Best of Philly 2014


Yes, folks, here we are, back at it again. Who has the crispiest fried chicken? What’s the best bar for day-drinking? Where can you go for eyebrow-sculpting? Sexy party shoes? Free spinning classes? Herein lie the exhaustively investigated answers … as well as a series of bests chosen by you, the voting public, via online polls and our biggest-ever taste test. (Spoiler alert: Nobody in this city turns down free whoopie pies.) And while we’ll readily admit that the process of finding, vetting and honoring this region’s ever-growing array of all things excellent is really more of an art than a science (and art, of course, is subjective), we’ll nevertheless fiercely defend and celebrate each and every one of our 275 picks. We think that for the most part, you will, too. Especially that fried chicken.

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The Best Food and Drink at the Jersey Shore for 2014

Mike's Seafood in Sea isle. Photography by Trevor Dixon

Mike’s Seafood in Sea isle. Photography by Trevor Dixon

Cape May

It’s not actually a law, but it seems no one gets out of Cape May without first visiting the Mad Batter. Located in the Carroll Villa Hotel, this is the spot for a relaxing (if ever so slightly fancy-pants) dinner. Go for the crabcakes, a textbook example of the proper assembly and preparation of this oft-ruined dish.

For a more Summer Rental sort of experience, there’s always the Lobster House. The long, low-slung restaurant side of the operation, with its big windows and red-checked tablecloths, is lovely — and hugely crowded on any nice summer day. But it’s the Schooner Bar aboard the old Schooner American sailing vessel that combines kitsch and alcohol in one successful formula.

One of the big reasons foodies head to the Shore is for crabs. If this is your motivation, hit up H&H Seafood. It’s hard to miss (it’s the place with the big sign that says LIVE CRABS) and serves big paper bags full of steamed crabs to eat on the beach (or wherever else you feel like eating them).


You already know you’ll be eating at the Diving Horse, so you might as well just make your reservations now. This has been the go-to dinner spot for a few years, and it deserves all the love it gets.

If you’re looking for something else, there’s Café Loren for the BYO enthusiasts (and people who really like that family-owned, Shore-town vibe), or the Princeton and Bobby Dee’s Rock ’N Chair for bar-crawlers (the latter being a degree more classy than the former).

Sea Isle

Fish Alley is as seafood-and-beer-laden as it sounds — and will not disappoint.

First stop: Mike’s Seafood for crab legs, fries, crab legs and crab legs. Go early, because the line gets long, and grab a spot at one of the picnic tables overlooking the water. (See the “Family” section for more info on when kids eat free.) Marie’s Lobster House is a few doors down from Mike’s. While you lose a little of that classic crab-shack atmosphere, the food here is just as good, and all that neon in the front windows makes it easy to navigate.

Can’t seem to get off the beach? You don’t have to. Bubba Dogs is a mobile wienery parked right on the sand at 59th Street.


Why Strathmere? Because there are two notable places for eating and drinking. First, there’s Mildred’s, which is one of those little old restaurants that wear their weathering of Sandy on their sleeve like a badge. It’s absolutely beloved for the exceedingly friendly service, the family vibe and the solid (if predictable) Italian menu — you can’t go wrong with a bottle of white and a plate of linguine with clam sauce.

For something a bit … grittier, you have to go to Twisties Tavern. It’s the kind of joint where you drop in for one drink and then wake up 20 years later having become an every-night regular, with a table all your own and a couple shifts a week behind the bar. There are powerful cocktails, fish on the walls, patio seating that looks out over the bay, and a menu that’s more comprehensive than you might think.

Ocean City and Somers Point

If you’re in Ocean City, you’re most likely shuffling the fam between the sand and Boardwalk — so save your mornings for something all your own. The Varsity Inn is a classic small-town diner that operates under a perpetual siege by locals and tourists who come here for big, filling, cheap plates of eggs, pancakes and toast. The Fractured Prune is famous for its crazy, delicious handmade doughnuts, in flavors like chocolate-covered cherry and French toast.

As for those two other meals of the day? If you can get off the beach, hit either Smitty’s Clam Bar or Charlie’s Bar, both in Somers Point and both cash-only. You go to Charlie’s for the wings and cold beer — and for the 70-odd years of corner-bar history. Smitty’s is a super-casual BYOB and a favorite among locals for the simple clam-shack menu and the fact that you’re encouraged to drink while waiting for a table.

Ventnor and Margate

In Ventnor, classic tastes and newer ones compete for attention. For the latter, hit Megu Sushi for well-assembled modern Japanese cuisine in an unassuming (read: sandwiched between a liquor store and an Italian restaurant) setting. If you’re tempted by the former, there’s chicken-and-chops at Johnny’s and crabcakes from Bobby Chez (which, despite the commercialization, is still first-rate). Or class it up at Steve & Cookie’s — just make sure to save room for dessert.

For daytime eats, go to Junior’s for corn dogs, or sit and wait for Dino’s Subs & Pizza, which delivers right to the beach and has a tuna hoagie that deserves its own national holiday.

Atlantic City

A.C. is home to most of what passes for big-name dining at the Shore — we’re talking Buddakan, Luke Palladino’s steakhouse, Iron Chef Garces and others — but these show-stopping temples aren’t the only go-tos for gastronauts.

New and independent places like chef Kevin Cronin’s Iron Room at the Atlantic City Bottle Company and the Vagabond Kitchen & Tap House are for those looking to keep away from the slot monkeys. Vagabond isn’t fine dining (no place with a sandwich of brisket, pulled pork and peppered bacon called the Three Way is aspiring to that kind of cred), but it’s got easy bar food and the largest beer selection in the area.

Still, if you find yourself falling into the gravity of the casinos, there are some restaurants worth checking out. Palladino has places at both Revel (Luke’s Kitchen & Marketplace) and Harrah’s (the eponymous Luke Palladino), though his most beloved is probably the original Luke Palladino — a 60-seat trattoria in nearby Linwood. There’s Il Mulino at the Taj Mahal for super-upscale Italian, and the new Eastwind offering mainland Chinese at Resorts.

You’ll find a smorgasbord of named chefs at Revel (Marc Forgione, for one), but Jose Garces has made it into a mini-Philly with outposts of Village Whiskey, Amada and Distrito, plus the new-ish dim-sum-and-dumplings joint Yubōka.

Read more from our Summer 2014 Jersey Shore Guide.

One of Us: Patti LaBelle

Illustration by Andy Friedman

Illustration by Andy Friedman

My name is … Patti LaBelle. I was born Patricia Louise Holte. Patti LaBelle came from Harold B. Robinson, a car dealer in Philadelphia, who was our manager at the time. He gave me the name. It means “beautiful.”

I live in … Wynnewood. I’ve lived here for about 30 years. It’s okay, you can tell people that. Let them come and find me.

I grew up in … Southwest Philadelphia, at 5819 Washington Avenue. Kenny Gamble and I used to hang out at my mother’s home. We were finding ourselves.

My mother always taught me … to be nice to others and to maintain my innocence. Don’t go out there all trashy and the wrong way, so that people wouldn’t perceive me as a hooker.

The prettiest place in Philadelphia … is Kelly Drive, where those little houses are. I don’t drive, so someone takes me there. I never wanted to drive. I tried once and I ran into a tree.

My secret junk-food craving … is Cheetos, hot and spicy.

When people call me a diva … they may be correct. I’ve paid the dues, as have Gladys, Aretha, Barbra and Bette. So it doesn’t bother me. It bothers me when they call some of the newcomers divas who should never deserve it. I’ve been a diva for about 30 years.

If you’re coming to my house for dinner … expect to eat like a pig. I wrote three cookbooks, and I just released a line of hot sauces, marinades and barbecue sauces at Walmarts across the country. I love to cook. I make special crabcakes and fried corn. Fried porgies. Mmm.

My favorite song I’ve ever recorded … is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It’s so positive. I sang it for Coretta Scott King and her children, and it was beautiful. I promise you, I felt like I was flying, levitating.

To stay in shape … I walk my dog, Mr. Cuddles, my shih tzu. And I walk in my pool. I can’t swim. Otis Redding tried to teach me when we were touring years ago. He said, “Just let go.” Well, I let go, and I almost drowned him.

For my 70th birthday in May … I ate crabs in my backyard.

The thing many people get wrong about me … is that I’m soft and easy to trick, a pushover. But don’t get it twisted: I see everything that people are trying to do.

If you really want to annoy me … chew crunchy hard pretzels loudly. It drives me crazy. People who chew lettuce or pretzels and don’t even hear
themselves—it grosses me out. I can’t take it.

On Friday nights … I watch Shark Tank. And then I watch TCM movies on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night.

If you’re pouring me a drink, make it … iced tea. Diet. I used to drink red wine like crazy, but I stopped eight months ago, cold turkey. I never got high off of it, and I said, why am I putting all of these calories into my beautiful body? But now and then, if I have a bushel of crabs, I’ll have one beer: a Sapporo.

