Jeremiah Trotter thought his football career was over.
He was only 27, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, a player who helped the Eagles climb from the NFC East basement to contenders, but in 2004, he found himself without a team and maybe without a future.
He left the Eagles in a bitter contract dispute following the 2001 season. He signed with Washington for big money but soon realized it was a mistake. Those were the Steve Spurrier years in Washington and it was chaos at Redskins Park. Then Trotter suffered a knee injury and when Joe Gibbs replaced Spurrier as head coach, he released Trotter to clear salary cap space.
"I wasn't sure what to do," Trotter says. "I still wanted to play but things didn't go well in Washington and now I had this knee injury. It hurt to think it might be over."
So, Trotter went back to the future calling Andy Reid, the coach who gave him his start in Philadelphia then feuded with him on his way out the door. "He cooked his goose," Reid famously said of Trotter during the contract battle that finally ended with Eagles lifting the franchise tag to make the linebacker an unrestricted free agent.
"We had patched things up," Trotter says. "Andy called when I hurt my knee (in Washington). My wife (Tammi) said, 'Andy's on the phone.' I said, 'Andy who?' I didn't think it would be Coach Reid but it was. He said, 'Trot, I just want you to know I was thinking about you. How are you doing?' It was nice of him to reach out like that. We had a good talk and put the past behind us."
So, when Trotter found himself without a team, he called Reid who was on vacation with his family. He told the coach he wanted to be an Eagle again. Reid told Trotter the Eagles had Mark Simoneau at middle linebacker. If Trotter came back, it would be as a backup and it would be at the veteran minimum salary.
"I said, 'I don't care, I just want to play,'" Trotter says. "More than anything, I wanted to play for the Eagles. My heart was in Philadelphia. I never felt right wearing that burgundy (in Washington). I bleed green."
Trotter rejoined the Eagles that summer and took on the role of backup linebacker which wasn't easy for a prideful guy who was the emotional leader of that defense just a few years earlier. He also found himself playing on special teams, a task he thought he left behind after his rookie year. He never complained. In fact, he was a monster on special teams recording six tackles in one game at Chicago. But inside he was dying.
"It hurt not being out there (with the defense), not being the man in the middle," Trotter says. "Frustration would build up inside me and I'd take it out on (opponents) on special teams. Sometimes I'd do it in practice. One day Andy had us go live (contact) in practice. He didn't do it often, but he did it that day. I was on the second-unit defense going against the first-unit offense.
"T.O. (Terrell Owens) came across the middle and I blew him up. He went down and didn't move. Andy came running over, his face was all red. We call him Big Red and he was really red that day. He was looking at T.O. then looking at me. He was so mad but what could he say? I mean, he said it was a live period. Somebody comes across the middle, I'm gonna hit him. Thankfully, T.O. was OK. But that was the last time we went 'live' for a while."
It was obvious the 6-1, 260-pound Trotter was better than Simoneau, but the Eagles won their first seven games that season so the coaches didn't want to make a change. However, in Week 8, they were crushed in Pittsburgh, 27-3, as the Steelers ran the ball down their throats. Led by Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh ran the ball 56 times for 252 yards and dominated time of possession (42 minutes).
The next week, Trotter was back in the middle and Simoneau moved outside replacing Nate Wayne. From that point on, the Eagles' defense improved dramatically. They cut their opponents rushing yardage by more than half (172 yards per game to 83) and points allowed from 16.4 to 11.8. The team finally got over the hump in the NFC title game defeating Atlanta 27-10 to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
"Making the switch to Trot was key," says Ike Reese, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl that season for his play on special teams. "He was the quarterback of the defense. The other guys feed off of him. He delivered the big hits. He was in the quarterback's face all the time. He kept us going."
"I was excited to be back out there, taking control, being the man in the middle, running around making plays," Trotter says. "I wanted it to be, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was making an impact. I wanted to bring that attitude, aggressiveness, downhill style of play. It was like coming home, being reborn, being an Eagle again. It was so cold that day (the win over Atlanta), the coldest game I can remember, but it's my favorite memory. Celebrating with those fans, it doesn't get any better than that."
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author ofThe Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.