Booooooo! To outsiders, that sound is a war cry, a clarion call for action, a howl of barbarism. For Philadelphia sports fans like me, the boo feels like home. On this October afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, I’m walking into an Eagles game, as I’ve done more times than I can count. But there’s something about the boos today that feels wrong. I ascend the stairs into section 211, high above the southern end zone, and the faithful all around rise up, like a tidal wave of green and white. They cup their hands and scream like hell. There’s no action on the field right now.
Today, those jeers are for me.
Nothing inspires more sports hatred in this town than the star that is the Dallas Cowboys logo. That symbol can be seen prominently on either side of my head, thanks to the silver-and-blue Mexican wrestling mask I’m wearing for today’s contest against America’s Team. In case it wasn’t already clear from my Tony Romo t-shirt, I’m rooting for the visitors. I am not a masochist. I didn’t lose a bet. This is the final act in a theatrical—and potentially life-threatening—investigation I’ve dubbed the Ultimate Philadelphia Fan Experiment.
My idea, misguided as it now seems, was to dress up in the garb of a rival team for each of the four major sports. I’d stay in character—cheering for the visitors, trash-talking when trash needs to be talked—to determine whether the reputation of Philly fans as a bunch of brutes and savages is deserved, or whether we are, as I’m hoping, unfairly maligned. No team inspires more venom than the Cowboys. This game is my grand finale.
It’s also beginning to feel like my funeral.
I’m here with my cousin Bill, who’s wearing his vintage Eagles jersey (Andy Harmon, defensive tackle, ’91-’97) to make it clear that he doesn’t share my rooting interests. He’s my protection should this scene get ugly, which it does rather quickly. We find our section, but pick the wrong stairway—our seats are at the opposite end of the row. We pardon and excuse ourselves, forcing everyone to stand and let us walk by. I’m so close to these fans that I can smell the mix of light beer, nachos and bile on their breath when they shout directly in my face as we file past:
The only security guard within hailing distance is a sweet bespectacled woman who will be of little use if I get gang-tackled. Later, a thick-necked lug in camo pants and aviators sitting a few seats over walks past us to fetch beer. It’s not his first drink of the day. “Fuck you,” he says to me, nose to nose, before turning to my cousin. “And fuck you for bringing him here.”
I fear that, ironically, I may be the victim of the next story that gives Philadelphia’s fans a black eye…
THE SEED FOR this undercover operation was planted in 2008, at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, the night the Phillies clinched a trip to the World Series. I’d been warned before my visit to “be careful” there, and as my friends and I walked to our car after the game, dressed in Phillies red, I understood why. We weren’t drunk. We didn’t celebrate or taunt. None of that mattered, though, as men and women alike shoved us, threw trash, and shouted in our faces like drill sergeants at boot camp. We were one “Hey buddy, calm down” away from a group curb-stomping.
So much for the idea that Dodgers fans show up late, drink a chardonnay, high-five Larry King, then leave early to sit in traffic. That scene was worse than anything I’d witnessed in a lifetime of sports-watching on South Broad Street. It got me thinking about all the bad press that’s stuck to Philly’s fan base like toilet paper on your heel. A partial dirty-laundry list: throwing snowballs at Santa; throwing snowballs at Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson; throwing batteries at J.D. Drew; shooting off a flare gun at the Vet; booing McNabb at the draft; booing Kobe at the NBA All-Star Game; and, most recently, puking on a little girl at a Phillies game. From hacks like ESPN’s Michael Wilbon (who rarely misses a chance to take a shot at this city), to all the broadcasters who recycle the (largely erroneous) Santa yarn for lack of a more thoughtful—and factual—story line, Philadelphia’s national rep as a sports sewer persists. This past October, a Houston Chronicle article tried to put that city’s fans’ misdeeds in context: “Of course, there’s Philadelphia, where they booed Santa Claus and cheered when Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin suffered a career-ending injury.” Never mind that those tales are 45 and 14 years old, respectively. The message from the rest of the country is clear: We’re bad, but not like you animals.
This gets my hometown hackles up. Consider some of the vile misbehavior at stadiums and arenas across the nation in the past two years alone. That Houston Chronicle story was prompted by Texans fans who cheered when their struggling quarterback limped off the field after a sack. A visiting fan suffered a skull fracture and head trauma at an Orioles game in Baltimore. Back in Los Angeles, a San Francisco Giants fan was beaten into a coma and now requires around-the-clock care. Not to be outdone, a group of Giants hooligans fatally stabbed a Dodgers fan this past September.
Admittedly, I’m no angel. A Flyers usher once escorted me out of a game for expressing my disappointment via a four-letter word. And on the way into the old Giants Stadium for an Eagles playoff, dressed in green, I waved the New York rally towel I’d been given and then tore it in half, like a matador provoking a stadium full of drunken bulls. And there are scumbags among us, too: the guys who fatally beat a fellow Phillies fan in 2009, the thugs who stomped a military vet in a Rangers jersey after the Winter Classic two years ago, and the lowlifes who roughed up a Detroit Lions fan after the Snow Bowl last month.
But my theory is that Philadelphia is no different from anywhere else—a few Cro-Mags may spoil the fun, but they don’t represent most of us more than in any other city. So I ordered a bunch of gear and prepared to enter deep cover. The ground rules: I’d concoct a backstory detailing my rooting interest in case I needed to explain myself; I wouldn’t break character unless violence was imminent; and I’d bring a friend to each game as backup in case it hit the fan (and, if need be, to identify my body).
