I considered staring this blog entry with an Eagles chant because… well? That’s what this blog entry is about. But doing so seemed a bit formulaic, this week especially. In case you don’t know–and unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few weeks, or in some far-flung suburb of Ishcabible–the Eagles… my Philadelphia Eagles are about to play in the Super Bowl for only the third time in their long and illustrious history. Just the opportunity to witness another run at the Lombardi Trophy (all three appearances have happened in my lifetime, but only two resonate with any significance for me… I was a few months shy of five years old in 1980) is an amazing feeling. I have high hopes for them this weekend… I’ve been saying for weeks that they’re the only team in the NFL currently that can run with the evil empire, i.e. the… grumble, grumble… New England Patriots and on Sunday? I get to find out if I was right. Am I skeptical? Of course I am. I’m a Philadelphia sports fan. And if they lose… again… I’m going to be very, very distraught. But if they win? Oh my goodness if they win? Wow. Just… wow. It will be the culmination of decades of bleeding green, and routing for them with every ounce of my heart, mind and soul.
But here’s a little known fact about me, and for those of you that have known me for decades, this may come as quite a shock. Believe it or not? I was not always a tried-and-true Eagles fan. My love affair with this team only goes back about 30 of my 42 years on this planet, somewhere on the right, or wrong side (depending on your perspective) of the great wormhole of existence. I came to the Eagles as a pre-teen, and first fell in love with the Kelly Green wearing collection of personalities that dominated the face of sports in this town in the time of Lee Elia and Von Hayes, Tim Kerr and Paul Holmgren. Names like Randall Cunnigham and Reggie White, Jerome Brown and to this day, my all-time favorite Bird, the legendary Keith Byars, i.e. Buddy Ryan’s medical marvel. And Buddy… oh, Buddy. You were just the guy to skipper those teams. Your personality was Philly, and Philly believed in you like they’d never believed in anyone before. Sure, you never won a playoff game but memories? Oh boy did you give us a million. Bounty Bowl and Fog Bowl? Man! Just writing it makes me smile.
So how did I come to embrace the Eagles at the ripe, young age of 13? Well? It wasn’t a decision I came to on my own. I was invited into the fandom by someone that is, sadly, no longer with us this chilly night in 2018 as we prepare for the biggest football game anyone in this town has seen in 14 years (only three more sleeps until Super Bowl Sunday!). I’ve met a lot of Eagle fans over the years but this guy? This guy was and always will be the biggest member of the Bird Gang that I’ve ever encountered. A gruff and chiseled, chain cigarette smoking ex-Midshipman who was… well? Whether he was fond of me or not I don’t know. At least early on. I can only speak for myself when I say, quite transparently that I couldn’t stand him and I did everything in my power to eliminate him from my life for a long time. That changed as he got toward the end of his all-to-short stint in this world in the late 90s but I’m getting way ahead of myself. Back to the 80s. To the time of Def Leppard and Tim Burton’s “Batman,” Jams and Jellies. And, of course, Journey, a band that is, incidentally, playing in the background as I write this.
One day, I was invited by this gentleman to sit down and watch an Eagles game with him and my mother. I remember that I knew football. I played it with my friends and watched the Super Bowl every year, but that was it. I can’t remember who they were playing that day though for some reason, I think it was the Redskins. It was one of the rare times I’d been invited by him to do anything so of course, I obliged. I sat down with a cup of powdered iced tea and a bowl of Snyder’s pretzels in front of me and tuned in. I remember I asked a lot of questions as the game went along. “Who’s that?” Eric Allen. “And that?” Cris Carter. I learned that the Running Back was a guy named Anthony Tony and that the Kicker was a guy named Luis Zendejas. And by the time the first half ended and the second half began, he’d basically named every starting member of the team for me, the endless flow of questions ceased and I was able to watch and enjoy… really enjoy what I was seeing. I can’t remember if they won or lost the game. I guess a bit of research would answer that question. But it wasn’t the outcome of the game that stuck with me and caused me to come back and watch again, two weeks later, and every other Sunday after that from September until December, and some years into January well into the 90s. It was, quite frankly (no pun intended), the first time he and I had ever shared something in common. Watching the Birds play on Sunday became our church and temple. Our spirituality. Whether at his house or mine, we always sat down with our powdered iced tea and Snyder’s pretzels and gorged on football. We suffered through Rich Kotite together. We shared countless mainly first, but once or twice second round, playoff bounces together and grew fond of the adage, “there’s always next year.” We never went to a game live together, likely due to the fact that by the mid-90s, he had been diagnosed with Lung Cancer, an ailment that sadly took his life in March of 1997. He never got to see Andy or Jim, Five or Weapon-X. He never got to experience four straight NFC Eastern Division Championships, culminating in the 2004 Super Bowl versus the… grumble, grumble… New England Patriots at the onset of their now over a decade long dynasty. He was gone long before, his last memories those of Ray Rhodes and an embarrassing 6-9-1 record.
