I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of so many Eagles players when I asked them about Kobe Bryant. They lit up.
Back in December of 2017, about two months before the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, Bryant visited the team on the Friday morning to cap the week they spent in Orange County before facing the Rams. Bryant was an Eagles fan and talked to the championship team before they were champions about his Mamba Mentality.
I have never seen a group of professional athletes so in awe of someone.
On Sunday, as we heard about the crushing losses of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others who died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, I remembered that day in the Angels’ locker room. These NFL players are celebrities, they’re normally the biggest of deals; and just about every single one of them was completely in awe of Kobe. I’ll never forget that.
Here’s my story from Dec. 9, 2017, the morning after Bryant spoke to the entire Eagles team:
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Rodney McLeod broke into a huge grin as he passed along the explanation from Kobe Bryant.
Bryant, an Eagles fan who grew up in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, spoke to the entire Eagles team Friday morning at their hotel in Costa Mesa, California.
How did Kobe explain his "Mamba mentality?"
"A killer mentality," McLeod said. "He said literally every time he stepped on that court, he wanted to be the best. He wanted to go out there and kill the guy lining up across from them and make him feel like he didn't deserve to be on the court. Like literally, those were his words.
"He wanted to make them feel like they shouldn't be a basketball player, they should be an accountant. That's what he said. And you see it when you watch him play. When you have that mindset, it's hard to beat a guy like that."
It takes someone truly great to leave a group of 63 professional athletes and their coaches in awe. Bryant is one of them. McLeod also said Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Derek Jeter would make the list.
McLeod brought in a pen and pad of paper to take notes, but he ended up recording Bryant's talk and Q&A session in his brain. He didn't get an autograph, but he did get a photo with Bryant, which was good enough for him.
"It's a dream come true, really," McLeod said. "Electric feeling for me. You just feel the energy and his presence as soon as he came in and talked to us."
In the Eagles' media guide, McLeod lists Bryant as his favorite childhood athlete. Even though McLeod grew up in Maryland, Bryant's play and mentality won him over at a young age. McLeod considers Bryant to be the greatest basketball player of all time.
A few thousand miles away from McLeod's childhood home, Kenjon Barner and Joe Walker grew up near Los Angeles, where Bryant was one of the best and most famous players in the NBA with the Lakers.
"It was really cool to see him walk in," said Walker, who, like Barner and McLeod, has Bryant listed as his favorite childhood athlete in the Eagles' media guide. "Growing up a little kid in L.A., I mean, he pretty much built this city."
Friday was the first time Walker had ever been around his childhood hero. But it wasn't the first time for Barner, who had actually met Bryant a few times before.
Because Barner's cousin is former NBA player Andre Miller, he has been around NBA players for a long time. He doesn't really get starstruck, but the first time he met Bryant, it was something special: "It just makes you say, 'damn!'"
Upon overhearing Barner talk about all the times he had met Bryant before, fellow running back Wendell Smallwood gave him some grief in the overflow locker room at Angel Stadium.
"He's so cool, Kobe isn't cool to him," Smallwood said.
Barner stepped in.
"It's still cool, man," he said. "It doesn't change."
Head coach Doug Pederson said there wasn't really an interesting story about how the Eagles got Bryant to their team hotel. The Eagles simply checked in with him to see if he was available. Bryant was, so he showed up.
Pederson said a lot of Bryant's message was about focusing and paying attention to details.
That was the part of Bryant's talk that really seemed to stand out to Nelson Agholor, who is recognized as one of the hardest-working members on the team.
"He's also a guy that has that dog in him when it's time to step on somebody's throat, he'll do that," Agholor said. "I think that was something I'll never forget."