MY LEBRON JAMES SHIRT isn’t pissing anyone off. It’s a Wednesday night last March, and I’m up in the nosebleeds at a Sixers game against the Miami Heat. For this experiment, there will be no club boxes or suites, where courtesy could corrupt the results. Here, high above the court, are the salt-of-the-earth folks who’ve stuck with their team despite a losing record and a star player, Andrew Bynum, who missed an entire season with a bowling injury. If anyone asks why I’m cheering for the NBA champions and the boy-king who abandoned Cleveland, my story is that I grew up in the Delaware Valley but moved to Miami for work—car sales—and fell in love with the Heat, just because the Sixers reeked like month-old cod. My goal was to concoct the most annoying biography possible. This one feels like a winner. Too bad no one will hear it.
“King James!” I yell, jumping to my feet after LeBron finishes an alley-oop dunk. Nary a boo nor a four-letter word is uttered. Two Miami-clad older women in the row below cheer when James returns after a substitution. “The King is back!” one yells. None of this moves even the most vocal fans nearby—three teenagers with jerseys and arm sleeves. (One is wrapped in a Superman cape.) My cousin thought the Bynum shirt he’s wearing would anger more folks than my LeBron gear would. Even the Bynum shirt fell flat. The worst behavior we witness is a guy in a leather jacket who flips the bird to no one in particular after Miami scores once again, en route to a Sixers loss.
The lesson learned from my evening as a Heat fan: When the home team is as bad as the Sixers were last season, trash talk is in short supply. The joint was half empty, and roughly a quarter of those who showed up supported Miami. The occasional unpleasantries were directed at the guys in red, white and blue stinking it up on the court.
A similar scene plays out at the ballpark for a Phillies game against the Nationals. I opt for a Jayson Werth shirt. Here’s a guy who reportedly said he hated the Phillies when he left town for Washington, and a team that started a “Natitude” campaign to encourage their long-absent fans to find some cojones and stop Phillies fans from flooding their home field. But when I clap and yell “Good hustle” as Werth legs out a single, the only person who wants to punch me is my high-school-buddy wingman. We go fetch a round of beer, and my friend tells the vendor to give me a warm one. “We treat out-of-towners well,” she says with a friendly smile. A cashier at a nearby hot-dog stand says, “Thank you, sweetheart. Enjoy the game.”
Sweetheart? Enjoy the game? Are the Phillies recruiting vendors from Wisconsin? By the seventh inning, I decide to turn up the heat when Carlos Ruiz comes to the plate. “ADD-ER-ALL!” I yell, referencing his 25-game suspension for pill-popping. This pains me, of course—I literally cried when Chooch caught the final out of the ’08 series. My method acting prompts little reaction. Though the Phils lose, the worst I get is a “Fuck the Nationals!” as I walk to the subway after the game. All this good behavior on the part of my fellow Philly fans makes me happy, albeit a little concerned. I don’t want to dodge haymakers and beer bottles, but we’re a proud people, tough like a diner steak at 2 a.m. There’s a difference between being civil and being soft. C’mon, Philly—is that all you got?
MY NIGHT AS a Penguins fan isn’t so peaceful at the start. Sidney Crosby is probably this city’s most hated hockey rival, mostly because he doesn’t play for the Flyers and has immense talent, but also because he whines, dives, takes cheap shots and grows a flimsy mustache. I’m wearing his number 87. My companion is an actual Pens fan. As a father of two, he doesn’t dare wear any Pittsburgh gear tonight. On the concourse, I catch a middle finger from a guy in an orange jersey. Our seats are in section 222A, up near the flags and banners that hang in the rafters. A shout rings out in my direction: “Crosby sucks! You can’t wear that shit in Philly, you fucking retard!”
Forget what I said about being soft.
It’s not long before the Flyers fans next to me, beers in hand, start spewing f-bombs like they’re auditioning for a Quentin Tarantino movie. The worst offender is a woman who’s averaging an obscenity per minute. “Fuck him up, Simmonds!” she yells as a fight breaks out on the ice. Her foul-mouthed friend spills her suds across our aisle.
That’s when the weirdest thing happens—one of the guys in their posse, a rugged fellow with a shaved head, sits down next to me and apologizes. He says his name is Pat, and offers me an extra beer for no reason in particular. He’s an Army vet, he tells me, and spent hard time in Fallujah and Kandahar. When he heard a few goons harassing a Pens fan, he told them to chill out. “Some trash talk is great, but if it gets physical, that’s not cool,” he says. “You look like you can handle yourself, but I’ll walk down with you if you go for a beer.”
When the final horn sounds, the Flyers have choked, giving up a three-goal lead and losing. Pat the Army Nice Guy offers me a toast before we part ways: “Here’s to you for coming to a Flyers game.”
Is the team onto me? Did they plant this saint? Wherever you are, Pat, you’ve done Philadelphia proud.
Life returns to normal down the street at Xfinity Live, where two aggressive bros in orange tees try to get under my skin as we wait in line to enter. That’s when it gets even weirder.
“Nice t-shirt,” one of the Aggro Dudes says, mocking me. “You just buy that? I think the tag’s still on it.”
“Sorry,” I say. “What was the final score? Did you catch that?”
In that moment, my act melts away. I’m rubbing the Pittsburgh win in the face of my fellow Flyers fans—my comrades. As much as I despise certain teams and their players, it turns out what I loathe above all else is asininity, no matter where it’s found or whose jersey it’s draped in. Even while wearing that Crosby shirt—the worst UPS delivery I’ve ever signed for—I’m allergic to douchebags looking for trouble.
That trait, I fear, might be my undoing in this experiment. During the first intermission, two women in Flyers jerseys gave me some good-natured ribbing about being in “orange-and-black country.” They weren’t surprised when I told them Flyers fans had been disarmingly friendly. “Baseball and hockey are fine,” said the brunette. “It’s the Eagles you have to watch out for.”
I asked: What if I were a Cowboys fan at an Eagles game? “Those drunken assholes will beat you up.”
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.