It rarely happens in high school football and pretty much never happens in college, yet it takes place every single Sunday in the NFL. The "it" is the unique dynamic of a player competing against his former team.
The prime example this week is Donovan McNabb's return to Philadelphia as a Washington Redskin to take on the team with which he spent 11 years before being traded on Easter Sunday.
McNabb will say all the right things this week, which ironically is one of the reasons some Eagles fans were happy to see him go -- too often many of them didn't think he was genuine. He'll be a pro's pro and talk about how much he enjoyed the time he spent in Philadelphia, the respect he has for Eagles head coach Andy Reid and the entire organization, and the fact that this is simply the next game on the Redskins' path toward trying to get to the postseason.
Don't believe him. I won't. Playing against a former team is different no matter what McNabb says. In fact, it likely means a great deal more to him than he would ever let on publicly.
I have no idea what it is like to be a longtime franchise quarterback and the most important player in a team's history like McNabb. I do know, however, what it feels like to play against a team that has let you go, whether it's via trade or an outright release.
There is a tremendous desire to prove that team wrong for getting rid of you. It would go against human nature not to feel that way.
I can remember at least two instances in which I was in this situation, and I distinctly remember thinking about not only playing well but also wondering if there was some way I could block somebody all the way to the opposing team's sideline. As in, directly into whatever position coach or head coach I felt was responsible for making me pack my bags.
McNabb won't daydream about plowing defenders into coaches on the sideline, but you are kidding yourself if you don't think he has thought about this game almost every day since the trade went down.
At the very least, it will be tremendously awkward for him. Guys he called teammates for years will now be trying to take his head off or pick off his passes. The on-field interaction can be uncomfortable. I distinctly remember many of my ex-Redskins teammates, some of whom I considered friends, chiding me for some blocks they thought were questionable when I squared off against them on Thanksgiving in 2002 as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, just one month after Washington had cut me.
I had to remember that this was a business and I had a job to do. If they didn't like how aggressively I was playing, too bad. I consciously thought about the fact that I had plenty of friends. I needed the job. I needed to play well. I needed to do whatever it took.
The other thing that's strange is the level of familiarity with the opponent. McNabb has the strengths and weaknesses of the Philly defense down pat from years and years of practicing against it. The same holds true for the Eagles, and you have to think their intimate knowledge of McNabb was a key reason they were willing to trade him in-division, whether you believe they were trying to accommodate his wishes or not.
Whether the background knowledge is a greater benefit to McNabb and the Skins or Andy Reid and the Eagles remains to be seen. I guess we'll find out Sunday.
From the inbox
Q: I was hoping you could give your perspective on the Andy Reid subject. Has he lost all credibility with his locker room with the about-face on Kevin Kolb? Last year Kolb played extremely well in McNabb's absence and was benched when McNabb got healthy because starting QBs don't lose their job due to injury. Yet one year later, after only one half of football, Kolb was replaced after an injury. What does this say to the team and how detrimental is this to Kolb's career?
Bob in New Castle, Del.
A: I'm sure there are more than a few guys on the team who think Kolb got a raw deal, but in terms of Reid's credibility, I think the message that was sent is a positive one. His loyalty is to all 53 guys on the team and he will make whatever decision he thinks gives those guys the best opportunity to win. Kolb will get another chance, whether in Philly or elsewhere, and he will have to make the most of it.
Q: I agree with the comments you made regarding pulling QBs. I want to ask your opinion of Brady Quinn and why he never got a real vote of confidence in Cleveland. He appeared talented and ready to go at Notre Dame but seems to lack confidence as a pro. What do you hear as the reason behind the Browns letting him go. Did Mike Holmgren give any reasons?
Steve in Cape Coral, Fla.
A: I think Holmgren and Eric Mangini both saw what I have seen every time I have watched Quinn play -- he's not a competent NFL quarterback. He refuses to drive the football down the field and isn't even accurate on his short passes.
Q: I hear a lot about how teams are at an unfair advantage due to traveling. Example: The Saints played on Monday night in San Francisco (Week 2) and had to fly back after the game, arriving back to New Orleans in the wee hours of the morning and giving the Falcons (my team) a slight advantage because the Saints were "off schedule." So wouldn't it be better if the Saints stayed overnight and flew back on Tuesday, so they can get a good night's rest? Is it a NFL mandate that teams have to fly back immediately after a game? I know this is an off-the-wall question, just curious.
Sharell in Raleigh, N.C.
A: There is no mandate of which I am aware. All teams fly home directly after games in the NFL because they want their players to be able to sleep in the comfort of their own homes, their coaches to be able to get to work preparing for the next opponent in their own facility, and of course it saves the organization some money on hotel rooms as well. Coaches usually take into account when the team gets back when setting the schedule for the next day and they try to ensure that the players are able to get enough rest.
Q: A distinction needs to be made between pulling a struggling starting QB and benching him for the year. In Week 1 of '81, Ken Anderson got off to an abysmal start against Seattle, going 5-for-15 with two INTs and the Bengals trailed [21-0]. Turk Schonert came on to rally the Bengals to a 27-21 victory, and Anderson went on to an MVP year. Even the best starting pitchers occasionally give way to a reliever.
John in Alexandria, Ky.
A: Good note. I was 2 years old in 1981, so obviously I was unaware of that. I can't think of a recent example of that and can't really imagine any team in today's NFL thinking the backup gives it a better chance to come from behind and win than an MVP-quality quarterback does.
Q: As a Raider fan, I hear often about the Black Hole and how crazy the fans are. When I travel to the U.S. for the games, I'm not even crazy enough to sit with them. As a player, where did you love to play most and where did you hate to play?
Mark in Sydney
A: I always enjoyed those types of crowds that gave the opposing team a hard time. It was fun and got me pumped to play. In fact, I played at the Black Hole only one time, and I distinctly remember walking to within five feet of the mayhem and telling them that they didn't look all that tough as they grasped at me while foaming at the mouths. Cool life experience.
Q: If a team loses a game, why does the blame always go on the kicker?
Joseph in Alexandria, Va.
A: The blame only goes to the kicker from the fans and media. Even though guys on teams such as the Raiders and Saints are disappointed that their kickers missed game-winning field goals this past weekend, they are smart enough to realize that if they had played better collectively as a whole it would not have even come down to those kicks.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.