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Saturday, January 22, 2005

I Am A Philadelphia Eagles Fan

And proud of it.

We're all products of our hometowns, and there's no telling a little kid in suburban Tampa Bay that his Devil Rays stink if he loves baseball and he goes to games with his parents and brothers and sisters. The D-Rays, to that kid, are it, the center of a young baseball fan's universe. That's just the way life is, and it's especially enriching for those of us who live in the present and try to make the most out of what is in front of us.

I grew up an Eagles' fan and heard my father's stories of the famous 1960 NFL Championship Game, in which the Eagles beat Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers 17-13 at Penn's Franklin Field. All of us local kids heard the stories year after year as to how the Packers were driving in the waning minutes, and then Packer running back Jim Taylor had the ball near the middle of the field. At which point Eagles' LB Chuck Bednarik, a two-way player, tackled Taylor and refused to get off him. The clock ran out, the Eagles' had their title. Norm Van Brocklin, "The Dutchman" was their QB, Tommy McDonald their star WR, and the team was the toast of the town.

And then they fell plum off the table. They had a promising young QB named Sonny Jurgensen and inexplicably traded him to Washington. They guys named King Hill and Norm Snead tried to call the signals, and the team was terrible. They continued to pack Franklin Field, and they continued to lose. My father shared tickets with some friends, and on seven Sundays during the season he would drive down to Center City Philadelphia, park in the western part of Center City, and walk across the South Street Bridge to the stadium. Every time he came home, he brought me a different NFL team pennant. They cost him a quarter, and then we put all the pennants he bought me during the season on my wall in a wheel. I always looked forward to his coming home from those games, and one week, I remember, he brought me a bobble-head doll. That was really cool.

He also took me to a game there every now and then, and if you've read this blog you'll remember my recollections of the haunting chants of the fans, urging the ownership to fire one-time head coach Joe Kuharich. "Joe Must Go", they chanted in unison, the voices of 70,000 fans strong resonating throughout Franklin Field. "Joe Must Go." I believe at one point an old bi-plane flew over the place, pulling one of those advertisements that we used to see fly over the beach at the Jersey Shore during the summer time. It, too, beckoned "Joe Must Go." The team wasn't any good, although offensive tackle Bob Brown was a future Hall of Famer, and WRs Harold Jackson and Ben Hawkins seemed like they could play.

After Franklin Field, the team moved to Vet Stadium in 1970 or so. A cavalcade of bad coaches and mediocre quarterbacks littered the Philadelphia landscape. Remember John Reaves, a one-time star QB at Florida? Pete Liske? Rick Arrington (whose claim to fame is his daughter, Jill, the TV sports reporter)? Roman Gabriel? Mike McCormack? Ed Khyat? Marion Campbell? Jerry Williams?

It was all so painful. They just never had enough players, and they had some memorable ones to boot. Sometimes the signature of frustrated franchises are the characters that fill the ranks, and the Birds had those. Those of us who rooted hard for the hometown Birds will never forget linebacker Tim Rossovich, who was featured in Sports Illustrated as a guy who ate glass and would set himself on fire. There was had-as-nails FS Bill Bradley and defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones, who played left end and used to swirl his right end around in a windmill fashion to time the center snap. That unique brand of timing management didn't prevent the DE from jumping offsides more frequently than most other players.

And then, of course, there was a guy who played right tackle. He wore #64, and his name was Ed George.

Ed George happened upon the Eagles right at the time when the league starting having officials announce which player committed an infraction. And those of us who watched the games will never forget the resonating voices of the officials bellow, "Holding, #64, Ed George." Many people won't remember much from those days, but they'll all remember that. I wonder where Ed George is today and what he thinks of the modern holding rules. He probably thinks he was before his time.

Then the Eagles got a lucky break. In the late 1970's they were looking for a head coach, and about a half a dozen candidates turned down owner Leonard Tose's overtures to coach the Birds. They ended up hiring a fiery young coach who had just led UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory. A guy named Dick Vermeil.

A few years later, they were in the Super Bowl. They had an offensive line of Stan Walters, Petey Perot, Guy Morris, Woody Peoples and Jerry Sisemore, an all-pro TE in Keith Krepfle, an all-pro RB in Wilbert Montgomery, and a solid receiving corps led by Harold Carmichael. Their QB was the sometimes-maligned Ron Jaworski, about whom it was once written that he could throw the ball through a car wash and it wouldn't get wet. That season, Jaws, as he was called, won the conference's MVP. The defense was also impressive, too, and their leader was their middle linebacker, Bill Bergey.