The biggest problem with the music industry today … is that they let all these sorry acts through.

The first concert I ever went to was … Diana Ross. Kenny and I went together.

My hair has always been … a wig. Onstage, at least. They are easy.

My relationship status is … empty. I’m not looking. He will find me. I’m not looking, honey. No looking for Miss Patti. But I’m open. Very much so.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Philly Fighting Words: Why Everything You Think Is Great Actually Sucks


There are some truths that Philadelphians hold to be self-evident: Wawa is awesome. Our cabs are crap. Water ice is the sweet summer nectar of the gods. But we found some people who disagree. (Prepare to be enraged.)

Online now:

Wawa? Meh.

Terry Gross Is Bad for the Country.

Parking in Philly Should Be Harder. And Cost Way More.

The Phanatic Is an Ass.

New Jersey Is Not Such an Armpit.

Water Ice Is Just Sugar Ice, People.


To read the rest of the heresies below, buy the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine, on newsstands now, or subscribe today.

Shut Up. Philly Cabs Are Great.

Enough With Rendell, Already.

Who Is Nick Foles?

Photograph by Nick Hallowell/Getty Images

Photograph by Nick Hallowell/Getty Images

Within the physical layout of Westlake High School is a space referred to as the Commons, with an insignia of a W in the middle of the floor. It was a hangout for seniors when Nick Foles was in his final year there in 2006. In the social pecking order at Westlake, the cooler you were, the more you gravitated to the middle.

That was the observation of Bron Hager. Hager was a latecomer to Westlake, which is located about 20 minutes west of downtown Austin. He had transferred in as a junior from a small private school, and the transition hadn’t been easy. Maybe he was too obsessed with cool, and the middle of the Commons was, well, the middle of the Commons. But Hager noticed something else about the middle: the one person who never wanted to be there.

In a school of remarkable achievement and affluence, Nick Foles perfectly fit the Westlake socioeconomic profile and was its BMOC. He was the quarterback of its football team, the Chaparrals, on their way to the Texas state championship game in the highest 5-A classification. He was equally gifted in basketball; he’d started as a freshman. His girlfriend, Lauren Farmer, was a standout cheerleader and homecoming queen. Nick Foles was the middle.

But Foles pawed around the edges. The only middle he was interested in was a football huddle, and even there, he led by the example of his toughness and arm, which gave receivers chest bruises. He cannoned balls 60 yards flat-footed, and had stand-up pocket presence. He never yelled. The idea of him trash-talking was unthinkable. He had an almost pathological aversion to drawing attention to himself, as if it was sinful. He didn’t have the requisite personality for it, anyway.

The truth was, Nick Foles was something of a nerd, a guy who hung around with a small posse of mostly non-football nerds — eggheads, kids who would go on to careers in finance and private equity and engineering. A hot Saturday night was getting together at his house to play video games like Call of Duty, or hanging out at Zilker Park on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. “Dude, come on, you’re the quarterback, go out and have some fun,” high-school teammate Matt Nader pleaded with him, fruitlessly.

He was the kid you wanted dating your daughter, because he would have her home at 9:30 after you said 10. He was socially awkward, with a naive and goofy sense of humor. He dressed as if he had never seen clothes before. His hair was oddly styled in an ersatz pageboy, curling below his ears like a drainage ditch and covering his forehead in uneven wisps, thin grime on a windshield. His face was a cup of Napoleon Dynamite and a tablespoon of golly-gee-willikers and a teaspoon of Gomer Pyle. He tried at school, and even took Latin.

During his senior spring-break trip to Mexico, while most everyone else spent the afternoon recovering from drinking, he jogged, because there was nothing for him to recover from. He threw a football around with a kid from the Austin area. When Nick asked the kid to name his favorite player, he said, “Nick Foles!” But the kid didn’t recognize that he was having a catch with the actual Nick Foles. And Nick Foles was too reticent to tell him.

THE NICK FOLES of today still bears a great resemblance to the Nick Foles of yesterday. The teeth are whiter; the hair is shorter; he sometimes wears Hugo Boss. Earlier this year he married former University of Arizona volleyball player Tori Moore — brunette, built, beautiful — and he even held a glass of champagne when he got engaged. But he is still quiet. He still leads by example. He still plays video games. He still wears the hair suit of humility. He still pathologically refuses to do anything that draws attention to him. It’s admirable. Actually, it’s boring. It’s unrealistic and annoying now, self-subsumption as a form of conceit.

When in only your second year, at the age of 24, you complete 64 percent of your passes for 2,891 yards and 27 touchdowns, with only two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 119.2 that’s better than every other National Football League quarterback, you’re going to garner attention. Fans, understandably, are going to want to know more about you, particularly since you’re still a mystery. It’s part of the territory. You’re in the pros. Deal with it.

I asked Nick Foles for an interview for this story. My request was rejected. According to his agent, Justin Schulman, Foles doesn’t want to do anything at this point that highlights his success and not the team collectively. Uh, it’s a little late for that, son, given that you’re the hottest-rising quarterback in the NFL. You are the attention draw.

I was asked to do the story because of the enormous common bond that Foles and I share: Texas high-school football. He’s defined by it, and I memorialized it in the book Friday Night Lights. The request for his time went from a couple of days to a couple of hours anywhere in the country. This story isn’t about wrenching sensitive secrets. It’s obvious and legitimate.

Particularly since Foles is the New Face of Philadelphia Sports in a sports-mad town, the newest promise to the Promised Land in the post-Donovan McNabb era. Is he capable of leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl one day? Was the 2013 season aberrant? How will he handle the pressure? Fans need to try to figure out what ticks inside him to remotely know any of the answers.

Instead, what has emerged is a one-dimensional choirboy caricature reflective of a player and a team and a league terrified of individuality. Foles is selling himself, and being sold by the born-again Eagles, as the anti-DeSean: contrite, non-charismatic, cautious, churchgoing, Caucasian. The perfect poster boy for Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and commissioner Roger Goodell’s vision of a new NFL theme park where players have no discernible personality and the Twitter account is laced with Glories to God.

I don’t believe this is all there is to Nick Foles. I definitely don’t believe it after spending extensive time in Austin talking to teammates and coaches and parents in the roots of Texas and high-school football that so define him. I now realize how different he is from every other player in the NFL. He has been forced to overcome much adversity on the football field and none off of it, because he grew up in a cocoon virtually devoid of African-Americans and poverty and hardship. He shares an economic background similar to that of fellow Texas product Johnny Manziel, only with a much richer family and without any of Manziel’s presence. And in a key defining moment in his life, perhaps the key moment, he was bearing witness to something that no one should ever have to see.

TO KNOW NICK FOLES, you go back to the base. Which means going to the community that encompasses Westlake High School. Its predominant zip code, 78746, is an Austin equivalent of Beverly Hills, 90210. Its population of some 27,000 is small and homogeneous and oppressively white. It’s an area where everyone pretty much melds into everyone else to create one big blob, men in button-downs or polo shirts with the insignia of the golf club like a one-percenter skull head, women trim and prim and pretty in the way that dressed-up mannequins can be. There is no downtown, as if the very idea is somehow creatively dangerous, too much expression. The median house value in 2011, $610,800, is roughly five times the Texas average. The median family income of $167,295 is almost three times the state norm. There are 82 families who own five or more vehicles, and 1,251 who live in homes with five or more bedrooms.

Foles’s spawning ground, Westlake High, was born out of the age of forced integration in the 1950s and ’60s, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Before the first year of classes at Westlake, in 1970, high-school students in the Eanes Independent School District were still being bused to Austin, since they had no high school of their own. When the area was faced with the choice of either joining the Austin school district, which would have meant forced integration of its schools, or remaining independent and building a high school, the answer wasn’t terribly surprising. The minority population of Westlake High in 2010 was roughly 18 percent. Of that, only one percent were African-American. Foles didn’t have a single black teammate when he played his senior season in 2006.

This says nothing about his or anyone else’s racial attitudes. It does say that Foles grew up in a bubble of entitlement and shockingly narrow social experience. “Nick was a privileged guy,” says Hager. “The guy had whatever he wanted.” So did pretty much everyone else. Only three percent of the roughly 2,500 students at Westlake are listed as economically disadvantaged, compared to the Texas average of 60 percent.

A large number of students at Westlake are the sons and daughters of lawyers and doctors and high-tech capitalists and private equity managers and business executives. The car of choice in the student parking lot is the Lexus. These are the overachieving kids of overachieving parents who pay gargantuan taxes, which is why the district superintendent makes $240,306 and the principal $140,000 and the football coach/athletic director $109,980 and the director of the band $94,800. Which is also the reason the school is superb academically, one of Newsweek’s best 100 in the nation, with a mean SAT score of 1214. Which is why Foles’s teammates went off to schools like Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, the University of Virginia and the Air Force Academy. It’s also why Westlake is reviled in Central Texas for being rich, snotty and white.

