Lament of a Philadelphia Eagles Fan – posted 9/29/2013
It is not easy being a Philadelphia Eagles fan while living in New England. You are definitely part of a minority group: a leper in Patriotland. I know there are some geographical transplants who successfully make the transition to rooting for the Patriots. This is harder when you come from Philadelphia and grew up as an Eagles fan.
Patriot fans are passionate but Eagles fans are rabid. I went to my first Eagles game in 1956 when I was 6 years old. The Eagles played the Detroit Lions at the old Shibe Park also known as Connie Mack Stadium. The Lions were led by legendary quarterback Bobby Layne.
The Eagles lost that day and I remember that I cried. It was the first of many losses to come that I witnessed. The Eagles are one of those NFL teams who have never won a Super Bowl, a fact never far from the minds of Eagles fans. In the Philadelphia mind, whatever our success in the Andy Reid era, we are still in sports hell.
I learned about football from my parents. Both were sports nuts. They were hardcore Philadelphia fans, especially the Eagles and Phillies. My dad got season’s tickets to Eagles’ games starting in the late 50’s. He and I used to park far away and schlep across the often freezing bridge to Franklin Field, the University of Pennsylvania stadium, where the Eagles played before they moved to the Vet.
I do want to mention the year 1960. There are some happy Philadelphia football memories. 1960 was the last time the Eagles won the NFL championship. It was in the era before Super Bowls. I was there with my dad, watching the Eagles beat the Packers 17-13.
Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, nicknamed the Dutchman, led the Eagles. I went to Friends Central School with Van Brocklin’s daughter, Karen. Norm seemed like a really nice guy. When he came to school in the afternoon to pick up Karen, he went to the school playground and he threw the football around with us kids. How cool was that! He also punted to a small army of students who wanted to receive his kicks. Van Brocklin actually was the Eagles punter, something you would never see today. I do not believe there are any pro quarterbacks who double as punters now.
Van Brocklin was surrounded by some great players. I would mention Chuck Bednarik who played both ways, center and middle linebacker; Tommy McDonald,a small, speedy and gifted wide receiver; and tight end Pete Retzlaff, a 5 time pro bowler. The Packers had Bart Starr, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. Ray Nitschke anchored their defense. That was a great win with Buck Shaw besting Vince Lombardi.
However, as I noted, it has not been duplicated. Not that it matters but I do not think Patriot fans can understand the feelings of Eagles fans because of all the Patriots success. Patriot fans are spoiled. It is not just the Patriots. In the last decade, Boston has had the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins all win as well. Before the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, it had been 25 years since any Philly team won a major sports championship. We are talking the 1983 Sixers with Doctor J and Moses Malone as the last winners. That qualifies as a sports drought.
After the 1960’s, I admit I lost interest in football for a long time. I was not at Franklin Field in 1968 when that famous episode in Eagles history happened: the booing of Santa Claus. It was December 15, 1968. The Eagles were 2-11 at the time. They had started the season 0-11. Still, 54,000 loyal Eagles fans showed up. The weather was miserable that day, snowing and sleeting. It was biting cold with a whipping wind chill. Fans had to clear their seats of three inches of snow and slush.
The half time show was supposed to feature Santa making an entrance on an ornate sleigh dragged by eight life-sized fiberglass reindeer. The sleigh float quickly got stuck in the field which had turned to muck. That necessitated the entrance of Santa by foot. The other problem was that the Santa who had been hired for that day was a no-show. Not clear whether Bad Santa was drunk but he did not appear. As a result, the Eagles entertainment director approached a young fan, Frank Olivo, who, in the holiday spirit, had dressed in a red corduroy Santa outfit. Olivo was recruited on the spot to step in and play Santa.
As the 50 piece brass band played “Here Comes Santa Claus”, Olivo entered the field between two columns of Eaglette cheerleaders who were dressed as elves. Olivo recalled what happened next:
“That’s when the booing started (when the band played “Here Comes Santa Claus”). At first, I was scared because it was so loud. But then I figured, hey, it was just good-natured teasing. I’m a Philadelphia fan, I knew what was what. I thought it was funny…
When I hit the end zone and the snow balls started, I was waving my finger at the crowd, saying, “You’re not getting anything for Christmas.”
Olivo says he was actually hit by several dozen snowballs. Maybe 100 were thrown. People joked that some of the people sitting in the upper deck were more accurate passers than the Eagles quarterback. Olivo commented that he was thankful for the snow. When the Eagles entertainment director asked if he wanted to play Santa the next year, he declined. “I told him, no way. If it doesn’t snow, they’ll probably throw beer bottles”.
