The Most Beloved Sports Team in Philadelphia’s History
THE BRIAN DAWKINS EFFECT (25%)
The strongest bond between fans and their teams is obviously forged by the athletes themselves. But here, it’s not just any athletes—it’s the ones who play the game the way Philly fans would play the game (if Philly fans could, you know, actually play).
Retired ex-Eagle Brian Dawkins defines this category. When the fiery All-Pro safety left for Denver in 2009, it felt like a family member had skipped town without a proper goodbye. Fans didn’t support the Eagles for letting him go—they sided with Dawkins. When I ask him what Philly fans respond to, Dawkins answers with no hesitation. “Effort, period,” he says. “Whether it’s on offense, defense or special teams, whether it’s a guy diving for loose balls in basketball, running into the wall in baseball, or throwing check after check on the boards in hockey. Nonstop effort till you don’t have no more to give.”
The fact that Dawkins remembers former Phillie Aaron Rowand underscores what we love about certain athletes. In 2006, Rowand—a slightly above-average player—became a local folk hero for breaking his face on the outfield fence just to catch a fly ball in a regular-season game. (Contrast him with ex-Phils catcher Rod Barajas, who signed his pink slip with one halfhearted attempt to protect home plate that the fans neither forgave nor forgot.)
The 1993 Phillies had a roster full of Rowands—guys whose hustle exceeded their talent. That team’s off-the-field habits would have made last year’s Red Sox chicken-and-beer scandal look like a PSA for good sportsmanship, but it’s also why they’re still so popular. “We were blue-collar,” says Phillies Wall of Fame inductee Darren Daulton, the leader of that team. “We caroused like nobody else, but we never let it affect our play.”
Though times have changed, you can see the links between the eras: the ’74/’75 Flyers, whom fans shared suds with at Rexy’s on the Black Horse Pike; the ’93 Phillies, whom most fans couldn’t party with, but wanted to; and the ’08 Phillies, who connected less by beer-swilling with the masses than via their professionalism and what seemed to be a clubhouse full of all-around good guys. The DNA all three teams share is the will to win. As Charles Barkley told me, “If you don’t give maximum effort, they’ll run your ass out of town.”
O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN! (10%)
We may be calloused as a fan base after decades of great expectations dashed upon the craggy shores of failure, but deep down, we have the souls of poets—we ache with every fumble, rejoice with every clutch three-pointer, and look to our leaders with open hearts for inspiration. Phillies president David Montgomery, a lifelong local sports fan, says Manuel’s popularity rivals that of his players: “We’ve been a good second-half club, and I think one of the reasons is because our players still enjoy each other in those dog days of August. It’s Charlie’s leadership that fosters that.” Manuel is also a rare example of us fans admitting we were wrong (about our early impression of him as a hapless bumpkin).
While the city grew to embrace Manuel’s down-home style, Andy Reid’s stoic public personality has had the opposite effect, serving as a wedge between fans and the Eagles. Buddy Ryan’s record doesn’t come close to Reid’s, but his style was quintessentially Philly. He once made this blunt assessment of pro athletes: “Dumb guys sulk and pout. You never see smart guys pout. Hey, they are paid very well. If they don’t do the job, somebody’s gotta get on ’em. The good players always react the way they should.” As inspirational quotes go, Flyers coach Fred Shero’s message—“Win today and we walk together forever”—still resonates 38 years later. “At the time, you think he’s talking about the players,” says Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent. “It was meant for the whole Delaware Valley.”