Other high schools don’t like Westlake, which lends a subtext of racial war to some of the football games it plays. The antagonism is further stirred by the legacy of the Westlake Chaparrals, undersized players who outsmart and out-condition opponents. The school won a state championship in 1996 under Drew Brees, has been to the finals seven times, and won its district 18 years in a row. And never lost to archrival Austin High until, somewhat ignominiously, Foles was a senior. The school had four players in the pros last year — Foles, Brees, Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker and Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Kyle Adams. That’s the most of any high school in Texas.

No one will ever say that Nick Foles is snotty. But he is obviously white, and his family is rich — very rich, well into the many millions, based on Securities and Exchange Commission filings. It isn’t farfetched speculation to think that he comes from the richest family of any player in the NFL.

His high-school teammate Matt Nader tells me that the best way to assess the rising fortunes of the Foles family was by observing the improvements made to their house over the years. The 6,708-square-foot mini-mansion, with a pool and spa, is in the winding Candylandesque hills off Westlake Drive, at the end of a cul-de-sac in an upscale housing development where even the flower petals fluttering onto the Elysian lawns look purposely placed. Currently assessed at $1.5 million, it was hardly a rancher when the Foles family bought it in the late ’90s. But over the years, the basement was finished and a new garage was put in, according to Travis County appraisal records. Then came the uncovered deck and a first-floor porch almost the entire length of the house.

The money was made by Foles’s father, Larry. Said to be a man of sober seriousness and infinite ambition, he has had remarkable success in the brutal hit-and-mostly-miss field of restauranteering. His son has inherited his relentless work ethic; during June and July, when Westlake players work out on their own, it isn’t unusual for them to hit the weight room. Teammates watched agape as Nick Foles toiled in an hours-long regimen of throwing and running in the lugubrious Texas heat.

It was Larry, better than any coach or recruiter or pro scout, who knew how good Nick could be if he was pushed. So Larry pushed, perhaps because his whole life has been about pushing. He was the kind of parent who tried to make not only every practice at Westlake High, but also every junior-high practice. As fellow Chaparral parent Paul Nader says, perhaps euphemistically, pushing sometimes meant “tough love.” Bron Hager says that Larry was always ready to go to war for Nick, but war of course is never pretty: “He’s Nick’s toughest critic.” Hager remembers sitting next to Larry at the Arizona-USC game in 2009: “There wasn’t a more-pissed parent.” (Nick threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner late in the fourth quarter.)

Raised in Petal, Mississippi, Larry Foles had nothing growing up. He told hiladelphia Daily News Eagles beat reporter Les Bowen (Larry Foles and his wife, Melissa, also declined to be interviewed for this story) that his parents split when he was 13, prompting him to drop out of high school and move to Oregon in the early ’60s to work manual labor for 90 cents an hour. He returned to Mississippi and became the general manger of a Shoney’s.

Then he went into the ownership side, with partner Guy Villavaso. The two became a hit parade, using Austin as their incubator. Their greatest accomplishments — Eddie V’s Prime Seafood Grille, with eight locations, and Wildfish Seafood, with three — were sold along with the brands in 2011 to the huge conglomerate Darden Restaurants for $59 million in cash.

Larry Foles seemed to view his son’s college career the way he did a restaurant: location, location, location. If one fails, you move and try someplace else until something works. When Nick signed a letter of intent with Arizona State University before his senior season, it was Larry who made initial contact with the school, as opposed to the other way around. When Nick decommitted from Arizona State and went to Michigan State University in 2007, Larry got an apartment in East Lansing. When Nick was deciding whether to leave Michigan State after a year, it was Larry who became his spokesman. When Nick then went to the University of Arizona, it made sense because of Larry’s significant restaurant holdings in the state.

Nick’s deep sense of faith and generosity of spirit to others come from his mother. When Hager, the son of former Eagles linebacker Britt Hager, came to Westlake, he hated the school, and the school hated him back. Foles reached out to him, befriending him without noblesse oblige, opening up his home to him and making him feel part of something.

“He’s just a very down-to-earth guy,” says Justin Wang, who was a kicker on the team and Foles’s best friend in high school, part of that quasi-nerd posse. “We’re not quiet people. We’re people who like to hang out. We were just never into going crazy and partying all the time.” Hager did manage to corrupt Foles just a bit, late in their senior year: Foles conducted an ultimately losing battle with cognac and vermouth and ended up facedown on the carpet, mumbling incoherently to his girlfriend on his cellphone.

It seems doubtful it has happened since.

Which is a shame.

THE GREATEST ATHLETES all have arrogance; no matter how thick the playbook of humility, it still seeps through. You can see it and you can feel it. Except with Foles.

“Every time I ask him how things are going, it’s always about the team,” says Wang. “All this success hasn’t changed who he is.”

Michael Vick is a great guy. It was an extraordinary team effort. The offensive line deserves all the credit.

Give it a little bit of a rest, kid.

Nobody can deny Nick Foles’s toughness, at six-foot-five and 240 pounds. He played the last 12 games of his senior year at Westlake High with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder without telling anyone or complaining about the pain.

But there’s still an aura of softness about him, no fire. Maybe it’s the hee-haw face. Maybe it’s the stream of selfless platitudes about others. Maybe it’s that at 25, he’s still very much a boy among men with the Eagles, with no interest in the extracurricular world of clubbing. Or maybe it’s the reality that if he fails in football, he has the likely cushion of going into an enormously successful family business. It’s the intangible hunger factor that appears to be missing.

There is some danger in judging Foles from his outward temperament. Derek Long, Foles’s former head coach at Westlake, believes he’s far more observant than he ever lets on. High-school teammates describe an inner confidence hard to pinpoint, but always there.

The most consistent element of Foles’s career has been doubt about him: He has never succumbed to discouragement, even though he’s had plenty of it.

It goes back to his sophomore year in high school, when he was being groomed to be Westlake’s starting quarterback. Foles was also an excellent basketball player, with a chance of playing Division I. He wasn’t sure about his degree of commitment to football in a program that, as with all Texas high-school football, doesn’t welcome indecision. Teammates remember him being hurt a lot of the time. “What’s the deal with Foles?” was the sentiment of wide receiver Staton Jobe. “Is he going to be injured his whole career?” Adds head coach Long: “We felt like he was going to be able to step in, but we weren’t sure. … We knew he could throw, but there’s a lot more to being a quarterback.”

Then Foles, who has a pattern of reducing expectations to nothing only to exceed them since there no longer are any, stepped it up. He started as a junior. He became a star in Texas. His senior year, he led Westlake to the state championship finals against Southlake Carroll, which was undefeated and ultimately named the top-ranked team in the country. Westlake actually led at the half, 15-7, on its way to a major upset. But then, early in the second half, came a most unusual play that not even Chip Kelly has installed and that bears mentioning:

Southlake Carroll quarterback Riley Dodge, operating out of the shotgun, projectile-vomited right before the snap. This stunned the Westlake defense (talking about it today, some players still seem stunned), which resulted in Dodge throwing a touchdown pass. Westlake was never the same after that and lost, 43-29.

Foles broke the career passing-yardage record at Westlake held by Drew Brees, throwing for 5,658 yards. But he wasn’t a hot recruit. The rap was that he was too slow, a system quarterback in a school that has produced nine quarterbacks who have gone on to play that position in college football since 1992 — at best, he was a backup. Plus, it was the age of the dual threat and Vince Young. Duke made an offer, which back then was slightly better than being chosen last in a pickup game. Texas El Paso sought him out, which was the Gulag. The major Texas schools weren’t interested. Signing with Arizona State became a mess when the coach who wanted him, Dirk Koetter, was fired and replaced by Dennis Erickson, who in turn was so impressed by Foles that he went out and recruited another quarterback.

After walking away from Arizona State, Foles signed late in the recruiting season with Michigan State. He got into the first game of the season in 2007, and that was all. He was homesick and going through a bad breakup with his girlfriend. He was competing with Kirk Cousins (a redshirt) and Brian Hoyer, both future pros. Before his sophomore season, head coach Mark Dantonio signed quarterback transfer Keith Nichol. And Foles was on the move again. “I didn’t think he was going to make it,” says Hager. “I don’t know where he got his strength to make it.” Adds Justin Wang: “He just took it in stride. His faith allowed him to stay strong.”

Foles transferred to Arizona. He battled with Matt Scott for the starting job and lost it, until Scott played poorly and Foles got his chance. The team went to two consecutive bowl games under Foles, in 2009 and 2010. His senior year was a team disaster. He put up great numbers, throwing for 4,334 yards and 28 touchdowns. But Arizona won only four games. Head coach Mike Stoops was fired in the middle of the season.

