In the beginning they were one. They came from the industrial hardscrabble streets of Kensington, from the heavily Italian enclaves of South Philadelphia, some walked up from the North Philadelphia communities of the “Valley,” Brewerytown and Nicetown, others arrived via the trolley’s that connected West Philly to Lehigh Avenue via Girard Avenue and the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. They gathered on Sundays to watch their Philadelphia Eagles at the old Baker Bowl in 1933, Municipal Stadium in 1935 and on to Connie Mack ’40, Franklin Field ’58, Veterans Stadium ’72 and finally their current sparkling state of the art home, Lincoln Financial Field in 2003. They were one, and they expected their team and the players who donned the Kelly Green and White to reflect the personality of the city. Tough and gritty, unyielding, never too tired or busy for a good fight win or lose. That the Eagles did. While not always aesthetically successful, (aside from the 48-49 consecutive NFL Titles and the 1960 team that conquered the young dynasty of the 60’s Packers), the Eagles were a celebration of mediocrity. Still the city gathered en masse to root as one for their Philadelphia Eagles.
I don’t know when the poison set in. I don’t know why the great divide. I can point to many reasons and we’ll examine those. Suffice it is to say, the fan base that turned on their TV’s Sunday night for Super Bowl LII, the faithful that traveled to the frostbitten mecca of Minneapolis and those Philly expatriates who viewed from afar were no longer the unified base that represented EAGLES football and swore undying allegiance. There were fractures, formed of years of just not being enough, unable to take that final step, to stand along side their NFC EAST DIVISION RIVALS on the grandest stage clutching Mr. Lombardi’s trophy. But this fan base needed healing, and for this surgery to be successful, and unification to occur, it was gonna take a championship. Nothing less would do.
It’s not always apparent. Difficult too to recognize the symptoms. Yeah, you’ll hear the delightful, often drunken recitation of the fight song, iconic in and of itself, sung with fervor at ANY event or venue in and around Philadelphia at any moment. It sounded of unity and never felt divisive, and nationally the Eagles fan base was viewed as a singular gang of things, not to be tarried with, but there was ALWAYS an underlying air of division borne of memories of past disaster, terrible draft picks, bad management, near bankruptcy, and the Andy Reid Era that begat Chip Kelly and bubbled over into a schism that would rival Game Of Thrones for it’s complexities.
There was the House of “Tradition.” Those Eagles lifer’s now creeping up on their 9th decade who remember Pete Pihos, the consecutive NFL Title shutouts and clung to the idea that this Eagles team and it’s players didn’t appreciate the opportunity the NFL afforded, seeing today’s players as ungrateful mercenaries bonded only by paychecks with the same signature.
There were the Rozelle Kids, those who watched the legendary Chuck Bednarik level Jim Taylor and deliver the NFL title to Franklin Field in the fall of 1960, still lamenting the trade that dispatched Hall Of Fame QB Sonny Jurgensen to the Washington Redskins and began a spiral of losing that would last over a decade and accompany the franchise to their beautiful new Veterans Stadium home, illuminated by “Snowball Santa” as the legend goes and a 42-3 Monday Night Football loss memorable only for the fact that the Eagles actually faced a 3rd and 49 and graced by fans circling the Vet carrying an inflatable dog bone to let the team know exactly how they felt about current roster.
Then there was the Era Of Hope, those of us who met Dick Vermeil and his “rah rah” college coach enthusiasm that would infect the Delaware Valley and the locker room. That would carry a group of overachieving athletes to the brink of the world championship in 1980, only to experience that joyless Sunday in New Orleans that saw Ron Jaworski throw three beautiful passes (albeit to Oakland defenders) on the way to a heartbreaking defeat to a team they had defeated just weeks earlier. The Vermeil era would end with him crying “burnout” amidst an aging locker room and a roster mostly bereft of talent and not enough resources (due to trades for veterans) to replenish. This calamity would be further exacerbated by the near loss of the franchise to Arizona when the team’s owner and shepherd, Leonard Tose, would gamble away his fortune in Atlantic City and narrowly avoid legendary infamy when Norman Braman bought him out with a pledge to keep the team in South Philly.
