportsNet's Angelo Cataldi Show the day after the game:
He gave it his all. He was almost puking in the huddle. One play had to be called by Freddie Mitchell because Donovan was mumbling because he was almost puking.
Mitchell to Mucha a couple of days later (note that Mitchell was a notorious loose talker who would later earn a reputation as a source of juicy Eagles gossip when his star luster faded):
You could see that he was dealing with some kind of complication. ... I don't know if it was breathing or what. ... He always coughs a lot, trying to get something out. ... I don't think he was physically hurt.
McNabb himself in a 2010 GQ interview:
I got hit and dumped on my face a couple of times. ... We lost [wide receiver] Todd Pinkston. ... We all were gassed, and there were a couple of times in the game where I got hit either by Bruschi or by [defensive end Richard] Seymour, I had grass in my helmet and maybe I lost my wind a little bit, but nothing to the point where I would come out of the game.
After the Mitchell completion, McNabb can be seen coughing on the television feed. The Eagles again huddled in a no-huddle situation, taking 35 seconds off the clock. McNabb said in GQ there was confusion about who was in the game at wide receiver, with Pinkston injured and Owens less than 100 percent due to a late-season injury, and that slowed the offense down. (He also denies that Mitchell called a play, though several players have stated over the years McNabb sometimes coughed his way through play calls.)
McNabb threw an incomplete pass after the huddle, then a 13-yard completion to Brian Westbrook, then a touchdown to Greg Lewis after the two-minute warning. Unfortunately for the Eagles, an onside kick attempt failed, they burned their final timeouts during a Patriots three-and-out of clock-burner plays and McNabb's last gasp (pun intended, maybe?) started at the 4-yard line with 46 seconds left against one of the best defenses the Patriots ever fielded.
Note that Fraley's next-day comments paint McNabb heroically, like a boxer staggering to his feet after a pair of wicked blows. Over the years, the story rewrote itself. The Bruschi and Green hits were omitted, as were the first-down and touchdown passes.
A lot happened to McNabb's reputation in the months after that Super Bowl loss. Owens engaged in a bitter and ridiculous contract dispute—the infamous "driveway press conference" incident—and took several not-so-veiled shots at McNabb, including saying, in an interview with ESPN, "I'm not the one who got tired in the Super Bowl."
Note that Owens, never known for restraint, did not claim McNabb threw up in the Super Bowl. He did, however, recast the hacking-coughing story as a tale of bad conditioning, not of trying to survive a series of big hits.
McNabb's popularity in Philadelphia fell, and several local radio personalities embarked on a quarterback-bashing campaign that went on for five long seasons. McNabb's Eagles career began with a chorus of boos from misinformed talk-radio disciples—the "Eagles fans who booed Donovan McNabb" at the 1999 draft all travelled in one radio-sponsored bus—and ended with a half-decade of the same.
A few years after the Super Bowl, saying anything positive about McNabb was almost controversial, and the "fact" he vomited down the front of his own jersey on national television to cost the Eagles a Super Bowl was proof positive of just how terrible he was.
Even GQ noticed the absurdity. "In Philadelphia, the two-eyed man is king because everyone else is bat-s--t crazy," Stephen Rodrick wrote. "McNabb's major malfunction was his sanity."
In the last few years, Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard and fullback Jon Ritchie have asserted that McNabb threw up in Super Bowl XXXIX. Sheppard said in a 2013 interview on SportsRadio WIP (via philly.com) the event was "subtle" and happened when he was walking to the line of scrimmage. Ritchie said on WIP (via philly.com), "It looked that way," and McNabb often threw up before games, which is not that unusual for an athlete. "Some guys have those nervous stomachs," he said.
Both Sheppard (defensive player) and Ritchie (injured reserve) were on the sideline during that fateful drive. Both were also talking years after the fact on sports radio stations, still trying to drum up attention by talking about the Super Puke.
Sheppard appeared to be speaking about the coughing fit that was visible on television. Ritchie was speaking about pregame vomiting. The radio host never asked him to clarify whether McNabb threw up before the Super Bowl or during the fourth-quarter drive, but then you should never ask a question if you don't want to know the real answer.
In summary, we know the Eagles lost, McNabb was hacking and coughing after a pair of big hits in a critical late drive, and there is zero evidence—no video, no firsthand accounts, not even a withering comment from an attention-seeking Owens—McNabb "threw up" in the way most of us would understand throwing up.
All we have is a possibly intentional misremembrance of an event, some talk-radio comedians with a decade of airtime to fill and lots of word of mouth that got garbled over the years. Then again, those things practically make up the exact definition of an "urban legend."
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Reports referenced in the series were accessed through NewsLibrary.com, Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com. Links to those sources have been provided where possible.