You'll remember that the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins were excellent teams around then. The Cowboys, coached by Tom Landry, always seemed to be near the Super Bowl, but that year the Eagles took it to 'em. The Birds made the playoffs, and I went to their first game, a frigid affair at Vet Stadium where they beat the Minnesota Vikings. I think that my hands and right foot have yet to recover from that day, when it was something like 20 degrees outside with a wind-chill factor below zero. I wore every piece of winter clothing that I owned. I wore long underwear, two pairs of socks, a turtleneck over the long underwear, a heavy wool sweater over the turtleneck, a windbreaker over that and then my winter coat on top of that. I wore my heavy winter boots, two pairs of gloves, a scarf for my neck and one for my face and a heavy wool hat. The only thing that we neglected to bring was the Sunday paper, half of which would have insulated my feet from the frozen concrete beneath them and half of which would have insulated my rear end from the cold hard plastic on which it rested.

And it was still too cold. But the Eagles won that game, and that set them up for a showdown at Vet Stadium the week after. We didn't have tickets for that game, and the weather was just as frigid, but somehow, some way, this improbable Super Bowl team beat their nemesis and ended up in the Super Bowl.

As a favorite against Al Davis' Raiders, the first wild-card team to make it to the title game.

Unfortunately, the Eagles played tight, Jaws threw three interceptions to Rod Martin, and the Raiders won the game.

The Eagles haven't returned to the Super Bowl since. Vermeil ultimately burned out, and Leonard Tose ultimately ran out of money and sold the team to Jeffrey Lurie. Buddy Ryan came to town and strutted, and while his defenses were some of the best I've ever seen -- a defensive line of Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Mike Golic and Clyde Simmons rates as one of the best I've ever watched -- Buddy never mastered offensive football. While it's true that defenses win championship games, you need an offense to put points on the board. Buddy never got that, and, ultimately he was canned. Somehow, when people think of Buddy's teams, they happily remember some of those great linemen and LB Seth Joyner and DBs Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters. Few want to remember the very talented but enigmatic Randall Cunningham, a very able QB who never got a ton of respect in the locker room, and who didn't seem to have the leadership ability necessary to take a team to the Super Bowl. He also didn't have the line or the skill position players he needed, either. People forget that, too.

Ryan's offensive coordinator, Rich Kotite, replaced him, and people forget that Kotite got off to an excellent start. He was an anti-Buddy, self-effacing, not too confident in front of the camera, but the team played for him for a while. But then there was a public brouhaha with Lurie about whether he'd get a contract extension, and it seemed like the team stopped playing after that. Perhaps they thought that whatever they did wouldn't make a difference for their coach, or perhaps their coach began to think that. Ultimately, Rich Kotite ran out of gas.

And before everyone colors their memory of Lurie into a brilliant owner (and, he is a good owner), people must remember that Eagles' fans were mistrustful of him for his first three years in town. Why? Because Lurie had lived for a while in Los Angeles, and the rumor was that he would look to move the team to L.A. at the first opportunity.

Enter Ray Rhodes. The interesting thing about the Rhodes hiring was not so much that the Eagles hired a talented defensive coach who had earned his stripes in San Francisco and Green Bay, but that upon jettisoning Kotite Jets' owner Leon Hess thought he had found the answer to his franchises woes. Philadelphia fans were agape; after all, Kotite had proven only that he wasn't a very good coach after getting a decent chance from Lurie to prove otherwise. The Jets' loss was the Eagles' gain.

For a while, Rhodes made a difference. But his fire-and-brimstone, hard-hitting defensive approach wore out after about one year, he began to play favorites, and the team continued to suffer on the offensive side of the ball. Rhodes' biggest gaffe, one of the biggest of recent Eagles' memory, was to trade two first-round picks for the #7 pick in one year's draft, all so he could grab that year's combine workout wonder, a tweener DE/LB from Boston College named Mike Mamula. Remember him? Remember him positively? As Mamula went, ultimately, so did Ray Rhodes.

The two will be forever linked in Eagles' history. The Eagles' fans don't remember all of the good Ray Rhodes did (and he did a lot), just that he traded up to draft Mike Mamula and then stuck with him way too long.

And now there's Andy Reid, and Andy Reid has done a first-rate job. His an expert on offense, but he made a brilliant move when he arrived in Philadelphia, hiring then Seattle LB coach Jim Johnson as his defensive coordinator. Now, Bud Carson had been in town before Johnson, and he is one of the brightest defensive coordinators of all time. To show you how highly Jim Johnson is thought of, Philadelphia fans hardly breathe Bud Carson's name. And they don't really talk about Buddy that much anymore either.