The newest rap was that Foles had played in a gimmicky offense with few sophisticated reads. But he was named to the Senior Bowl and, in his typical pattern, was so lackluster in practices that several draft experts showered praise instead on Brandon Weeden. Foles then played, with the best performance of any quarterback, and was thought to be a possible first-round pick. Then he made the single worst mistake of his career. He entered the NFL combine.

THE COMBINE IS A monument to the absurdity of how NFL teams judge college players, depending on the 40-yard dash and the vertical leap and the broad jump as if actual game experience is irrelevant. It is also beyond demeaning, with pasty-looking men in over-saturated polo shirts and guts that spill well beyond the belt line timing the specimens and whispering conspiratorially to each other like bidders at a horse auction. The only thing they don’t do is open up mouths with thumb and forefinger to inspect teeth, followed by spreading the cheeks for signs of unauthorized use.

Among quarterbacks entering the draft in 2012, Robert Griffin III ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41, Russell Wilson in 4.55, Andrew Luck in 4.67 and Ryan Tannehill in 4.62. Foles’s time was 5.14 seconds — the worst of the quarterbacks who entered. Pro Football Weekly called him a “lumbering pocket passer” who gets “panicked in the pocket” and said he “is consistently off the mark” and “is not an inspiring field general,” on a par with former fifth-round pick John Skelton of the Arizona Cardinals. But former Eagles coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg saw something in Foles that no one else did, and they drafted him in the third round.

Foles played in seven games in 2012, starting six of them because of a Michael Vick injury. He put up mediocre numbers typical of a rookie. “Everything was clouded by Michael Vick,” says Nader, recounting the ensuing chatter. “‘He doesn’t belong here.’ ‘He doesn’t belong in this type of offense.’ ‘Who is Nick Foles?’”

He was the same Nick Foles who a year later threw for an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes against the Oakland Raiders and came out of nowhere to be the league’s phenomenon.

Foles still doesn’t inspire full faith among fans. He shouldn’t. One-year wonders in professional sports form an endless chain. He was unknown last year, and the unknown is often a player’s best asset until it becomes known. When Chip Kelly talks about Foles as the franchise quarterback, it always feels like he’s lying, because he’s both good at it and a smug wiseass.

Foles isn’t a pressure quarterback. He lost the state championship in high school, lost both of his bowl games, and looked confused in the second half of the loss to the New Orleans Saints in last year’s playoffs. In 17 pro starts, he’s thrown only one game-winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter or overtime. (Compare that to Andrew Luck, who threw six in his first two seasons.) Sometimes he just flings it up there in the hope that someone is around to catch it, although without DeSean Jackson, that’s become far less likely. The Eagles also played a weak schedule last year.

And yet.

IT WAS HOT that September night in 2006. When people talk about what happened, this is the first thing they invariably mention — how hot it was.

The game-time temperature in College Station was 88 degrees, with 52 percent humidity. Playing football in the heat is unbearable. But there’s something about Texas heat that makes it even more unbearable.

Not that it particularly mattered. Westlake came into the game undefeated and ranked sixth in the state. Its opponent, A&M Consolidated, was undefeated and ranked number four. It was the game of the week in Texas.

There was buzz about Foles. But in terms of future college potential on Westlake, offensive tackle Matt Nader caused much more excitement. Nader was six-foot-six and 300 pounds, and he pretty much threw defenders around at will. He also had astounding lateral movement for a player that size, and may have been faster than Foles. Nader had been second-team all-state as a junior, and was so talented that he had already committed to the University of Texas. Mack Brown wanted him badly.

A&M scored early in the game to take a 7-0 lead. Westlake came back with a 16-play drive that consumed roughly seven minutes. As Paul Nader and Barbara Bergin — he a nephrologist, she an orthopedic surgeon — watched their son, he seemed uncharacteristically sluggish, not firing off the line, even getting tossed around a little bit. They figured it was the heat, or maybe nervousness.

Foles and Nader came off the field. Nader went to the bench with the other offensive linemen. Offensive line coach Steve Ramsey came over to critique what had gone right and what had gone wrong during the drive. An ice towel was placed on the back of Nader’s neck. He suddenly fell and landed on his back with his cleats still propped up on the bench. It was so bizarre that Hager thought he was joking and told him to get the fuck up.

But Nader wasn’t moving, still in that Humpty-Dumpty position.

Nick Foles watched in the stasis of the night, where the humidity had now risen to 67 percent. He had played with Nader for six years, starting in junior high school. They were fellow co-captains. They perfectly complemented each other, Nader’s emotion a rabbit’s foot to Nick and Nick’s steadiness the same to Matt. Now he was watching his beloved teammate still not move.

Nader’s parents had their eyes trained on the game until somebody told them that Matt was down. They ran out of the bleachers, through 4,500 fans in silence as loud as any roar, except for the piercing scream of Nader’s girlfriend.

His father felt his pulse.

“Barb, Matt’s not breathing.”

Paul Nader did chest compression. Barbara did mouth-to-mouth. He didn’t revive.

Because this was Westlake, other doctors who were the fathers of players poured out of the stands. Allen Dornak and Greg Kronberg, both anesthesiologists. Cardiologist Paul Tucker, the father of future Baltimore Ravens placekicker Justin. They took over for Matt Nader’s parents. They checked for a pulse.

Still nothing.

Larry and Melissa Foles were there. They watched, like their son. A whisper shuddered through the sidelines that Matt Nader was dead.

By some miracle, Westlake carried an automated external defibrillator to games. There was no state requirement at the time to have it on the field; it had been given as a gift. It had never been used — another piece of equipment lugged around by the trainers. But it was charged and ready to go.

Tucker applied the pads of the defibrillator, with its rush of electricity.

Paul Nader watched. He could tell it hadn’t worked. He turned to his fellow physicians in a desperate last measure.

“Aren’t you going to create an air path for him?”

It didn’t happen.

There came a pulse.

He came to consciousness. An hour later at the hospital, there was nothing wrong with Nader. He was fully alert. It all seemed so freakish and unreal. Except that he would never play another down of football. He had gone through ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart stops pumping blood. While there was no certainty it would happen again, the risk was too great. An implantable cardioverter defibrillator was inserted into Nader’s chest, to control irregular heartbeats.

Nick Foles knew the power of football dreams better than anyone, and how awful it must be to give them up when it isn’t your choice. He sat with Nader afterward at a hospital in Austin. They talked about what happened, to the extent that Nader wanted to talk about it, because Foles was (and is) never one to take anyone out of his comfort zone. Foles seemed almost philosophical, in his own way. “He just wanted to make sure I was okay,” says Nader today. “That I still recognized there’s more to life than football. Everybody has to stop playing it at some point.”

So maybe Nick Foles doesn’t have the edge of Peyton Manning. Or the come-from-behind fearlessness of Tom Brady. Or the gravitas of Drew Brees. Or the feet of Russell Wilson, or Colin Kaepernick, or …

He carries with him the fragility embedded into everything. The dividing line you never know. It’s something that no championship ring can ever teach him and few NFL players truly understand, clinging to their careers long after they’re over.

“He has remained true to his natural person,” Matt Nader says, “and that goes to show you how strong of a kid he is.”

But unless he stops being chickenshit and goes into the middle, he will never guide the Eagles to the place that only tantalizes us. We are tired, Nick. We are already dependent on you. So man up to be the man.

Sidle up to a bar on the road and order a slug of single malt, not a double shot of milk. It’s okay to address LeSean McCoy as “Shady” instead of “Sir Shady.” Don’t ever publicly say again that your favorite movie is The Lion King.

Acolytes get to heaven. Strut gets you to the Super Bowl.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Jersey Shore Haters Unite!

Photograph by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

Two weeks before we left, I started to get so excited that I staged our supplies on the front porch. They fit into one pile: beach chairs, beach towels, sunscreen and tequila. I thought to myself, “What else could one family possibly need during a week at the Shore?”

This was our first-ever vacation to the Jersey Shore.


This “Shore thing” was new to my husband and me. We’d moved to Philly five years earlier, in 2001. We were only aware of “the Shore” — not the existence of the physical beach, of course, but the proper terminology for it — because we’d both gone to Penn State and met lots of people who talked about “the Shore.” In fact, I remember the very first time I heard the phrase “down the Shore.” It was move-in weekend during freshman year, and I stood outside my dorm room on the fourth floor of Runkle Hall, waiting for another girl so we could head to the dining hall. She emerged from her room wearing a hot pink string bikini top and a floral sarong.

“How long will it take you to get dressed?” I asked.

“What?” she replied, then gazed down at her ensemble. “Is this bad? This is what I wear all the time down the Shore.” Instantly, I formed my first impression of “the Shore” — “a place where strippers gather.”

Once we moved here, Thad and I discovered that every year, on or around January 1st, most Philadelphians (not just strippers) began talking about how they couldn’t wait to go “down the Shore.” Then, on or around December 31st, they stopped sulking about the end of that awesome summer they had “down the Shore.” These people were so fixated, so evangelical about this tract of sand, that I began referring to them as “Shore-agains.”

