Why Do We Care So Much?
Paul Campise is 76 years old, a retired court reporter who lives on Main Street in Moorestown, with a summer place on Long Beach Island. But Paul’s a Philly boy. He grew up at 28th and Mifflin. In ninth grade, he aced the test that got him into La Salle High School, which launched him across town to 19th and Olney and out of the neighborhood for good. He went on to have six kids, and his youngest, Tina, took over his business. She inherited something else as well, best explained in her failed first marriage.
“I was 19 or 20 when I got engaged,” she explains, “and, this is the God’s honest truth, my father sat me down. Now, we were both still in school, didn’t really have jobs or our own apartment, and here we are engaged, planning a wedding, but my father doesn’t tell me I’m too young. He says, ‘Tina, he’s a Cowboys fan. This is going to be a problem.’”
Pro football — in case you haven’t noticed — is not like other sports in Philadelphia. That’s because in Philadelphia, football isn’t a sport; it’s a calling. And I don’t mean for the players.
Paul spent much of the ’70s running through the parking lots and stands at Eagles games waving a banner, rousing the faithful on up to the nosebleed level at the Vet. Three years ago, he spent 60 hours a week — for six months — alone, in his basement, creating Eaglesville, a model stadium with fans and cops and tailgaters and handicapped parking spaces and a fat inch-high Andy Reid and trains looping around it all; to get the particular blue of the sky above the stadium, with the right puffy clouds, he had to send away to Germany for wallpaper, which cost him 75 bucks. The scoreboard reads Eagles 54, Cowboys 0. Paul hates the Cowboys — their arrogance, their sanctimony, their Super Bowl wins, everything about them that’s so clearly not us. The Cowboys don’t stand for evil. They are evil. As for Tina, she now has three young daughters with her second husband; the first one, the Cowboys guy, well, her father was right. “It was a factor,” she says, in what went wrong.
She isn’t kidding.
TALK TO ENOUGH EAGLES FANS, and Paul and Tina begin to seem less crazy. Or at least they’re part of a very big club of lunatics. The Eagles got rolling here back in the ’30s, so there’s a long history of fathers introducing sons to the game, and the sons on down to their sons (or daughters, or wives), buoyed by championships in 1948, 1949 and 1960. Rooting for the Eagles is a passion fanned by family connection — the method of connection for a lot of families.
But family ties are only one part of the story. Starting 30 years ago, the team became much more important, a place to escape, but also a place to invest the simplest hope. Can we? A long time ago, we were good. Can we ever get there again? It hasn’t happened, of course. But sprinkling a little bitter despair into the emotional cocktail has only made it stronger.
It can be hard to tell, given the level of passion, whether our hopes are pinned on a mere sports team. Blip to WIP-AM on a Saturday morning in, say, March, and there’s a perfectly sane-sounding guy from Olney, or Newtown Square, who has called in because he’s worried about the state of the quarterback’s knee. Not just worried about it. Obsessed over it. Saw the quarterback on TV and it looked like he was limping. This can’t be good. Plus the QB has an Amish beard. Yo, dude — it’s March.
Margaret Gardner thinks about the Eagles every day of the year. Margaret got braces, one day in mid-July. It occurred to her, that day, that in seven weeks she would color them black and green, in honor of the Monday night season opener of the Eagles. Margaret Gardner is 39 years old.
She lives in a nice house in West Deptford, she sells advertising for the American College of Physicians, she has a husband named Sean and two daughters, ages 13 and 10. She appears to be normal.
What’s going on? When did our football team morph from sports to the manifestation, for so many of us, of something so much larger?
IT DID START WITH FATHERS AND SONS. And it crosses class lines, the connection and hope and pain. Mike Tollin, who’s made the movies Radio and Varsity Blues, grew up in Havertown. He was five in 1960, when his father took his brother to the championship game at Franklin Field; Mike was deemed too young to go, which he will never forget. “In some subconscious way, I was scarred,” Tollin says. “I felt, This may take the rest of my life, but I will be at an Eagles championship game.” As he got older, he did get to hand Mr. Himes, his Hebrew school teacher, a note from his father to get him out early — seven Sundays a year, for seven home games. He and his father and brother would park on 34th Street, and it was the most glorious 20 minutes of anticipation, the smell of cigars and peanuts, the rickety steps, a hard bench. Then the Eagles would start losing, it would get colder and colder in the fading light, they’d walk back to the car depressed in the frigid dusk, to homework, to hell. Bingo! Hope and despair in three hours. Tollin lives in L.A., but took his seven-year-old son to the Philly/Jacksonville game last year, introduced him to Donovan McNabb, thus positioning him “right where I want him.” Primed for a life of Eagles misery. Tollin invites 15 Eagles fans trapped in L.A. over to his home theater on the only Sundays of the year that count.
