I ONLY BREAK character once out of all four games. It happens in a parking lot near the Linc a few minutes before kickoff against Dallas. Next to our tailgate spot, a dad in an oversized pickup eats a hoagie while his teenage son smokes weed. A pack of Eagles fans is laughing at my mask when one of them approaches. He seems like a solid guy; lives in Wildwood; we talk some Shore.
“Go ahead,” Bill says. “Tell him.”
Why not? I reveal that I’m a lifelong Birds fan and a journalist wearing this getup for a story. His eyes widen.
“You,” he says, “are fucking crazy, man.”
The Tony Romo shirt I have on is bad enough. But the mask—this damn mask is like a silvery beacon, a signal indicating that my peripheral vision is compromised and I’m all yours for sucker-punching. I’m a walking beer-can bull’s-eye. On our way into the Linc, two drunks behind me yell “FUCK THE COWBOYS!” at the back of my head. A fellow who’s the size of a Porta Potty and wearing a Jason Witten jersey tells them to settle down. They oblige. I consider paying him for protection.
For the next three hours, I’m a minor celebrity of sorts. A few Cowboys fans pose for photos with me; a Birds fan snaps a pic and says “Good luck”—by his somber tone, I assume he’s referring to my survival, not the final score. Up in our end-zone seats, a row of women in front of us, all in green, ask me to join them for a selfie. “My husband will hate this,” one says. “He’s here at the game.” It’s suddenly very sweaty under my mask.
I make a potentially disastrous tactical error in the first quarter by using a notebook instead of my phone. Everyone notices: the Selfie Gals, Camo Pants, and the Ball Bust Brothers to my left, one of whom leans over and unleashes a long, loud “Booooooooooooooo” in my ear at random intervals. When he asks why I’m writing, I think of the most irritating answer.
“I’m a blogger,” I say.
Behind me is Johnny Serious, whose sober and relentless line of questioning is reminiscent of Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes. He grills me: “Why don’t you take the mask off? That’s what’s bothering me. If you’re ashamed, why come to the game? Why do you have to hide? C’mon, take it off.”
“Hey, I have to show my face at work tomorrow,” I say, attempting to parry with light humor.
“So do I. We all do.” He’s not laughing. “Where are you from?”
“Born and raised here,” I say, preparing to drop the real bomb. “But I started rooting for Dallas when the Eagles sucked.” There could be no lower form of sports treachery. Someone behind me voices displeasure, presumably with his middle finger for emphasis: “Write this in your blog, asshole!”
By halftime, the score is 3-0 in favor of Dallas, and both teams look awful. The only physical contact I’ve endured so far was a kid on the concourse who tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned to face him, he appeared to be high on bath salts and contraband Four Loko, and gave me the double-bird as I walked away. He held the pose as long as I could see him. (He may still be there, standing by the Bud Light cart, stoned and frozen in perpetual hatred.)
With the score 10-0 in the third and the Eagles’ hopes fading, Camo Pants is doing anything he can think of to instigate a fight with me, eventually stooping to grade-school taunts—I’m ugly and a loser. The real fan beneath my blue and silver—the human being—wants nothing more than to take that stupid mask off and tell him he’s the reason Philly gets a bad rap. But what disturbs me more are the homophobic taunts I hear, all day long. That “Romo” rhymes with “homo” is the go-to insult for the witless, but “faggot” hangs in the air too often and too easily. This is by far the toughest acting I’ve done. Faking support for the Cowboys is only part of the challenge. Camo Pants stares at me, seething, praying I’ll stand up and fight back. Instead, I smile. It makes me queasy to think that on any other day, we cheer for the same team.
MIDWAY THROUGH THE fourth quarter, Matt Barkley throws another interception, sealing the Eagles’ defeat, and the stands empty out. The bathroom seems like a dangerous place for me, but resignation hangs in the air. “We can’t even talk shit,” says an Eagles fan. “We’re losing.”
Still, I’m not gloating. Back at our seats, a lug in a Cowboys jersey is escorted out by security and flaps his arms as he leaves to incite the fans. That’s asking for trouble, no matter what city you’re in or who you root for. Our new friends have seen enough. Camo Pants files out without saying a word. The vocal Boo Brother shakes my hand as he passes by, a sign of begrudging respect. “Your team still sucks,” he says, then, under his breath, “Take care.” The Selfie Gals say I’m a good fan—took their abuse, cheered when my team scored, but didn’t poke any drunken bears with a foam finger. We make it back to the car unharmed. I can’t pull that mask off fast enough.
I return to Pattison Avenue the following Sunday to meet my cousin and his pals for the next game, against the Giants. A calm washes over me as I wear my Reggie White throwback and guzzle a few cold ones without fear. Relief comes, too—knowing that most of my fellow fans proved me right, and guys like Pat the Army Nice Guy were more the rule than the exception. That all surprised me, though not as much as the endorsement of Philadelphia I discovered from the most unlikely source.
Prior to the Cowboys game, Michael Irvin told the Dallas Morning News that our fans remind him of his father, Walter, who watched the Miami Dolphins religiously. Walter couldn’t afford tickets to see his team play in person and died before his son turned pro. So when Irvin was lifted off the Vet’s concrete turf and onto a stretcher, and the cheers rained down, it didn’t anger him. “A lot of those fans are just like my dad,” he said. “It’s the only place and the only time their opinion counts, the only way they can voice their disappointment, and I can’t have a problem with that. … It was a compliment for Philly to cheer me. Philly wasn’t cheering my injury. They were cheering my departure.” Irvin, forever an object of hatred here, finished with this: “You’ve never heard me say one negative thing about the Philadelphia crowd.”
If Michael Irvin gets us, if a guy in a Dallas mask or a Crosby shirt can invade our sports meccas and walk away unscathed, then perhaps it’s finally time to bury our bad rap.
And a note to the Cowboys’ online store—please remove me from your mailing list, forever. Your team sucks.