I won’t lie — it scared me a little. Of all the beach vacation spots in all the world, what was so special about this one? Was everyone who went there hot? Did the seaweed eliminate both cellulite and communicable diseases? Were the funnel cakes dusted with cocaine? I had to find out.

WHEN I ASKED a Philly-born-and-bred colleague to explain how one went about renting a house at the Shore, he looked at me, incredulous, as if I’d just asked him how to use a stapler.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“To the Shore,” I said.

Where at the Shore?”

“To the beach at the Shore.”

“What town?”

“I don’t care.”

“What?” he said.

Apparently there were many towns at the Shore, and Philadelphians were very loyal to the Shore towns where they’d vacationed since they were, give or take, in utero. This guy went to Ocean City. Our boss went to Margate. The woman in the next office went with her entire extended family to Long Beach Island, which she described as “great for little kids” since there were calm beaches on the bay.

Coincidentally, Thad and I had a little kid — a daughter who would be 16 months old that July. That was precisely why we found a quaint four-bedroom in Ship Bottom that was three blocks from the beach and three blocks from the bay for the weekly rate of $1,850, which was several hundred dollars more than our monthly mortgage payment. But hey. We lived in Philly now. And this was what people who lived in Philly did.

Then my mother called.

“What size sheets do we need?” she asked. She and my dad were coming with us, driving all the way from their home by Lake Erie, where we could swim in a sizeable body of water for free.

“Sheets?” I asked her. “We have to bring sheets?” I reread the lease and realized that we needed to, in essence, pack our entire house. King sheets. Double sheets. Single sheets. Bath towels. Kitchen towels. Washcloths. Dish detergent. Laundry detergent. Dryer sheets. Shout. Bar soap. Paper towels. Toilet paper. Tissues. Napkins. Paper plates. Plastic silverware. Sponges. Baggies. Foil. Charcoal. Matches. Dynamite. Valium.

With all that stuff, and all the food for the menus I planned (because who can afford to dine out when you’re paying almost $2,000 to sleep on your own sheets on someone else’s mattress?), we barely fit into our minivan, leaving us crushed and cramped for the 5.3-hour ride to travel 55 miles.

There had better be a buttload of coke on those funnel cakes.

AS IT TURNED OUT, the house was delightful. Ship Bottom was delightful. The weather, the bay beach, the real beach — all delightful. But at the end of the week, I felt like I’d been run over by a surrey … just like I felt at the end of every week up the city, or whatever Philadelphians called the 51 other weeks of the year at home.

I’d done all the same stuff — cooked three meals a day, washed loads and loads of laundry, shopped for groceries — except with much more sand. In the last hour before we had to move out, as I frantically swept and Windexed another person’s house more thoroughly than I’d ever cleaned my own, glaring into that packed minivan and picturing myself having to unpack it, I caught my husband’s eye and stated aloud what we both were thinking:

“Vacationing at the Shore sucks.”

IF THERE IS a statement one should never utter to anyone who grew up in the Philadelphia region, it’s this: “Vacationing at the Shore sucks.”

“Disagree!” scolded a colleague.

“How dare you talk doo-doo about the Shore! It was like my second home growing up,” reprimanded a college friend. “Tsk, transplant, tsk!”

“I would die — wither, shrivel, go fetal and just fade away — without Memorial Day through Chowderfest,” explained Christa, one of my neighborhood friends. “I can’t even breathe in Camden County in the summer; it’s like having my face in an armpit. But the second I drive over the bridge and suck in the salt air … it’s my heaven.” Christa blamed my poor opinion of the Shore on me: “You must be doing it wrong.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it how Christa did it. She and her family stayed in a tiny little cottage behind her parents’ house in Beach Haven, that she’d stocked with everything they needed, including floss and a paring knife that was actually sharp.

Same thing with another mom-pal. Her parents had a home in Avalon, so she went down with her two kids whenever she wanted. “It’s a pleasure and a joy,” she announced. Well, of course it was. She didn’t have to BYO ketchup, or figure out how to fasten a beach cart, a cooler, five boogie boards and a grandmother to the roof of her car. More importantly, she didn’t have to pay to sleep there.

Still, the consensus of every Shore-again we knew was that we weren’t “doing” the Shore properly. They’d say, “If you just rented a big house with your whole family, you’d get it.” Or, “If you just found a group of friends and got smashed after the kids went to bed, you’d get it.” Or, “If you just went to Wildwood/Sea Isle/Stone Harbor/Cape May, you’d get it.” No one could define for us exactly what this “it” was that we weren’t getting. But the more I didn’t get “it,” the more I wanted “it,” whatever “it” was.

So we tried again. Four years later, we rented the same house (for $200 more!) in the same town (start a tradition!), and this time, we brought our first daughter, our second daughter, my parents, our 17-year-old niece, and her friend (family bonding!). At the end of the week, in the last hour before we had to move out, as I sped down Bay Boulevard to B&B Department Store to buy a coffee pot to replace the one that crashed to the floor while I was moving the butcher-block island to clean under it for a second time, I screamed out: “Vacationing at the Shore sucks!”

“Agreed. Waste of money,” wrote my friend Dan after I dared to complain about “the Shore” on Facebook. Did this mean I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get “it”? Dan was supposed to get “it.” He grew up in the Northeast, worked in Center City, lived in Lafayette Hill. He had three kids and a big family who all lived nearby. He could afford the Shore, no problem. It was almost sacrilege for a guy like Dan to admit such truths in public. I assumed that immediately after he hit POST, his Shore-again neighbors stoned him to death, then dumped his body in the Pine Barrens to be consumed by those ravenous late-July black flies. But no. Minutes later, Dan posted again: “By the time you’re done, the ‘all-in’ costs of a week down the Shore rival a trip to Disney. Not quite as much, but close enough to piss me off while I’m doing laundry and cooking.”

Other Shore Haters — a.k.a. “Shaters” — weighed in: “It’s not really ‘getting away’ if I can zip back home in an hour to pick up my son’s retainer.” “When I was a kid, we went every summer. My mom never went to the beach. She folded laundry and made breakfast and dinner and watched her soaps. I recognized then … this is not a vacation.”

No, it wasn’t. It WASN’T!

Yet even when I read an online article in April about overrated summer destinations that listed the Jersey Shore at the top of its “where to avoid” list, I still couldn’t embrace my Shater self. The writer was spot-on: It’s “hot,” “humid,” “crammed” and “in-your-face,” and it has “toxic” prices. If you vacation down the Shore in the summer, the writer advised you to do one thing: “Get out of there.”

So why had we just signed another lease for a summer rental?

VERY GOOD FRIENDS of ours were total Shore-agains. Like, went to Cape May on their first date. Like, painted the trim on their South Jersey house in bright Victorian colors. Two years ago, Shore-again Sherri had an idea: Let’s get three families together and rent a house at the Shore! We said, “That would be awesome!” even though we were 97.2 percent sure it was not going to be awesome.

I argued hard for LBI (since, you know, we’d had such good experiences there). But when Sherri found the three-story on North Street in Cape May with a giant farm table that would seat every person in our families — 13 in all, including our baby girl — I was sold. Splitting it three ways wasn’t a huge bargain; it still cost us $1,300 for the week. But Sherri had a brilliant idea: Each family would cook two dinners, and each couple would get one kid-free date night. That would be five fewer dinners a week than I usually cook, and one additional date night a week than we usually have. It sounded … a little bit … like … a vacation.

I wasn’t surprised that Cape May was delightful. But the most delightful part was listening to Sherri’s three- and five-year-olds beg to do their Shore rituals — “When can we go to the lighthouse and pick diamonds?” “When can we eat crabs?” They totally got “it.” And since we did exactly what the Shore-agains did, our kids started to get “it,” too. Maybe the right way for us to do the Shore was “Cape May; with friends; get the hell away from the children for one night.”

This was “it.”

I won’t lie — it scared me a little. While I liked this newfound liking of the Shore, I didn’t want us to suddenly go all Joel Osteen about it. We would not become one of those insane Philadelphia families that have EXIT 0 bumper stickers on their minivans and a plaque above the kitchen sink that announces, “The Shore is My Happy Place.” Our kids had to understand that while, yes, Cape May is “the best ever,” and while, yes, it’s nice to live in a “big rich-people house” for a week, there would be no string bikinis in the dining hall. Not ever. Our girls would not walk around in too-small short-shorts emblazoned with the names of Shore towns across their butts, dammit. And thus, after we returned home and spent nine days unpacking our car, we consciously did not mention that we’d be going back to Cape May next summer.

Then we went to the Shore-agains’ house for New Year’s. It had to be that — being with the other family we Shore-d with, seeing the purple and lime green window trim and the lighthouse sun catcher in the window. It had to. Right? Because after we woke up on January 1st, our eight-year-old said to me, zealously:

“I can’t wait to go to the Shore this summer.”

