SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Thursday, February 03, 2005

A City On The Verge

I've traveled a bit in the past week, I've driven to Philadelphia International Airport a few times, and I've listened to WIP, the local sports radio station, and I've talked to friends, all, of course, about the Philadelphia Eagles.

One of my best friends went to the NFC Championship game with his son, a HS senior, sharing a ritual that this friend and his older brother enjoyed with their dad while we were growing up. They dug out of their driveway on the eve of the NFC Championship game and drove down to The Linc. They wore their heavy winter clothing, took their hoagies, and then enjoyed the electricity that took place at the game. After the game, they stayed in the parking lot until it emptied, just savoring all of the joy that the collective fan base exuded. It was a day to remember.

Another friend was at the game, on his cell phone with, or text messaging, his son, who is at college in the Midwest. At least ten times, probably more. The son wanted to return for the game, but studies interfered. The consolation prize: they will be in Jacksonville together on Sunday. Rooting for the Eagles.

Fathers and sons. There are so many examples.

And so many great stories. A guy called up WIP to say that his disabled son, who is in a wheelchair, goes to school every Monday in his Eagles garb. He does it because he's a huge Eagles fan, and because his teacher, at a school in southern NJ, right across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, is a Redskins fan. His son always wanted to wave the hometown team's colors every Monday. This man wanted to dedicate the game to his son.

A young woman telephone and wanted to dedicate the game to her father, who loved the Eagles and taught her everything she knows about football. College kids called in and said they were caravaning back this weekend for the game, whether to watch the game with family and friends and to go to the best sports bar not featured in this week's SI, Chickie & Pete's. They just know that despite their commitments elsewhere, they just couldn't miss the experience of watching their game in their hometown for the world. One of them cannot miss a class on Monday in the Boston area, so he'll drive all night after the game to get back to make his class.

It's just that important to people. If you don't live in the Philadelphia area, you couldn't begin to understand.

In a way, it's been like a huge reunion. People called in to say that they spoke with their old neighbors, people they hadn't seen or heard from in years, about the Eagles. I have gotten some expressions of encouragement from diehard Giants fans, if for no other reason that they understand that New York has had something Philadelphia hasn't had in a while -- championships. In response to some good-natured ribbing, I e-mailed everyone a copy of the Eagles' fight song.

My mother and sister aren't football fans per se, but they're donning pink Eagles hats, supporting their team and breast cancer research. Tomorrow, school kids all over the greater Philadelphia area will be wearing their Eagles' jerseys -- Westbrook, Dawkins, Owens, McNabb, Kearse. Some have Hugh Douglas jerseys, even though #53 is just a back-up and far from the first person the press gravitates to. Others have Troy Vincent jerseys (#23), even though the mentor of today's outstanding secondary is now with the Bills. And today, at the airport, I saw a guy with a Randall Cunningham jersey. Tomorrow, my 7 year-old daughter will be donning her green #81 jersey, and my son will be wearing his white #5.

E-A-G-L-E-S. Eagles!!!!!!

One of my best friends from HS and I are both doing the same thing on Sunday, watching the game just with our immediate family members. We have turned down numerous invitations to Super Bowl parties -- invites we normally would accept if the Eagles weren't in the game. But we really want to watch this game, synthesize every play, scoff at the announcers when they are too tough on our team, slap hands with our kids and shout encouragement at our team without worrying about any decorum. We've just waited too long for this.

We played touch and tackle football together on various open lots in our neighborhood growing up, putting on every old sweatshirt and pair of sweatpants we could imagine, throwing bombs and running sweeps and rushing the passer. We walked across the South Street Bridge together from Center City Philadelphia to Franklin Field to watch bad Eagles teams, and then suffered through worse teams in the early 1970's at the Vet and had to listen to a monotone from a kid named Henry up in the 700 level (where, to our knowledge, no muggings took place) who just droned on about his Iggles. And it wasn't like we went together a lot; he went with his family members, but I relished every invitation I got from him.

Our dads used to talk excitedly about the Eagles, and they used to pick up the phone incessantly during key Eagles games during the Dick Vermeil era when the Eagles somehow were winning game after game. They did this even though they lived only two blocks from one another, and they also did this when the team lost more games than it won. Which was a lot. Even when the Birds were bad, they still had people's captive attention.

Sunday's game will be a fountainhead of so many different emotions for so many Philadelphians and Philadelphia expats. As Carole King once sang, "It's been so long, I can't remember when." Most Philadelphians just don't remember what it's like to celebrate a championship. The Phillies' World Series victory in 1980 was huge, because they had never won it all. As big as that was, it doesn't measure up to this.

Philadelphia is a football town now. The Sixers have had more ups and downs than the average elevator at One Liberty Place. The Flyers aren't playing, and there just aren't that many hockey fans out there. The Phillies have disappointed so much that their fans don't trust them anymore. And the Eagles have done everything right -- they manage the cap well, they draft okay, and they get the right free agents to fill holes. The team has earned the fans' trust, and the fans love the team because of it.

The players are very focused. You'll recall that right after the NFC Championship game, the press asked defensive leader Brian Dawkins and QB Donovan McNabb about how happy they were. Both of them, as if scripted, said matter-of-factly that they were happy, but that their season was far from over. They still had a job to do. They didn't seem afraid, just focused.

The whole town was giddy at the win over the Falcons, but the team leaders were still in leadership mold. Rejoice in this, yes, but we are not done yet. Not by a long shot. We still have work to do.

When I heard that stores were selling "Eagles One" hats, standing for one city, one team and one dream, I shrugged a bit, or perhaps scoffed, because I think that in many cases some of these marketing slogans, which come up in every city when something special is going on, are overbloated. But upon reflection, I think that this slogan is dead on.

Philadelphia is more united than at any time in its history (with the possible exception of 1776). If the Eagles win on Sunday, you'll see a parade and a party that will shut the city down for days. If the Eagles lose, the city will rebound, as its history has always dictated, and the fans will return next season with the same enthusiasm that they have shown in recent years, knowing that the organization will do its best to bring home a winner. It was hard for them to come back cheerful after last year's disappointment in the NFC championship game, but they did. And they'll do so again if they have to.

But if they don't have to, well, the celebration will be something to behold.

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