“That could never happen here.” Ask any loyal, green bleeding die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, the answer will be the same. Could the NFL franchise which has existed in some form here since 1933 ever leave? Impossible, you’d think. Rabid fan base? Check. 4th largest TV market? Check. History and tradition? Double check! Yet, as I’ve watched the St. Louis Rams snatch the NFL outta Missouri and head for LA, I exhale and thank the sports Gods, because that was supposed to be us. Yup. The Eagles, Cardinals, and now the LA RAMS are forever enjoined in a power play that ultimately left only the Eagles unscathed.
1984. The NFL season is winding down, the Eagles are a desultory 6-9-1 just three seasons removed from a Super Bowl loss to the Raiders. Dick Vermeil has exited the stage, in a sobbing press conference where he describes himself as burnt-out by the 7 day a week grind of coaching in the NFL. Some would say he abandoned ship after trading the future for the present, leaving the Birds bereft of draft picks and under the stewardship of Marion Campbell, who I don’t think will ever be confused with Hank Stram. Whispers around the city begin. Owner Leonard Tose is 42 million in debt and is considering selling the team. No problem, most think, new owner, new money, new beginnings for a franchise badly in need of a fresh start. Then the word gets out that the new money is a Phoenix real estate mogul named Monaghan who has no intention of staying in Philadelphia. The Eagles hold a press conference where a sobbing Leonard Tose tells the city, “The Eagles will NEVER leave, they belong to you as much as they do to me.” This soothes the masses for as long as it takes an enterprising reporter to learn that his daughter, team President Susan Fletcher, is in Arizona finding schools for her children. Ultimately, the Eagles would stay. Saved by a combination of Tose’s inability to withstand a long and threatened legal battle, a sweetheart of a new stadium lease and additional luxury suites, and finally the sale to Norman Braman for 65 million (43 million went straight to the casinos, they’d get the rest later) and Leonard Tose would die penniless in 2003, his only means of support being Dick Vermeil, who supported him financially for nearly a decade.
But Bill Bidwell saw the money, infrastructure, and thirst of the Arizona desert and jumped into the breach, taking the Cardinals out of St. Louis to Glendale in 1987, leaving the city without NFL football for 8 seasons until the Rams would arrive to save the day. I apologize. I couldn’t help it. But know that I feel for the people of Missouri who lost jobs, lost professional relationships, but most importantly, lost the investment of their passion and souls to a carpetbagger who I don’t believe ever had the intention of staying, or even negotiating the future of the franchise in good faith. So it didn’t happen to us, but it was close. That’s enough for me to root for a quick return to the NFL for St. Louis. I think it happens. Build a stadium. Share it with an MLS franchise. There’s not one in America losing money today. Give both teams the same name. Target a return in 2021. Meanwhile we’ll root for the LA team to play like the St. Louis version did for the past few seasons. Forever.
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