Originally published as “Beach Bummed” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Michael Nutter’s Incorruptible Administration

Illustration by Michele Melcher

Illustration by Michele Melcher

This is the Golden Age of ethics for the City of Philadelphia.

But I’ll grant that it might not seem that way.

Philadelphia’s Traffic Court devolved into such a stronghold of petty corruption that it was given a mercy killing last year by the state. It’s also true that four lawmakers representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg were caught on tape taking envelopes stuffed with cash from a lowlife lobbyist-turned-informant. And yes, there was that business with State Senator LeAnna Washington a few months back, and before that, charges against State Rep J.P. Miranda for allegedly creating a taxpayer-funded no-show job to funnel money to his sister.

The FBI raided the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office last year. The feds are also poking around the Fattah organization, with a particular interest in Chaka Fattah Jr., the son of the Congressman.

But all of that is outside the orbit of City Hall. Neither Mayor Nutter nor City Council controls the behavior of state representatives or members of Congress, nor do they have meaningful say over the courts or sheriff’s office. Within City Hall, government is working more ethically and with far more transparency than it has in a long, long time.

It’s been nearly nine years since a City Council member was indicted, and the chamber is haltingly making more of its business open to the public. There hasn’t been so much as a whiff of public corruption to taint either Mayor Nutter or his inner circle. There is anecdotal evidence that a more ethical mind-set is taking root in the city’s rank-and-file workforce. Whistleblowers are tipping off city investigators at a prodigious pace, and behavior that was once nearly the department-wide norm — inspectors accepting tips or free lunch, for instance — has been drastically reduced.

The city’s campaign finance and ethics laws have grown far more robust than the state’s, and the city’s ethics enforcement agencies have more teeth and gumption than their Commonwealth counterparts. Whatever his other flaws, Michael Nutter’s leadership on ethics has been exemplary, and his success in cleaning up City Hall will arguably rank as his greatest accomplishment.

But will any of it last?

Outside the confines of City Hall — past Nutter’s reach — Philadelphia’s political culture appears just as corrupt as it’s ever been, if the recent flurry of investigations and charges is any indication. Next year’s mayoral field so far is a collection of political lifers with no particular interest in or special commitment to honest and open government (with the possible exception of City Controller Alan Butkovitz). And Philadelphia voters seem not to care about public corruption nearly as much as they did in the last mayoral election, when the indictment of State Senator Vince Fumo was still fresh in the public mind, as was the federal probe of Mayor Street’s confidants.

More pernicious is the idea, popular in some business and political circles, that Nutter’s shortcomings as mayor — his failures with Council, his struggles with city unions — owe in part to his distaste for cutting deals and his reluctance to grease the wheels of government and politics, lest doing so besmirch his sterling ethical reputation.

Put it all together, and one wonders how much longer the Golden Age will carry on.

“The most likely thing,” says Zack Stalberg, outgoing president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, “is it all goes to hell very quickly.”

You don’t have to look very far to see what City Hall could become.

IN EARLY OCTOBER 2012, chief of staff Sean McCray confronted his boss, State Senator LeAnna Washington. He later told state investigators that he was concerned about Washington’s use of taxpayer resources — office equipment and staff time — to organize her annual birthday party, which doubled as a political fund-raiser. It was the same sort of abuse of power, on a smaller scale, that did in former House Speakers John Perzel and Bill DeWeese (among many others) in Pennsylvania’s Bonusgate investigations.

But if McCray had absorbed the lessons of that scandal, Washington apparently did not.

“I am the f___ing senator, I do what the f___ I want, how I want, and ain’t nobody going to change me,” Washington said, according to McCray’s testimony in the state Attorney General’s grand jury report.

Within that outburst are all the basic building blocks of public corruption. Observe the self-aggrandizement (“I am the f___ing senator”), the profound entitlement (“I do what the f___ I want”), and the naked contempt at the suggestion that one conform with campaign laws and ethical guidelines (“ain’t nobody going to change me”).

The grand jury report was damning enough, and Washington’s city-suburb-straddling district competitive enough, that the “fucking senator” will be out of a job at the end of the year, having lost her primary election in May.

Washington’s guilt or innocence is an open question. But what is clear, and has been for decades, is that Philadelphia’s political culture is full to bursting with small, venal characters — most of whom you’ve never heard of — who imagine that they are somehow owed money, respect and even a little power in compensation for their long years of service at Democratic Party chicken dinners.

The Philadelphia Democratic City Committee is a clanky, stripped-down shell of the machine it was in decades past. But most of the candidates for public office in the city, high and low, still enter politics through the party systems. And in those systems, political support is still routinely bought and sold, and considerations like policy views and credentials distantly trail factional considerations, party loyalty and bald transactional politics.

And so some city pols, schooled in ward politics, too often conclude that there is nothing particularly wrong with taking a check from a donor and acting on his behalf, or accepting a handsome gift or wad of cash from a lobbyist and listening closely to her recommendations. It’s just politics, see?

But the party’s influence doesn’t explain everything, and really, it isn’t necessary to understand the existential source of corruption in the city. It’s good enough to know and accept that corrupt impulses are probably a permanent part of Philadelphia’s political culture. “There’s no way to legislate morality. We’re never going to completely get rid of the stuffed envelope,” says Michael A. Schwartz, the former head of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption unit and now a partner at Pepper Hamilton.

And that’s fine. The great, encouraging lesson of the past six years is that with vigilance, an ethically minded administration can keep a reasonably tight lid on corruption.

But that’s not the lesson a lot of prominent Philadelphians have taken from the Nutter administration. I spoke with numerous leaders in labor and business, with politicians and developers, and found many who think that Nutter’s emphasis on ethics has worked to make him a less effective mayor, and to gum up the works of city government.

None advocate corruption, of course, not knowingly. But they do talk about Nutter’s rigidity. And they speak fondly of Mayor Rendell’s flexibility, his fast-tracking of favored projects, his ability to get what he wanted from City Council. You hear this a lot: “At least with Rendell or Street you could make a phone call and get something done.” Nutter, they say, is too enamored of process, too ethically high-and-mighty to roll around in the muck with Council, too mindful of his image to do business with other players who favor a more transactional approach to politics.

This is a dangerous and damaging line of thinking, a classic case of false correlation. Running an ethical government doesn’t preclude adept politics. But there’s no getting around the fact that too many influential Philadelphians have conflated this administration’s emphasis on ethics with Nutter’s inability to enact much of his agenda. “I hear this argument a good deal, and I think it’s wrong, but I see how people make the connection,” says Stalberg. “In a bizarre way, the administration is giving honest government a bad name.”

Early impressions are lasting ones, and the early days of the Nutter administration were a trial, for a lot of different reasons. For instance, Nutter upended the development process — one of the most corruption-prone points in city government — shortly after taking office, and it was a long time before the new system was churning at a reasonable pace. The economic calamity of 2008 and 2009 didn’t help, further cementing the impression for a lot of elites that Nutter’s government just didn’t work.

That was true enough in the first years of the administration. But what about now? It’s better. Not perfect, but better. “It’s not like we’re pondering the creation of the universe. We’re not slowing anything down,” Nutter says when asked if it’s possible that his emphasis on ethics has made it more difficult to get business done. “We’ve got tons of cranes in the sky. Stuff is happening. The government is not in the way, or slow.”

Actually, government is still pretty slow, but Nutter has the right of this. Indeed, some of the difficult reforms that choked government most in the Nutter years — planning and zoning, a decades-overdue property tax overhaul, the creation of a land bank — have the potential to make City Hall work both more quickly and more ethically in the years to come. So does Philly311, the call-center service that, as Nutter puts it, “means that everyone has access to city services, not just people who happen to know people.”

The problem is that much of the Nutter administration’s other work to create a more honest city government can be undone all too easily by whoever comes next.

BACK IN 2007, a few weeks after winning the general election, Nutter announced he was hiring a pair of former federal prosecutors who specialized in City Hall corruption cases as his internal watchdogs. Until her retirement earlier this year, Joan Markman was the city’s Chief Integrity Officer. Before that, she was best known as the lawyer who tried former city treasurer Corey Kemp (and sent him away for a decade). Nutter gave her an office next to his own, and the authority to check in on pretty much anyone at any time. In essence, Markman — and her successor, Hope Caldwell — have been there to act as internal checks on unethical behavior before it happens.

The Inspector General, Amy Kurland, is more about catching the bad guys, both in and out of government. Kurland made her rep in the U.S. Attorney’s office taking down 13 corrupt plumbing inspectors in Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, and she’s been just as tough working for the city. Between 2008 and 2013, the work of Kurland and her investigators led to 54 arrests, the firing or resignation of 193 city workers, and a total savings to taxpayers of about $46 million.