Through the ’60s, into the ’70s, the family drama rolled all over the city. E.J. Banks is a 39-year-old probation officer and rap musician who lives in Overbrook. He got his Eagles introduction through the Lord. “When I was little, I used to think that Jesus Christ was an Eagles quarterback. I was four or five, and I had to stay upstairs while my dad watched the game with his gangsta friends. They’d drink beer, play cards. And every couple of seconds I’d hear, ‘Jesus Christ! Throw the damn ball!’ So I thought Jesus Christ played for the Eagles.” Pretty soon E.J. was old enough, Sunday mornings, pregame, to enjoy eggs and sausage and The Three Stooges with his pop. The quarterback was Roman Gabriel. He was close enough to God.
So, yes, a certain family-inspired lure of the Eagles goes way back. But consider the shifting level of passion. In the late ’50s, if you bought an Eagles ticket, you’d get one free — they were called father-son tickets, and they cost $15.50 per season for the pair. Old-timers — those who actually remember the Eagles championship in 1960, that is — righteously claim that Eagles fervor hit the big time that year. By 1961, season ticket sales had doubled to 34,000. Yet that left some 26,000 seats still available at Franklin Field, at a price of $5 and $3 — it wasn’t like the city was desperate over the team. These days, 60,000 people are on the waiting list for season tickets. Hell, up to 20,000 fans showed up daily for training camp this summer.
Somewhere in there, everything changed.
VAI SIKAHEMA, THE EX-EAGLE and current local sports anchor, played for the Cardinals during the Eagles’ Buddy Ryan years. One Sunday, the Cardinals took three buses, with a police escort, to the Vet from their hotel at the airport, over the Platt Bridge. Small problem: At Broad and Pattison, the first two buses went through, but the third got hung up at the light. The cops went ahead, with the other buses. Fans were flowing by, toward the stadium, and realized who was on that third bus: about 20 Cardinals. They started yelling, cursing, and rocking the bus. Sikahema would later sign with the Eagles, would settle into his broadcasting career here. But that day, the fans, screaming, going crazy, rocked the bus so violently, 20 Cardinals had one thought: We’re about to be killed. Sikahema laughs about it now. But he has something in common with superfan Tina (who was careful to marry an Eagles fan the second time around): He isn’t kidding, either.
Sikahema says that this city has the most intense fans of any city in the NFL. So does Ron Jaworski, who was quarterback during the first great leap in Philadelphia fandom, in the late 1970s.
Which brings us to Dick Vermeil. It’s now a given what a swell guy Vermeil is, the guy who drove a so-so team to the Super Bowl, the guy who burned out and had to quit, the guy who’s pitched Blue Cross on a thousand local billboards. But it wasn’t a given when he arrived in 1976, the year of our Bicentennial embarrassment. If you want to remember what the city looked like back then, rent Rocky — Philadelphia, once so important, was the dumpy middle kid between New York and Washington. The race wars still boiled. The city was leaking people, jobs, money. We did have a collective identity, one the Eagles were particularly consistent at reinforcing: We suck.
Vermeil says it himself, that a lot of fans wondered, Who is this Boy Scout? A California guy who looked like Redford, had won the Rose Bowl, Mr. Rah-Rah.
It took him, by his estimation, two years to win us over. The first year, when he was driving in from Bryn Mawr, stuck on the Expressway, and fans recognized him, he got flipped off a lot. Vermeil, being Vermeil, didn’t respond in kind — he ignored it, or looked over at a bonkers driver and smiled. Winning Dick. But by the middle of that second season, the team improving, his boundless let’s-get-’em energy and working around the clock and public displays of emotion — my God, the guy means all that shit — those crawlers on the Expressway flashed a different hello: thumbs up. You go get ’em, Dick.
A new generation of fans got stoked, including a kid named Sean, Margaret Gardner’s future husband, then an eighth-grader in Paulsboro, South Jersey. He remembers the Super Bowl in 1980 like it was yesterday. Took a walk to a convenience store at halftime, to get some chips and soda. He was sure the Eagles were coming back. Didn’t happen, of course. But we still had Vermeil, we still had hope, he’d get us back there. Thirteen-year-old Sean was more than stoked — he was hooked.