I know the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl in 1981 under Dick Vermeil although ultimately they lost to the Raiders. I came back to football in the late 80’s/early 90’s. The names Randall Cunningham, Buddy Ryan and Reggie White come to mind. I remember the Fog Bowl in Chicago but not that much else about the team. I did go to a few games at the Vet. The Vet itself deserves a bit of comment. It was famous for its concrete-like turf and its court in the basement.
I never saw the Eagles Court. They were full service: starting in 1998, the Eagles had a court, a judge, and a jail at the stadium. Apparently, justice was dispensed quickly for drunk or unruly fans. Penalties included forcing offenders to give up season’s tickets, pay a $400 fine and sit in jail for the rest of the game. There is no Eagles Court at the Linc.
Philadelphia had so many lean years. All the losing seasons, bad coaches and bad teams are a blur to me. I do remember the name Joe Kuharich which I associate with multiple 2-12 years. Football got somewhat redefined during those years. A good year was not about making the playoffs. A good year would be defined as a year when the Eagles beat the Cowboys or Giants. To some extent, that is still true.
Then along came the Jeff Lurie/Andy Reid era. That changed the Eagles’ fortunes. From being a team of perennial losers, Reid turned the franchise around. Eagles’ fans became used to winning. For almost a decade, the Eagles were contenders and usually they were the best team in the NFC East.
While Eagles fans are typically critical of Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb for not winning a Super Bowl, by any rational standard, this was a special time in Eagles history. They never won so consistently for so long. They made it to 5 conference championship games and 1 Super Bowl.
If I have any criticism, it was the failure of Reid to surround Donovan with quality wide receivers. With the exception of 2004 and the acquisition of T.O. (admittedly a mixed blessing) the Eagles almost inexplicably failed to give Donovan receivers who were difference-makers. That might have gotten them over the hump.
In his early years, Donovan was a genuinely exciting player. Besides having a great arm, he was a running threat. Repeated injuries took their toll on him but he was a tough guy. I remember him playing in 2002 against the Cardinals and throwing 4 TDs while playing on a broken ankle. Eagles fans tend to remember all the wormburners and the alleged throwing up in the Super Bowl. That is very uncharitable. It was nice to see Donovan and Reid get honored at the recent game against the Chiefs. They both deserved the honor.
My dad used to call me on the phone multiple times during Eagles games to report on developments. That went on through almost the whole Andy Reid time in Philly until my dad died. It was a little before the NFL package came into existence so my dad kept me informed. My dad was a big Donovan fan. We had some wonderful times following those games and the team. I knew a lot without watching myself because of my dad’s reports.
I am not going to say much about the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. It could have gone the other way. It was a close game and the Eagles lost 24-21. That game was not Andy Reid’s finest hour. That was a tough loss.
One player I do want to mention – Brian Dawkins. For heart, grit, and for giving his all on the field, I would rate Dawk as possibly my favorite Eagle player of all time. I would imagine that opinion is widely shared in Philadelphia.
We now enter a new period. Many question marks. I remain optimistic about Coach Chip Kelly and the future of the team. Kelly appears to be very creative and original. There is nothing boring about his team. Maybe he will turn out to be some kind of football genius and maybe he won’t. I think it takes a couple years to turn a football franchise around. The Eagles had reached a deadened place at the end of Andy Reid’s tenure as coach.
I probably share the doubts of many fans about Mike Vick. It seems unlikely Vick can change his style of play in a way that will lessen his chance of injury. He always tries to stretch plays but he takes so many hits. The idea that he could make it through any season seems like wishful thinking. I hope I am wrong. Vick does have a great arm and he can still move. Turnovers remain his achilles heel.
If Vick is not the quarterback, then who? That is a big question. Nick Foles and Matt Barkley both seem talented to me. The Eagles do have some great offensive players. Desean Jackson and Lesean McCoy are both great. The Jeremy Maclin injury was a killer though. The defense is certainly suspect. Generously put, it is a work in progress. That unit seems a couple years away from being good. Scary to think what Peyton Manning might do to them later today. Again, I hope I am wrong.
Before my dad died, he said, “Jonny, maybe you will get to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl.” I honestly cannot remember if I hid my skepticism. Eagles fans generally expect the worst. I suppose there is the law of averages. Eventually, the Eagles are destined to win a Super Bowl as long as football continues. It is hard to know whether that will be in my lifetime or the lifetime of my children, who, I confess, are not Eagles fans.