Together, Nutter’s Chief Integrity Officer and Inspector General have been one hell of a deterrent to bad behavior.

But it could all go away with the next mayor, and some of it almost certainly will. I’d be shocked if Nutter’s successor hires a Chief Integrity Officer. The position of Inspector General will likely survive — the office has its origins in the Goode administration — but City Council has previously questioned Kurland’s budget and resisted Nutter’s calls to make the office permanent with a City Charter amendment. The next mayor would have plenty of cover to neuter the Inspector General by cutting the staff or budget.

Nutter’s other ethics-oriented reforms are just as vulnerable: the broader release of government data (including corruption-prone contracting records), the prohibitions on nepotism and taking of gifts by members of his administration, and the regulations on outside employment, among others. All are executive orders, not law.

Optimists — and there are some — point to the legal changes that have been made, and to an ethics movement that predates Nutter. The city’s strong campaign finance law was created, not by Nutter, but by Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., and it faces no serious local opposition. (The U.S. Supreme Court’s views on campaign finance may be a different matter.) And this year, Council approved a new policy banning any non-cash gifts worth more than $99. That’s not perfect, perhaps, but it’s an improvement.

What’s ultimately most important, though, is the tone from the top. Mayor Street was never indicted in the City Hall investigation that dogged his tenure, and there’s never been any evidence that he corrupted his office to enrich himself. But too­ many of his associates were unethical; too­ many felt they had a green light — or perhaps just a yellow one — to better their own lots while in positions of trust and influence.

On Nutter’s watch, there’s only a red light. The Mayor has fallen short in plenty of areas, but he’s been a leader on ethics, and it shows. “It’s a daily focus,” Nutter says. “It’s a mind-set. It’s the question you always ask before any decision: What’s the right thing to do?”

That’s the right question. Will the next mayor ask it?

Originally published as “Incorruptible” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Don Tollefson’s Last Stand

Photography by Wesley Mann

Photography by Wesley Mann

She kept Don inside. His mother wanted him to study. She wouldn’t let him be like them, those other kids who got into trouble. Don rarely saw his father — his parents had separated. So the boy would spend hours in his bedroom in San Francisco, playing endless games with his baseball cards: Dodgers-Giants, over and over. He’d go out into the tiny backyard of their small house near Lake Merced and re-create the ’60 Olympics. With string, he’d make a high jump. A broad jump. A track around the perimeter. That’s how he spent his childhood. In fantasy. Alone.

He did what he was told, and he earned the A’s his mother demanded. She taught piano, at the Conservatory. Sometimes, on her days off, they’d go for drives down the Peninsula together. His brother Arthur was 10 years older, and had gotten into Stanford. Arthur was gone, just like Don’s father. Don was student body president of his high school. He was accepted at Stanford, just like his brother, at 16. He was sure he could make his mother proud.

Then his mother got sick. It was pancreatic cancer, and it was quick. She died just before he graduated from high school. She’d fought Stanford to allow Don to live at home instead of on campus once he started there, and she won. But now Don was going to stay with his father, a man he barely knew, while he went to college.

By the end of that month — May of 1969 — everything was different. Don had started drinking. He hung out with another boy — something his mother would never have let him do — and they sipped beer under a bridge off El Camino Real. His father, a paper pusher for the telephone company in San Francisco, ignored Don most of the time. He could do whatever he wanted.

It was a beginning that had no middle and seemed to go on forever, because from that moment forward — from the time he was 16 years old until last October, when he was 61 and everything changed once again — Don got drunk every night.

Often, that’s how he delivered the sports, either at Channel 6 or Fox 29 — half shot, or worse. He’d go to dinner or a bar or some event after the six o’clock news and drink. He’d pop back at 11 and deliver the sports with the same Tolly awesomeness. He had no home life, even when he was married. But he was still Don Tollefson. And then it all fell apart.

HE WAS THE MOST unlikely guy in Philadelphia to get into the sort of trouble he did.

Not very long ago, Tollefson had this city at his beck and call. In his prime, he was the go-to sports newscaster in Philly, and a fixture on the local scene for almost all of the past 40 years. Tolly practically leaped out of the tube every night over some Julius or Randall or Chase act of wizardry, landing in our living rooms on raw energy alone; on a “cold, cold, cold” day against the Giants, he declared the Eagles defense “hot, hot, hot!” He talked up his charity work with the same over-the-top vigor, every chance he got, and showed up all over town to emcee events, especially for underprivileged kids. “Good guy” was practically stamped on his forehead.

Or maybe we had been utterly snookered.

Tollefson was arrested in February, accused of selling ticket packages and trips — Eagles games, the World Cup, the U.S. Open and other events, with some of the proceeds destined for charity — without delivering on them. The deputy Bucks County district attorney claims he’s scammed at least 150 people out of more than $250,000. He’s been charged with theft by deception and other crimes. Suddenly, there was a question, both profound and simple: Who is this guy?

After his arrest, he disappeared into jail. Tollefson had to stay there for a month because he couldn’t come up with the 10 grand to get out. A measly 10 grand! That used to be walking-around money for Tolly. But he was broke, and no one was willing to bail him out.

He left jail in late March, but the silence continued. Now, after a month at a treatment center for an addiction to alcohol and painkillers, Tollefson is under house arrest in an apartment in North Philadelphia. The legal trouble continues — he’ll stand trial later this year on charges stemming from that quarter-million dollars he allegedly swindled. But Don has decided that it’s time to talk. It’s a matter of survival.

IN HIS LAWYER’S OFFICE one afternoon in mid-May, Don looks considerably better than he did in his mug shot back in February, when he appeared ghostly. Tollefson admits he was scared; now he’s tan and friendly. He’s also far too thin — his jeans dangle off him in scarecrow folds, hiding an ankle bracelet that monitors his movements. Don lives, post-rehab, in a small, messy apartment in North Philadelphia near Temple University — one room is stuffed with sports memorabilia that he’s trying to sell. He looks every bit of 61, with sparse, spiky gray hair. But he’s zeroed in, now, on his new story, one that’s emerged in intense therapy.

“I wasn’t making clear-thinking decisions,” Don says. “Whether it was with women or going on the air inebriated or whatever it was, I think back to my childhood when I created that make-believe world. Addicts create make-believe worlds — not just the denial, but the delusion that they’re functioning adults, and they’re not. They’re addicts.”

Going back to that 16-year-old about to enter Stanford, he can barely remember a day when he didn’t get drunk — first it was beer, then, as he got older, beer and wine and mixed drinks. Over the past few years, he added painkillers that had been prescribed for shoulder injuries following a bad car wreck in 2008. From late 2012 until he first went into treatment a year later, he was mixing booze with Percocets and Oxycontin and other drugs. “You take enough codeine three’s,” he says, “in combination with alcohol, you’re on the way to dying.” He doesn’t have any doubt about where he was headed.

Prior to that — all those years on the air, the charity work and mentoring and hosting fund-raisers for good causes — he somehow functioned despite drinking heavily every day. But Don hates the phrase “functional alcoholic.” He wasn’t functioning. He was a mess.

“Relationships with women were alcohol-based and drug-based,” he says. “And very immature, as a result. I was still being a high-school kid in my adult relationships with women.” The day he went into rehab last October is also when he and his second wife, Marilyn, separated; they have a four-year-old daughter. “I cannot remember in my marriages or my relationships outside of marriage having many serious, sober conversations,” Don says. “Because I just preferred to isolate myself.” And that meant getting drunk.

His openness is riveting, as if he’s still the old Tolly you couldn’t stop watching, though far different from the guy ­enthusing wildly from his nightly-news perch. He is intense, straightforward: an addict all his adult life now fighting hard to get healthy, to make amends.

Yet there is much that is not straightforward, when you take a look at the path he went down. Some of it is marvelous. Some of it is not. And some of the trouble he’s gotten into doesn’t seem to have much to do with addiction.

LET’S START WITH the marvelous.

Don still had his life ahead of him when he entered Stanford. He immediately started writing for the student paper, and was blessed with a certain radar for the big story.

One day in 1971, Tollefson walked into the Stanford Daily offices and a cop was standing there with a search warrant. Police were looking for photographers’ negatives that might bolster their case against demonstrators who had turned violent during a protest over a mistreated black university hospital worker. “It has been our policy since last spring’s demonstrations to destroy negatives in order to protect our photographers from harassment,” a very serious Tolly, the Daily’s news editor, said at the time; the story made the CBS Evening News. The Daily would go on to win a judgment against the police that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, sparking national debate on freedom of the press and leading Congress to pass legislation giving greater protection to the notes and files of journalists.

National news take two: When Patty Hearst was kidnapped in early 1974, Don just happened to be driving near the Hearst mansion in Hillsborough. He camped out on the mansion grounds and covered the story for the Associated Press for weeks.

