If the shopping mall is the modern-day town square, then the
sprawling Franklin Mills Mall would have been the perfect place
for Eagles fans to offer an apology to their team's best player,
running back Duce Staley. On a recent Saturday afternoon Staley
ventured to the shopping center for a promotion that billed him
as "the No. 1 back in the NFL." (Actually he's fifth in the
league in rushing, with 1,136 yards.) During his hour-long
appearance he signed hundreds of pieces of Eagles paraphernalia
at a table sandwiched between a faux-jewelry store called
Impostors and a confectionery known as the Fudgery. Yet during
that time no one--not the teenager with the foot-high Afro, the
family of five from South Philly, the balding Dairy Queen
manager nor the man in the cashmere coat and loafers--bothered
to utter the words, "Uh, Duce, sorry about all that nonsense
with Ricky Williams."
"An apology?" asks Staley, who is trying to become the first
Eagle to lead the league in rushing since Steve Van Buren in
1949. "From our fans?"
After stepping in for injury-plagued Charlie Garner last season,
Staley--despite a hernia that required a pain-numbing shot
before games and that many weeks kept him in bed until Tuesday
afternoon--started 13 times for a team that finished 3-13. A
1997 third-round pick out of South Carolina working for the
league minimum, Staley led Philadelphia in rushing (1,065 yards)
and receptions (57).
Last April, Eagles fans showed their appreciation for Staley's
courageous effort by demanding that the team draft Williams, the
Heisman Trophy-winning back out of Texas, and booing when Philly
instead used the No. 2 pick to select Syracuse quarterback
Donovan McNabb. Those close to Staley say he felt betrayed by
the campaign for Williams, who even had Philadelphia mayor Ed
Rendell in his corner. "It makes you wonder about people's
football smarts," says one member of the Philly front office.
"Did they think we were going to run the wishbone? Give me a
The Eagles knew what they had in Staley. A month after the draft
they rewarded him with a six-year, $16 million contract
extension, which included a $5 million signing bonus. "Our fans
just had no freakin' clue," says Philadelphia center Steve
Everitt. "They didn't appreciate what they already had. I'd bump
into people, and the first thing they would say is"--here
Everitt assumes the voice of a whiny four-year-old--"'We want
Ricky Williams. You'd better draft Ricky Williams.' I'd jump on
them and say, 'What are you talking about? Have you ever seen
Since the start of the 1998 season the 5'11", 220-pound Staley
leads the NFC with 2,913 yards from scrimmage. This year he has
scored five touchdowns and piled up 1,416 yards from scrimmage,
accounting for an NFL-high 42.6% of his team's offense.
Staley's secret is that he still prepares and plays like a
rookie worried about losing his roster spot. "I do play with a
lot of rage," he says. "I just keep all the whispers that I've
heard about me inside--until the game starts."
Staley was a wide receiver in high school in Columbia, S.C., and
for two years at Itawamba Junior College in Fulton, Miss., before
switching schools and positions in 1994. After rushing for 1,116
yards and earning first-team All-SEC honors as a senior at South
Carolina, Staley made an immediate impact in Philadelphia. As a
rookie in 1997 he ranked fifth in the NFC in kickoff returns with
a 24.2-yard average and finished third on the Eagles in special
teams tackles, with 15.
Staley has been a one-man wrecking crew of late. During a
15-yard run against the Giants on Oct. 31 he dragged linebacker
Ryan Phillips "like a dude riding a dogsled," says Everitt. The
following week Staley, who dedicates each game to a relative to
keep himself motivated and focused, cut loose for 140 rushing
yards against the Panthers. While protecting the pocket in a
35-28 win over the Redskins on Nov. 14, he knocked blitzing
linebacker James Francis off his feet with a vicious forearm
shiver. Washington abandoned its defensive game plan and
switched to an eight-man front, but Staley still gained 122
yards on 28 carries, his fifth 100-yard performance of the season.
Colts defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was so concerned about
Staley before his team's Nov. 21 game at Philadelphia that he
collected clips of the back's best runs and showed the Staley
highlight reel to Colts defenders on the eve of the game. "Duce
Staley is the best-kept secret at running back in the league,"
says Indianapolis president Bill Polian. "He runs so hard, he
works like the devil out there, and he never gives up. He is the
epitome of everything you want your running back to be."
Players in the Colts' defensive huddle repeatedly reminded one
another to swarm Staley, wrap him up and keep going until they
saw him on the ground. Staley still ran for 78 yards on 16
carries. "He just breaks tackle after tackle after tackle," says
Indianapolis defensive end Chad Bratzke. "We clobbered him up
the middle a few times, and he just bounced off and picked up a
bunch of yards." Fangio likens Staley to a young Emmitt Smith.
"What makes him special," says Fangio, "is that Duce runs harder
and plays harder than most of the people on the field." Against
the Cowboys on Sunday, Staley ran for 78 yards, pushing him past
his total of last season.
"When Duce gets going, you can sense he wants the ball," says
first-year Eagles coach Andy Reid. "We do everything we can to
get it to him. We hand it to him. We throw it to him. We jam him
in tight, we split him wide. I worry about using him too much,
but he's like that bunny--he never stops. Then the game ends and
I realize I should have used him more."
Guard David Diaz-Infante, who came to Philadelphia after three
years with the Broncos, sees similarities between Staley and
Terrell Davis, who earned league MVP honors last season after
rushing for 2,008 yards. Both backs maintain their momentum when
they cut in the open field and both get stronger as the game
Staley has a knack for breaking off a big gain just when
everyone else on the field thinks the play is over. "You look
down thinking it's third-and-whatever," says Reid, "and Duce is
standing in the end zone." Teammates who have watched every one
of Staley's games on tape maintain they have yet to see him
tackled by a single defender. "Guys will come crashing up to
tackle him," says Eagles fullback Kevin Turner, "and it's like
Duce is not even paying attention. He's looking up the field at
the next guy he has to run over."
That toughness was nurtured by his mother, Tena. She used to
plant her skinny son, who weighed 75 pounds in the sixth grade
and wore the same size pants for three years as a teenager, in
front of the TV to study one of the NFL's most rugged backs. "I
knew if he was going to survive in this game, he had to be
intense" she says, "so I showed him Walter Payton."
Duce got the message, but now Tena cringes when she watches her
son play. "I find myself yelling, 'Oh, go down, Duce, just go
down!'" she says. "But he gets hit, he bounces back up and busts
his butt on the next play. That's just Duce."
As her son signed autographs that day at Franklin Mills, Tena
shopped for Christmas gifts on the other side of the mall. When
the session was over, security guards were dispatched to help
Duce make his way through the crowd so he could hook up with his
mother. Of course, if you've seen him run with a football, you
can imagine the ease with which he can negotiate mall traffic,
even during the holiday season.
"I don't just want to survive in this game," Staley said as he
maneuvered through the crowd. "I want to pound, pound, pound the
ball and send a message throughout the league every time I run
Reunited near the food court, Tena and Duce shopped some more,
picking up a large contingent of fans along the way. Before
ducking out of the mall through a door near a music store, Duce
turned and waved to his flock. The crowd responded by chanting a
slight variation on what fans had yelled that day last April
when the Eagles passed on the opportunity to draft Williams.
This time, instead of the cheer that made Philadelphia famous,
the fans were screaming, "Duuuuuuuce!"
As apologies go, it wasn't half bad.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS The versatile Staley has accounted for a league-high 42.6% of the Eagles' offense.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Staley's mother taught him to play with intensity by making him study Walter Payton.