Ten years ago, Dec. 19, 2004, I woke up in an unfamiliar place, an uncomfortable place, not knowing with 100 percent certainty whether or not I’d be able to watch the 12-1 Philadelphia Eagles host their most hated rival, the Dallas Cowboys.
The Eagles were on a roll and many believed Super Bowl-bound, beginning the season with a seven-game winning streak thanks in large part to the offseason additions of wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse. For the first time in his NFL career, Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb had a legit threat on the outside, the most talented wideout he ever lined up with since tossing pigskins to Marvin Harrison at Syracuse. McNabb and Owens put together a truly historic run up until that point in the season, connecting on 75 catches for almost 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns in 13 games heading into the clash with the Cowboys.
The season had been one of joy right from the beginning. Coming off a third straight NFC Championship Game loss, this time to the Carolina Panthers, the Eagles came out blazing. The addition of Owens reignited the fan base, and for the first time in a few years, Eagles fans truly believed.
That belief was validated all season long, and watching Eagles games, the feeling wasn’t one of wondering if the Birds would win, but rather a question of how much they’d win by. This team was that good, and the 12-1 record heading into Week 15 proved as much.
As was customary for me at the time, I had watched each and every Eagles game that season in one of two places: my apartment in State College, Pennsylvania — I was a junior at Penn State — or at my parents’ house in Bucks County.
Only on this day, Dec. 19, 2004, I would not be watching the game with my college roommates or my father, if I was to watch the game at all. Instead, I awoke, as stated, in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place, unsure if I’d even be able to watch the Eagles topple Dallas for a second time on this historic season.
That morning, as I had the previous five mornings, I began my day inside a cinder block cell. Locked up. Ready to work. As part of my sentence — our sentence — my fellow detainees and I were to do some cleaning and some outside work as part of our court-ordered community service.
Luckily, it being a Sunday, we were permitted to sit in front the TV for the 1 p.m. kickoff. It was all very surreal, watching the game with fellow inmates, in uncomfortable chairs in front of a small television. This was the first game in forever that I recall watching in a foreign place and most definitely the first game I ever watched while locked up. With all the turmoil and uncertainty going on in my life at the time, it was the one thing I was looking forward to the most outside of my release date.
Honestly, I don’t recall all the details of the game. I was watching attentively and taking it all in, recalling that the Eagles were controlling the game but could not pull away from Dallas as they did in the previous matchup. Still, with a 12-1 record and the Birds poised to secure their 13th victory of the year, there was never really any panic or even tense moments I remember as the game headed into the third quarter.
But things did not go according to plan from there. On the first drive of the second half, McNabb hit Owens as he so often did that 2004 season, as T.O. scampered some 20 yards downfield. Then, this happened.
In the blink of an eye, the entire season flashed before me. Owens was dragged down from behind by Dallas safety Roy Williams, and he wasn’t getting up. The horse-collar tackle, legal at the time, had broken Owens’ leg. It was so bad, derailing the prolific Philadelphia offense in the process, that the 12-7 victory rang hollow. All that mattered was Owens’ status moving forward … and the prognosis was not good.
I should have known the season was too good to be true. Never before had I had so much fun watching my favorite football team steamroll opponents, McNabb and Owens combining time and time again to become the most prolific QB-WR duo in the NFL. Then everything unraveled. I got locked up. Owens got knocked out. And the Lombardi Trophy that was destined for Philadelphia, finally, was taken away with one tackle, by a Dallas Cowboy no less. The sky was falling … if I could see the sky, anyway.
That hit and that hit alone became the impetus for a rule change, making those horse-collar tackles Williams was known for illegal. A star was wiped out in ultimately a meaningless game, and the Eagles were forced to move on with their season without Owens.
It felt like getting kicked while I was down, watching my hopes and dreams for the Eagles vanish with my freedom.
I watched only one more game while incarcerated before being released, the 13-2 loss at the hands of the St. Louis Rams with the starters resting and the Eagles locked for a bye, and then went on to witness the Eagles rally the troops and go on that run to the Super Bowl.
There was Freddie Mitchell and his great hands coming through against the Minnesota Vikings, and I actually was lucky enough to attend the NFC Championship Game victory against the Michael Vick-led Atlanta Falcons. That weekend, I got snowed in at Widener University, watched Jay Wright’s Villanova squad defeat then No. 1-ranked Kansas on Saturday and then managed to get to the freezing-cold Linc on Sunday to take in the greatest football game I have ever been at in my entire life.
Of course, we all know what happened from there. The Eagles finally got over the NFC Championship Game hump, made it to the Super Bowl and even got Owens back for the big game against the New England Patriots. Of course, with Owens out all postseason before that, the offense was not quite firing on all cylinders, and while Owens was great and heroic in the game, the Eagles could not overcome the Patriots.
You’ll never convince me to this day that the Patriots would have even stood a shot against the Eagles had they had Owens for the entire playoff run. The way Philadelphia was rolling through the league with McNabb and Owens running roughshod on defenses, I don’t think even the great defensive mind of Bill Belichick could have slowed that Eagles offense down — not with Brian Westbrook doing his thing as well.
But we were all robbed of that chance on that cold December day, a day that will forever live in infamy in Philadelphia. Roy Williams took away the best receiver in football on a play that would later become illegal — on a day I was serving my own punishment for an illegal act of my own.
After that day, things would never be the same. Owens lost his damn mind and threw his quarterback under the bus, all because he wanted a new contract. It divided the Eagles’ locker room and eventually led to Owens’ suspension and departure, breaking up the most prolific quarterback-wide receiver combo in Philadelphia history after just one true season together.
First, my freedom was taken away due to my own actions. Then, Roy Williams took away the one thing that was keeping me going.
It changed the makeup of the Eagles franchise, and it changed the makeup of my life all at the same time.
Ten years later, a lot has changed. Owens and Williams are long gone from the league, but their impact will last forever. The birth of the horse collar was also the death of a potential dynasty — or at least a potential champion. A decade later, I still feel the effects every single day. I may have been the felon, but it was Roy Williams who got away scot-free with grand larceny, snatching away the hopes and dreams of Eagles fans everywhere, even if his doings would be punished later on in life.