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The Axe Man returns home again

Jeremiah Trotter’s complicated legacy

Super Bowl XXXIX Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

They called him the Axe Man. It was a fitting nickname. Jeremiah Trotter was a hard hitting middle linebacker who played with his heart on his sleeve, and a signature axe chopping move after his signature devastating tackles. In Philadelphia, it made him a legend.

But perhaps they should have called him by a different nickname: the Lazarus Man. Because every time the cards stacked up against Trotter, he hit bounced back and hit back hard.

On the eve of his first minicamp for the Eagles, who had drafted him in the 3rd round of the 1998 Draft, he buried his father. It wrecked him for the entire season.

“I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t focus. I really had lost my desire to play football. But, the only thing that kept me going was I promised my dad before he died that I would take care of my mom (Ethel) and that was my means to do it. I remember going to practice and it seemed like I was in a haze, just like you’re there but not really there. I would catch myself staring off and I got behind on the plays. In the NFL, once you get behind, it’s tough to catch up. I remember just going back into my hotel room over by the airport and burying my face into the pillow and crying until I fell asleep.

“That happened every day.”

Trotter spent the first half of his rookie year inactive, the second half barely seeing the field. Unable to get even a late season start on a 3-13 Eagles team, Trotter might have been lost in the shuffle in the transition from Ray Rhodes to Andy Reid. Instead, the Axe Man bounced back up.

Reid and Jim Johnson handed Trotter the starting job at middle linebacker in 1999, and true to his word to his father, he earned his keep. Trotter started every game, and the Eagles defense began its turnaround to one of the best in the league. They led the league in turnovers in 1999, with Trotter nabbing two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery as he racked up 122 tackles. It wasn’t a good defense in 1999, but with Trotter, Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Hugh Douglas the core was there to build a legacy.

For Trotter, his legacy for the Eagles didn’t just come his play on the field, but also in his absence from it.

In 2000 and 2001 the Eagles’ defense was one of the best in the league, the backbone of a team that had won a combined 22 regular season games, plus three in the playoffs. Trotter, a First Team All-Pro in 2000, Second Team All-Pro in 2001 and Pro Bowler in both, was due and deserving of a new contract. The Eagles agreed, giving him the franchise tag and then entering long term negotiations.

And then the Eagles didn’t agree. The Axe Man was cut.

Unable to reach an agreement on a new deal or a trade, the Eagles rescinded the franchise tag late on a Friday in April, making the 25 year old Trotter a free agent. Reid said Trotter had “cooked his own goose.” Trotter called the contract squabble “a slap in the face.” Fans were even more furious, chastising the cheap Eagles dumping a star player for nothing, and doing so on the quietest hours of the news week.

Trotter was quickly signed by the Redskins, another of their series of big money signings. The Eagles were never able to replace him.

In 2002 the Eagles brought in a handful of players whose best days were in the late 90s: WR Antonio Freeman, RB Dorsey Levens, S Blaine Bishop, and to replace Trotter the team signed Levon Kirkland. In his eight years as a starter in Pittsburgh, Kirkland was a similar player to Trotter: a fierce and voluminous tackler, averaging over 100 tackles a season. They even had similar listed measurements: both were 6’1” and about 270 lbs. But with Kirkland, listed was the key phrase. By the time he got to Philadelphia, after a one year stop in 2001 with the Seahawks, he was well over 300.

Statistically, the Eagles defense actually improved. But anyone watching knew that Kirkland was a liability, a massive downgrade from Trotter. By the end of the season he was being rotated out on passing downs for Barry Gardner, who was infamously beaten by Joe Jurevicius for the game winning touchdown in the 2002 NFC Championship Game. Two of the Eagles three playoff wins with Trotter had been against the Bucs, by a combined score of 52-12. Without him, they gave up 27.

Gardner never played for the Eagles again, and Kirkland never played again. And in their second attempt to replace Trotter, the Eagles failed again.

They traded for Mark Simoneau, an undersized 3-4 linebacker not good enough to start for a mediocre Falcons defense. Simoneau played primarily on running downs, with Ike Reese platooning on passing downs. He took home NFC Defensive Player of the Month in October, but once again the writing was on the wall. The defense declined, and after giving up 222 total rushing yards in their first four games, the Eagles defense averaged 154 a game against the rest of the year, and in the playoffs it burned them, nearly twice. Against the Packers the team gave up 210 yards in the Eagles OT win. The next week the Panthers ran for 155, with DeShaun Foster bulldozing Mark Simoneau and then braking Simoneau’s second attempt at a tackle to score and put the game away.

Meanwhile in Washington, Trotter had a miserable experience. In 2002 he hurt his knee on Thanksgiving, taking him out for the season as year one of the Steve Spurrier era crawled to a 7-9 finish. After a 5-11 2003 season, Joe Gibbs took over and Trotter, unable to replicate the dominant seasons he had in Philly and the Redskins facing salary cap issues, was let go. But the Axe Man bounced back up again.

When Trotter hurt his knee, he got a call from an old friend: Andy Reid. The two patched things up after the acrimonious exit, and in need of a job in the spring of 2004, Trotter called Reid and began his comeback. His second stint with the Eagles began much the same as his first, mostly on the bench. The Lazarus man waited his turn.

Despite a 7-0 start, the Eagles defense was still struggling against the run, giving up over 100 yards in four of their first seven games. When the Steelers put up 252 rushing yards and handed the Eagles their first defeat, enough was enough. Simoneau was moved to outside linebacker and Trotter was made the starter in the middle, and the results turned around instantly. The next week against the Cowboys, the Eagles gave up just 71 rushing yards, and over their remaining 9 meaningful games (the 13-1 Eagles rested starters the final two weeks), the team gave up over 100 yards rushing just twice.

Though he started just 9 games, Trotter was named to his third Pro Bowl. In the postseason, his rebirth continued. In the 2004 NFC Championship Game, the Eagles faced the Falcons top rushing attack of Warrick Dunn, TJ Duckett and Michael Vick. In 12 of their 18 games that season, the Falcons ran for over 150 yards. They gained just 99 against the Eagles, chopped down by Trotter’s 9 tackles. The Eagles were in the Super Bowl.

Another Pro Bowl season awaited Trotter in 2005, his fourth in five years as a starter as an Eagle. After a down season in 2006, another release came in the 2007 preseason, this one just as emotional:

"It's a tough pill to swallow, but everyone gets to this point in their career at some point or another, and now is my time," Trotter said at a news conference. "I'm just thankful that I spent this many years in Philadelphia. I truly believe that if you were to cut me, I'd bleed green."

Again the Eagles were unable to replace him. Takeo Spikes, like Levon Kirkland before him, was past his prime and lasted only a season in Philadelphia. Trotter too struggled away from the Eagles, playing just three games for Tampa Bay in 2007. Stewart Bradley took over in 2008, but blew his knee out in 2009. After being unwanted for the 2008 season, Trotter performed his final rebirth with the Eagles, starting seven games in 2009 in the place of Bradley and ending his season and career with another playoff game for the Eagles.

Three times the Eagles tried to move on from Trotter, three times he found a way back and success. Tonight he will be rightfully inducted into the Eagles Hall of Fame. He’s here to stay forever.

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