JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When the plane cleared the Philadelphia city limits on his way home, Jeremiah Trotter made a promise. If Andy Reid didn't want to listen to him and the Philadelphia Eagles didn't want to pay him, he would settle on one thing.
Never play for this team, never play for this man and never embrace this uniform ever again.
Suiting up in hell was only slightly less likely than Trotter stepping on a field as an Eagle. Yet here he is, wearing Eagles green – his face a shade or two of red from embarrassment.
"Every morning I wake up and wonder how in the world I got here," Trotter says now. "I'm just thankful every day. I am staying humble."
Mutual gratitude flows back and forth between Trotter and the Eagles now, and that's no small feat considering the two sides nuked their bridges to one another less than three years ago.
In the rubble of that 2002 summer, when Reid and Trotter swapped verbal middle fingers and Trotter signed a $36 million free agent contract with the Washington Redskins, you never would have thought the two sides would remarry and engineer a Super Bowl bid. Then again, broken commitments are far easier to revive when the principals truly need each other.
Make no mistake, Trotter needed the Eagles more than they needed him when the 2004 season began. But that's not how it's going to end. Not with his re-emergence sparking life into a shaky run defense, or his emotional nastiness giving the Eagles' defense a little of what Terrell Owens injected into its offense.
"Jeremiah has been played a big part in that," defensive tackle Corey Simon says.
Trotter and the Eagles have been such a seamless fit that it seems odd that their relationship ever hit a wall in the first place. If Donovan McNabb is the spine of the team and Owens is the voice, then Trotter is the smirk. Forget Chunky Soup and pom-pom waving – the middle linebacker spot is where you find Philadelphia's true grit.
Yet history says Trotter shouldn't be here. Not after the acrimony exchanged when he left for the Redskins.
When Trotter entered the 2002 offseason, he was 25 and a hot commodity, the perfect recipe for a huge free-agent contract. The problem: Philadelphia was one of the league's cap-conscious teams and wasn't ready to take out a second mortgage for a player not named McNabb.
The Eagles wouldn't do any better than their franchise tag, amounting to a one-year offer at just over $5.5 million. When Washington came around with a seven-year package for $36 million and a $7 million signing bonus, Trotter gladly took it. His little slice of heaven, however, quickly deteriorated with two losing seasons and a knee injury in 2003 that knocked Trotter out of four games. Then came a surprise – a phone call from Reid, who wanted to see if Trotter was okay.
"When he called me," Trotter said, "it made me look at him in a whole new light. I think that mended up some wounds."
By the summer of 2004, Joe Gibbs was the new coach of the Redskins and Trotter was on the outs and was cut. Around the NFL, Trotter's second knee injury of his football career made him appear to be in decline – possibly even finished, after he failed a physical with the New York Giants.
Soon he was seeking a return to Philadelphia. This past July, Trotter accepted a one-year contract, a role as a special-teams player and the challenge of earning back the respect of fans who had taken to changing their "Trotter" jerseys to "Traitor." But if Reid could kiss and make up, why not them?
"You separate the business side from the personal side," Reid said. "I think that's very important, especially if you're the head coach or have that tag as the general manager. I know Jeremiah is a good person. Whatever was said by both sides – he said some things, I said some things – we meant from a business standpoint, not a personal one. We were both able to throw those things out of the window and come together as mature human beings."
Now it looks like a brilliant move. Trotter took over the middle linebacker spot after a November loss that saw Pittsburgh rush for 252 yards. In his 11 starts through the playoffs, the Eagles lopped off an average of 40 yards per game from the opposition's rushing average. They also have taken on some of his attitude.
"He has a chip on his shoulder, and we welcome that," linebacker Dhani Jones says.
"You're talking about our defensive MVP," safety Michael Lewis adds. "When we put him in that lineup, not to take anything away from Mark [Simoneau], Nate [Wayne] and those guys, but Trotter just gave us the presence we needed in the middle."
So here is Trotter, preparing for his first Super Bowl as an Eagles' starter and once again approaching free agency. He's still seen as a playmaker, and he's still brimming with scalding emotion. This offseason, he'll likely get another generous offer from another team.
But things have changed.
"I'll never say never again."