Well, this patient is going to get sicker and the symptoms more dramatically visible as the team would move into the era fondly known (by some) as “Buddy Ball.” Nothing Philadelphia had experienced in sports had prepared us for James David Ryan. Blustery, boisterous, and braggadocios, Buddy arrived to take over a moribund talentless roster that he would mold into arguably the NFL’S best defense of it’s time, accompanied by the mercurial talent of Randall Cunningham at QB, yet this team would not win a playoff game despite all the accolades Buddy would receive, and he would be ignominiously sacked in ’92 for Rich Kotite and the spirit would begin anew and with the birth of sports talk radio, create a further and deepening fissure among the fans that had begun to wonder, “will it ever be our turn” and now had an outlet to place blame, excoriate management almost daily and vocally, and finally, denigrate each other for their thoughts, ideas, and reasons why we hadn’t reached the promised land of Mr. Lombardi’s trophy and the accompanying parade.
These factions were dug in now, and the pain and division would deepen as a procession of great players abandoned ship in the 90’s led by Hall Of Fame DE Reggie White, perennial All-Pro’s Seth Joyner and Keith Jackson, and lesser lights yet major contributors like Clyde Simmons, Eric Allen and Keith Byars made their departures without either compensation or replacement.
There was a light at the end of the ’90’s tunnel however, his name was Andrew Walter Reid, and he arrived along with the new QB Messiah, Donovan McNabb, to breathe life into this city. Andy Reid would ignite the fuse of the football fury with repeated forays deep into the NFL playoffs, yet would start the worst fire among the fans with his seeming unwillingness to yield to the obvious, his intractable nature and style would create the biggest and most visible wound in Eagles Nation to date. I won’t tell you how it ended. You already know if you’re reading this.
Sleepless nights after burning and inexplicable, very often unexplainable losses versus lesser opponents, most of them at home that often left the city stunned and defeated as yet another dagger was driven deeply into our collective sports psyche, hearts, and minds. Some will say that the loss in Jacksonville at SUPER BOWL 39 was the backbreaker, the moment the fan base went into total divide as the EAGLES stood frozen in time and memory watching the clock ticking away on a season and game that seemed destined to bring home the title so thirsted for by the faithful.
I won’t go into the debacle that was the brief yet memorable reign of Chip Kelly. By now you’ve probably thrown you’re IPAD, chucked the newspaper, cancelled your subscription, and are wondering why I’m reminding you of the pain of this journey to Super Bowl LII and the miracle of Nicky Football, the football David who slew Goliath, squashed the dynasty of BELICHICK and BRADY, destroyed the Evil Empire of The House Of Kraft.
Yes, there was a healing Sunday night. Dougie P and “The Prodigal Son” Nick Foles performed a surgery unseen before in the history of this world. They reunited a fractured, wounded, often left for dead city of Eagles fans and their communities. There is no way to devalue what Doug Pederson and a stand-in QB accomplished in Minnesota. Today, we are one. No more sleepless nights. No more taunting by fans of the other NFC EAST franchises. Stand down, all of youse! Today, we are one. Doug Pederson and Nick Foles healed 58 years of suffering with 3 hours of unmatched tenacity, daring, and fearlessness that can’t be quantified in words.
I don’t believe we’ll ever sink again to the depths that Dougie P and Nicky Football rescued us from. Hopefully not, that took nearly 60 years to accomplish. All I know for sure is that today, we are one. Wishes do come true. Even in Philadelphia, where for 58 years, our football dreams came to die. Thank you Doug. Thank you Nick. Thanks to my compadres amongst the faithful who rode this thing we live “til the wheels fell off” and beyond. Welcome to the recovery room. The surgery was successful. Let the healing begin.