But Dick couldn’t hold on. One morning, he couldn’t get out of his car at the Vet. Another day, couldn’t get up from his desk to go to practice. He’d gone over the top; he was trying too hard. Which told us, in a new way, how much he cared, how much he needed this — that while he may not have had our demons, he had something going on. He was as desperate as we were. But Vermeil had to quit.
The team got awful again. Meanwhile, the mayor bombed a neighborhood. The city leaked more jobs. Downtown was empty at night.
Then Buddy Ryan came, another guy we could get behind. Oh, Buddy we figured out immediately, a short, fat guy who said whatever and acted like he owned the joint. Cagey, that Buddy. First radio show he does, in 1986, there’s a staffer wearing a t-shirt that says I’VE CHEERED FOR TWO TEAMS. THE EAGLES AND WHOEVER PLAYS DALLAS. “Of course,” Buddy says now, “that meant I put the emphasis on Dallas.” Like the way he once placed a bounty on the Dallas kicker, challenging his team to knock him out of the game.
If Dick Vermeil was famous for his tough practices, Buddy got our attention with the sheer violence of his. First day of his first practice in Philadelphia, Ryan presided over six fights; 10 guys were sent to the hospital for dehydration. All set up by Buddy: He’d tell the offensive guys to block the defensive guys low, at the knees. Then he’d tell the defensive guys what the offensive guys were doing, back off, watch the spectacle as he twirled his whistle. Bad-ass Buddy. He famously dismissed his boss, owner Norman Braman, as “that guy in France.” He dismissed team president Harry Gamble, also his boss, as Braman’s “illegitimate son.” He dismissed the scabs who dared call themselves Eagles when his players went on strike. This was our guy. High risk, high reward.
Small problem: That guy in France, it was his football team. And before Buddy got us there, to the Promised Land, Norman Braman got rid of Buddy.
We tanked again. Which was worse than ever, because now we were really hooked.
PRO FOOTBALL HAD BECOME BIGGER, from the 1960s onward, partly through increased TV exposure, partly through the building, for 16 weeks every fall, of a violent drama that mirrored where the country seemed headed.
And we know the story of this city — from that last championship in 1960, when you’d still go downtown to shop at Woolworth’s, to the end of Buddy Ryan’s tenure here, when super-fan Ed Rendell marched in to save us from financial ruin. That’s what makes us different from, say, Tampa or San Diego or Kansas City. Take Chicago. The city of big shoulders has an idea about itself reflected in the Bears. But Chicago isn’t collectively desperate over the fate of its football team. Forbes recently tabbed the Eagles as having the highest brand value — $90 million — of 122 pro sports teams; sponsorships, naming rights, local media, tickets and merchandise were all part of the calculation. What it boils down to is fan passion. Monday morning after an Eagles win, the Daily News sells another 16,000 copies; even after a loss, circulation spikes up 4,000 or so.
Desperate isn’t a stretch. Stuart McMahon sees close similarities between Philadelphia and his native Glasgow. McMahon got a doctorate in sports administration at Temple, and now teaches at Salem College in Massachusetts, including a course titled “Sport in Culture.” Glasgow, nuts about soccer, once wielded central economic and political power that’s long since moved on to London. McMahon points to a similar void in Philly, with an attendant need to prove ourselves, to rise back up. In both cities, he also sees “a deep sense of wanting to be part of the larger family in their communities.” What he means is, we really need a way to be in this together. Everybody who studies why fans are fans hits that group dynamic. Eric Zillmer, a neuropsychologist and the director of athletics at Drexel, puts it this way: “When we come together as fans, we celebrate the myth of Philadelphia.”
The “myth of Philadelphia”? What is that? A myth of darkness and destruction, of rabid fans turning over the bus of opposing players, something out of a Terrence McNally vision of the city? No. Take a drive up 95, get off at the Bridge Street exit, pass under the GREATER NORTHEAST sign, pass the landmark green Eagles school bus, plopped on the roof of an auto-body warehouse. That’s where you’ll find the myth, as you scan the crammed streets off Frankford, where you can’t find a parking space or a tree, where the boys go off to a war the rest of us are trying to ignore. The myth rises, from the bottom up, like hip-hop to the ’burbs. That means if you want to join the football fever, if you want to join in on the collective idea of “Philadelphia,” you’ve got to be real, authentic — it means getting in on the way it’s done here, the raw buildup 16 weeks a year in the fall, heading into a metaphoric war with a certain attitude.