So what's the point of all of this? I suppose it's that there is a diehard core of very loyal fans in the Delaware Valley who are just aching for a Super Bowl appearance, let alone a Super Bowl victory. Yes, they yell their team's cheer loudly, and, yes, they sing "Fly Eagles Fly" at every opportunity, and, yes, some of them are very loud. Some of those folks are obnoxious, and some of them can be profane.

But at the heart of the matter is that people are rooting for the team that their grandfathers and fathers rooted for. They have endured years and years of disappointing teams, lots of talk and not much to show for it. They have watched games in blistering heat and sub-freezing temperatures, in driving rain storms and in snow storms as well. They have listened to babbling coaches not capable of explaining anything, and they witnessed the public demise of the owner who brought their last Super Bowl team. They have trekked to a stadium where there is no parking (Franklin Field) and to one without much charm or intimacy (the Vet) -- one that was falling apart for the last ten years of its existence.

Now they have a relative palce in which to watch their games, and they have a resilient team that has accomplished a lot but that, like its predecessors, is in danger of being remembered not for all that it has done (getting to four straight NFC Championship Games) but for what it has not done (get to the Super Bowl).

They drive from far distances. They take the Broad Street Subway, they come from Delaware, Central and South Jersey, from the four counties surrounding the city (the counties that were supposed to decide the past presidential election), and from places as far away as Wilkes-Barre, Hazelton, York and Harrisburg. Some park outside the stadium like they do everywhere else and tailgate, and others have their game-day ritual of stopping at their favorite hoagie shop (that's a submarine sandwich place for the uninitiated) and picking up their hoagies and their steak sandwiches and funneling into The Linc.

They talk football all the time, and they do know their stuff. And now it's all come together for them. They still are enjoying their relatively new stadium, their coach is at the pinnacle, and their team is sending 9 players to the Pro Bowl. They survived what were supposed to be huge losses in their secondary and have three defensive backs going to the Pro Bowl and a fourth named to the all-SI team. Their MLB started 5 games and made the Pro Bowl, and their starting QB, while not getting the publicity of many other QBs, is one of the best around. Their defense is healthy this year (much healthier than for last year's title game against Carolina), and they have Brian Westbrook playing in this game.

This is the moment that Eagles' fans have been waiting for for the past 364 days. Their emotions are on their sleeves, and their faces show the duality of hope for getting to the next level and the fear that results from prior disappointments. This is a group, for all of their faults, deserves to get rewarded for their historic loyalty to a flawed franchise.

And it says here that they'll get that reward, massive snow storm and all.

Call it Eagles 24, Falcons 19.

And, if that happens, rather than be a (somewhat) objective observer of the sporting scene, I will be standing there with my family, chanting E-A-G-L-E-S and sharing in a unique form of glee -- the happiness that will result from a great accomplishment, and the relief that the Eagles didn't lose their fourth NFC title game in a row.

Fly, Eagles, fly.



Blogger Corey said...

They flew...and showed a lot of heart in the process. Congrats!

1:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From one Eagle fan to another, great post!
-- Tom G

10:31 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments, guys, I appreciate your interest in the blog. My guess is that between the snow and the Eagles' victory, businesses in the Philadelphia area weren't that productive today. I also think that Phila. fans are pinching themselves to make certain that what happened yesterday was real.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing of note on this entry:

You're missing an owner in the middle there. Leonard Tose didn't sell the team to Jeff Lurie, he sold it to Norman Braman. How can you forget him? He was the guy who dismantled one of the greatest defenses of all time because of his cheapness. He also is a part of NFL history in regards to Free Agency as Keith Jackson was one of the first players to do this.

Otherwise, your post is fine. I too am an Eagles Fan, and have suffered for many years as one. As I read your post, (Pre SB) it pains me to remember them losing to a Pats team that really didn't seem to care they were there.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read about the 1960 Eagles Championship win against Green Bay. I remember that Sunday morning my dad said bundle up we're going to see the Eagles.
I recently found the ticket stubs, $8.00 tickets and also still have a Eagle bobblehead of the 1960 Championship. I have a piece of the goal post and the memory of people fighting the police because the policde wouldn't let fans on the field. I think I will surprise my 28 yr. old son this Christmas.

Thought I would share my short story.

4:18 PM  
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great blog

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