But do you know what, friends? He was there, even after he was gone. He was never far from my thoughts in the years following his untimely passing. My first thoughts were of him in 2001 when they advanced to their first of four consecutive NFC Championships. My first thoughts were of him in 2004 when they beat the Mike Vick-led Falcons and advanced to the Super Bowl (even as I drunkenly partied on the streets of Roxborough with my friends and then-girlfriend, Nicole Gentile). And when I cried after they lost two weeks later, it was his voice that I heard in my head and our oft-shared adage, “there’s always next year.” Next year happened, but it was an injury-riddled wash of a year that at one point found some scrub named Mike McMahon quarterbacking our team. Then came 2008 and the Birds’ last run at glory with Big Red at the helm. It ended with a loss to the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game and that gruff voice, speaking in my head once again, “there’s always next year.” The Andy Reid era came to long-overdue close a few years later and gave way to the Chip Kelly era (shiver). And when I declared on the day that he was hired that “they’re going to win a Super Bowl under Chip,” it was his smile that I saw in my mind. Through all the highs and lows of my life bleeding green since the late 80s, he was there. Whether in body or in spirit, he was a constant presence, routing on our team, teaching me the Eagles Fight Song, urging me to get a Hugh Douglas jersey and not a McNabb one because “Defense wins Super Bowls, kid.” And this past Christmas, when my now-wife Nicole Marsh surprised me with a Carson Wentz jersey, my first since Hugh, it was his voice that I heard in my mind congratulating me on “finding a good one, Frank. She’s a keeper.”
I hear a lot of people talk about what it means to be an Eagles fan. It’s never easy. It’s an invitation to heartbreak. It’s always being an underdog. It’s a fraternity of beer swilling, cigarette smoking, five o’clock shadow wearing a**holes that like to throw snowballs at Santa Claus and cheer when Michael Irvin goes down with a season-ending injury. People don’t like us. The only thing that gets the routing world behind the team from Philly is when they’re playing the team from New England and even then, a good portion of Texas still tells us to go piss up a Crisco-greased light pole. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I’d never try to impose mine upon anyone. But the thing is, friends? There’s more… so much more to being an Eagles fan than the above listed criteria. Ask around and you’ll find that almost everyone that bleeds green has a story like mine. A tale of how they became a fan. A tale of that first memory of sitting down to watch a team of Kelly Green or Green, Silver and Black clad brothers going toe-to-toe with the expectations. Those brothers? Those teams? They’re family, folks. I may only watch them on Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from early August to the first of February, but they’re as much a part of my life, and the lives of many people here in and around the City of Brotherly Love as anyone. This Sunday night? I’m excited to sit down in my customary spot in my living room with my unwashed, number 11 jersey on, my Chip Kelly visor on the floor beside me and the remote control perched precariously on the arm of said chair beside me and watch them hopefully unseat the evil empire (because I’m not superstitious, sarcasm fully intended). The man that introduced me to them? The first person to tell me all the names of the players I was watching? He’ll be there with me too. Never far from my thoughts. And if …
No… when they defy the odds yet again and win? Then I’ll shout, and cheer, and sing the Eagles fight song over and over again, surrounded by my friends and family and yes, I’ll likely cry a bit because I know that somewhere, somehow the man that made me a fan of the greatest professional football team in the country with the most passionate fanbase of any team in the country will be doing the same. I’ll hear his voice in my head and this time? He won’t be saying “there’s always next year.” He’ll simply smile that big ol’ smile of his and say, with all the pride in the universe on this side of the proverbial wormhole of existence…
“I told you so, kid.”