He remembers it like it was yesterday.
A few days shy of his 10th birthday, Wendell Smallwood had his eyes glued to the television on a chilly January night as his Eagles took on the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the 2003 playoffs. His face was covered in a strange brand of paint, one he now knows wasn't intended to be used on his skin, and his mother, Nichelle, couldn't help but voice her displeasure with that decision.
None of that mattered to Smallwood at the time. All he was concerned about was the outcome of the game, and he wanted a Philadelphia victory more than anything else.
After converting a huge fourth-and-26 attempt, the Eagles tied it with seconds left in regulation. David Akers won the game in overtime with a 31-yard field goal. When the kick sailed through the uprights, Smallwood celebrated uncontrollably just as all elated Eagles fans did that night. He ran around his house, jumping up and down in excitement because there was no better feeling than experiencing the Birds come out on top.
Fast forward to today, and Smallwood still has that strong emotional connection to his hometown team. Originally from Wilmington, Delaware, he's supported the Eagles all his life, through the good and the bad.
However, things are a bit different now. After being drafted by Philadelphia in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft that passion for his team has grown even stronger. Sometimes he still has to pinch himself to remember the experience isn't a dream.
"When I was out there with the green on in the Cleveland game, I was just happy to be there and I was kind of stuck on the stands and looking at people because I was on the field," the rookie recalled about his NFL regular season debut. "I couldn't believe it."
Although Smallwood may still be adjusting to his new reality, he's doing so with the help and guidance of his position coach and a person he idolizes, Duce Staley.
From the moment the Eagles began preparing for the NFL Draft, Smallwood was a player who caught Staley's attention. His talent and skill set match what the team wants for its new offensive system and Staley knew going into the process that Smallwood was someone he'd have circled on his list.
"I remember talking to some other coaches, of course talking to Doug (Pederson), about Wendell and some of the things that he did that year down there in West Virginia, how productive he was as a running back and I thought he was a special player," Staley said of Smallwood, who led the Big 12 in rushing yards in 2015 with the Mountaineers. "I remember Doug saying he was on his radar also. We were both thinking alike."
With a clear picture of how Smallwood could potentially fit into the Eagles' locker room if selected, Staley prepared to meet the running back in person for the first time at the Combine. What he wasn't expecting was to learn of Smallwood's love for the organization.
"He was like a deer in headlights when he saw me," Staley said. "I remember saying, 'Hey Wendell. What's going on, man? Have a seat.' I was all business. He was just looking at me smiling. I was like, 'What's so funny?' He was like, 'Hey coach. I've been a big fan.'"
Having watched Staley don the midnight green for years, that introduction was one of the highlights of Smallwood's pre-draft experience. But it also marked the unofficial start of the player-coach relationship between the two, which is something the rookie will never be able to thank his coach enough for.
"He and (Brian) Westbrook were the first running backs I actually started learning from," Smallwood said. "The power he had, the way he ran guys over – he was one of the toughest backs I'd seen. Then just watching him work, I started to admire him. When I got to meet him it was a dream come true.
"I asked for his number and I was like, 'Can I text you about little things?' So, he was helping me throughout the Combine and Pro Day process. He was helping me know what I needed to work on and what I didn't need to work on before I was drafted here."
Then came another day Smallwood will never forget. On May 2, 2016, the Eagles selected him with the 153rd overall pick.
When the 215 number appeared on his cell phone, the running back was thrilled to hear his new coach on the other end of the line confirming everything he could have ever wanted.
"They put Duce on the phone and he was like, 'I told you,'" Smallwood remembered. "He told me he was fighting to get me here. He wanted to get me here. He didn't want any other back but me."
Since arriving in Philadelphia, Smallwood has worked to evolve and adjust to the NFL level. Through eight games he's picked up 135 yards on 31 carries and has also carved out a role as the Eagles' primary kickoff returner. He notched an 86-yard touchdown return against Washington in Week 6.
Smallwood knows there's still much to learn, but with Staley on his side the running back has confidence in where the future may take him.
"He's growing and that's coming with time," Staley said. "I laugh all the time and joke all the time because as a coach I look at those guys as my little brothers in that room because they're in the building at 8 a.m. and out of the building at 5 p.m. The majority of their time is spent with me. I've got to be a big brother at times and then I've got to be a coach. It's cool and I see them change every day and it's all for the good and the betterment of Wendell. I'm happy that he's here. He's been productive so far and there are only big things to come for him."