That’s why Dick and Buddy became so powerful for us, the leading figures in the ultimate us-against-them that football poses. Myths require heroes, and heroes have to have their own trials, have to overcome some big-time trouble. Vermeil’s ungodly fervor — that’s what got him past the California college-guy thing, in our view. In fact, Vermeil is more like us than we ever knew: His father worked day and night in his mechanic shop in their Napa backyard, and Dick joined him, full-time, the day he graduated from school — grammar school. There was no choice: “I was afraid of my father,” Vermeil remembers now. All we knew was that he was spending all those sleepless nights at the Vet and crying on Leonard Tose’s lapel, and we watched him crack up. That was good enough for us.
With Buddy, it’s easy to believe he came from shit-scrub Oklahoma, grew up without indoor plumbing, would spend his Sunday afternoons with his three brothers, throwing a rope around four cottonwoods, where the quartet would fight each other until Buddy, the oldest, would get whipped by his two-fisted roustabout father. Christ, that way of dealing was written all over Buddy. What’s surprising is the Buddy you meet now, out in Shelbyville, Kentucky, at the farm where he breeds Thoroughbreds. He’s still trying to find a winner.
One of his horses is named Fired for Winning — sweet! A stick-it-to-Norman-Braman name Buddy could prance about at the Kentucky Derby. How old is Fired for Winning? I wonder.
“Well, let’s see,” Buddy says. “What year did we get fired? Ninety? Ninety-one?”
Buddy goes around, stall to stall, with a hose, releasing a stream of water into a big bucket at each.
“Peaceful animals,” I offer.
“Aren’t they?” he says.
We stand there for a moment, Buddy crimping the hose as he admires a set of packed haunches. Oh, Lord. In search of Buddy Ryan, I’ve discovered Wilford Brimley — he could care less about Norman Braman. It will take me a while, but finally I’ll realize: That’s exactly right.
Because this side of Buddy — nuzzling mares with sloppy kisses — that’s him, too. Driving his players crazy was tough Buddy-love, and oh, could we feel that, the way his players responded with ferocious effort.
Vermeil and Ryan gave us so much — such vivid, large guys, and of course they had to be good — they pulled us further in. And we started playing it out — our idea of ourselves, our idea of “Philly,” in a deeper, needier, crazier way, the only bus-rockin’ way we knew how.
That rep we’ve got as sports fans, that craziness everybody has seen on TV. We know what it’s all about: It’s about love.
SO HERE WE ARE.
Margaret and Sean Gardner, two South Jersey kids, fell in love, got married, had two girls. Seven years ago, they joined a 12-person tailgating group. Tailgating starts at 6 a.m. on game days, including Monday night games. There’s drinking, a DJ, dancing, napping, drinking, beanbag horseshoes, and, of course, drinking. “Those are eight days out of my year that I live for,” says Margaret. The other tailgaters have become their best friends. Going down to Jacksonville in an RV with them to the Super Bowl, she says, was the best experience of her life.
“Because we were drunk,” Sean admits.
“We weren’t drunk!” she protests. “We were having fun.”
During the season, Sean listens to WIP every day, calls in to Anthony and Stevie’s show once a week, worries the X’s and O’s. He played ball in high school. Now he sells advertising for Clipper magazine — that’s how he met the tailgaters, one of them was a client. When the Birds lose, he likes to be alone, the social thing becomes a bit much. That annoys Margaret. She could talk to every one of the 70,000 people in the stands; that’s why she’s there. Which is fine, it lets him focus on what’s important, he can grumble off into himself, figure out exactly what’s wrong with his screwed-up team. It usually takes Sean until Friday to come out of his funk when the Eagles lose, but he’s ready to tailgate by Sunday, after his week of WIP, of brooding, of coming to terms. He’s ready to go to war. Margaret’s ready to dance.
Their Eagles, our Eagles, do not play a game — this is far too important to be a game. “I was bawling my eyes out in Jacksonville at halftime,” says Margaret. “Because we really were going to win.” Just like Sean was sure, back in eighth grade, that we would come back and win that Super Bowl.
This — both Margaret and Sean are sure — this is our year.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Philadelphia magazine.