In the fall of that same year, Don and Jim Lampley were picked by ABC Sports, after a nationwide search, to be the first football sideline reporters. The idea was to add a little color about college life, supplied by two college-age guys. Tollefson attacked the new assignment as a serious journalist. For a University of Mississippi game, he brought James Meredith, the school’s first black graduate, back to the very steps where Governor Ross Barnett had turned him away in 1962, when he first tried to enter Ole Miss

After the Meredith interview garnered death threats for ABC executives, Don says, he was forced to start interviewing cheerleaders for his halftime bits. There was another price to paving the way to the pretty-girl celebrity gig that sideline reporting would become — Don and Jim could walk into any college bar in America and drink for free, hang with the hottest coeds, get feted as big stars. “There was no possible way we’d live an unspoiled life again,” Lampley says. “Any person would be altered in some way, that autumn.”

Tollefson, still only 22 and still a student because of all his time away for work, suddenly had myriad options. When he’d flown to New York to interview for the ABC job, he ran into William Randolph Hearst in an elevator. “Don, what are you doing here?” wondered Hearst, who remembered the kid camped outside his mansion when Patty was kidnapped. Don told him. “We’ll still have a job for you,” Hearst said, meaning in newspapers. But the next year, in 1975 — enamored of the money and trappings of TV over print — Don left Stanford without a degree and joined Channel 6 in Philly. He would also be close to New York, where his girlfriend of the moment, the secretary of ABC Sports president Roone Arledge, lived.

Within a year, Don was sports director at Action News, and the city was his. The troika of Jim Gardner, Jim O’Brien and Tolly was the most-watched local newscast for years. When Lampley would come through Philly, he and Tolly would have dinner at Bookbinder’s, where Don could barely eat for all the attention and autograph-seekers. He wouldn’t pay or enjoy a private moment in public ever again.

Tollefson lapped up the fame and women. He was always out at charity functions, too, as if he couldn’t ever go home. Circa 1980, Don was showing up at better than 400 events a year: Special Olympics, PAL, toy drives with firemen. His best friend at WPVI, sports reporter Jack Brayboy, points out the obvious: “Don never met a microphone he didn’t like.” Endless motivational speeches at schools. Little League dinners. Even part-time teaching at William Penn High School.

Lampley was right: Fame changed them, especially someone as needy as Don. In 1984, when local TV news was much bigger than it is now, ’PVI sent about a dozen staffers to L.A. for the entire Summer Olympics. Every night, there was lobster and serious drinking. The crew got invited to the ABC Sports wrap party with Lionel Richie. Tolly, with ABC and now ’PVI, had hit the fast lane of TV sports.

And then, in 1990, after 15 years at Channel 6, he quit. Tollefson ditched his TV career for North Carolina, to devote himself full-time to charity work. A lot of people in the broadcast news industry assume Tollefson got fired. He was 38, making $300,000 a year at Action News, a big star in a city that has so few, and he decided to give all that up to … move to Greensboro?

But that’s where his brother lived — Arthur Tollefson was a dean at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a concert pianist — and Don says he moved down in part to be near him. Other reasons for his leaving TV news made the rounds: There was talk of him showing up just a few minutes before he went on the air, being more committed to outside events than to his job. Management was getting frustrated; they pushed him to change. Tollefson says that yes, there were a lot of discussions with management, but that he decided it was time to go.

Alan Nesbitt, who was president and general manager of ’PVI when Don left, is adamant that he wasn’t fired. Now retired in Florida, Nesbitt remembers questioning Tolly on whether he was really sure about doing charity work full-time. “It sounded a little nebulous,” Nesbitt recalls.

Don admits now that leaving television to create his own charity wasn’t the whole story. The constant drinking and out-and-about life had started to overwhelm him; he was living as if he needed a constant audience. Don had to get away. “At least subconsciously, I knew,” he says, “that I was feeding my addiction, in a number of different ways.”

So he escaped to a higher calling. And his story got really strange.

TOLLEFSON DID MAKE a go of it in Greensboro. He registered his first charity, Winning Ways, with the state. He traveled all over the co­untry — Don claimed early on that he had gone to hundreds of school districts and after-school programs in nine states to give talks, especially to disadvantaged kids. Sometimes he charged nothing, or a few thousand dollars, depending on what a school could pitch in. Corporations and individuals donated some money; he says he paid himself nothing.

But he needed more. Tollefson had gotten married in 1992, to a 30-year-old named Monica Vasquez, whom he’d met in Philadelphia 12 years earlier at a fashion show. They bought a spacious house with a pool in Jamestown, the next town over from Greensboro. Her parents had some money, and soon after the wedding, Don convinced his in-laws to give him $200,000 to invest in Israeli bonds, according to their financial adviser.

It didn’t take long for his new in-laws, who lived in South Jersey, to get nervous; they went to the adviser, George Richardson, who’s now retired in Florida. Richardson made calls to Israeli financial markets. He called management at Channel 6 to see what he could learn about Tollefson (not much). But he did enough digging to be convinced that Tollefson hadn’t put his clients’ money into Israeli bonds, and he tracked down Don, who was on a golf outing in California. Richardson remembers their conversation vividly. He told Tollefson he knew he hadn’t invested the money. Don was silent.

“What in the hell are you doing, Don?” Richardson said to him.

“They had this money they wanted to invest,” Tollefson said. “I needed that money.”

Richardson was stunned — Tollefson was admitting that he stole it. “Why?” Richardson demanded. “You were making a fortune at Channel 6.”

“I needed it to live on.”

Richardson gave Tollefson a week to get the $200,000 back to his in-laws. If he didn’t, Richardson told him, he’d file charges.

“No, no,” Don said, “don’t do that. I’ll get it back to them.”

Though the money — all 200 grand — was returned, Tollefson’s marriage didn’t last long. Richardson’s only regret now is not going to the D.A. anyway, in order to stop the trouble that would come later.

Around that same time, Tollefson got caught up in something as strange as those Israeli bonds. His brother, Arthur, and his wife, Brenda, say they began getting calls from banks around the country about credit-card applications they’d been making. This was odd — they hadn’t applied for any credit cards. They went to the police, who couldn’t figure out what was going on. Arthur was able to convince a bank that called to send him one of the applications. It was in Don’s handwriting, filled with Arthur’s financial information.

Arthur and Brenda are convinced that Don was setting up a scheme to rip off his own brother, by applying for credit cards in Arthur’s name and having them sent to a post office box in Greensboro.

Why would Don do that? “We’ve tried to figure that out for decades,” Brenda says. Arthur and Brenda still have no clue. They don’t even know why Don came to North Carolina in the first place; he’d hardly been in touch with them much before moving down.

“He said he wanted a change,” Brenda remembers. At the time, Arthur talked glowingly of Don’s shift from newscaster to charity head, telling the Greensboro paper that “it takes a great deal of courage and dedication when you’re on top of a career and making a substantial salary to say, ‘There is more to life than this.’” But Arthur didn’t see much of his brother in North Carolina.

When they learned that Don was preparing to scam them, “It was the end of a friendship and a family,” Brenda says. They say they’ve rarely talked to Don since.

“He’s called here a few times and left a message — happy Father’s Day or birthday,” Brenda says. “We haven’t returned the call. He’s never admitted what he did.” Don’s current legal troubles don’t surprise her. “Once this happens to you,” she says, “he becomes a different person in your mind. In that case, he’s capable of anything.”

Don was supposed to file a report with the state every year on how much money Winning Ways took in and where it went. He never bothered with that.

DON TOLLEFSON WON’T address the Israeli bond deal or scamming his own brother — mere allegations, to be sure, but troubling ones — because of his ongoing legal battle.

That presents a problem for him. Tollefson talks a great deal now about coming clean: “You can’t be in recovery without being totally honest,” he says. Which means that he runs a risk — perhaps with himself, and certainly with the rest of us — if he’s open about abusing alcohol and drugs but buttons up when it comes to other misdeeds. Tollefson was still drinking dangerously in North Carolina, he says. But would that lead him to try to steal from his own brother? And why was he so desperate for money — did he have a gambling problem?

Tollefson says he didn’t have a gambling problem, and that he wants to explain everything. He does admit that going to North Carolina “was just running away, and you can’t run away from your addiction. I need to make amends with people for things that happened while I was in North Carolina.” That’s all he’ll say about that period.

When he returned to Philadelphia and to television, working for Fox 29 in 1995, his life would continue to veer off the rails. The station took him on because he was still a big name here, and he was willing to start as a general assignment reporter. Tolly was shifted into sports, his natural groove. That’s when the same issues that had annoyed management at ’PVI emerged: showing up 15 minutes before a telecast, not doing the nuts-and-bolts reporting on stories.

And something had changed in Don. A colleague who knew Tollefson at both stations could feel the difference more than define it: “There was a sense of him being there but not really being there,” she says. “I never read it as arrogance — I read it as ephemeral. Don just kind of floated, in and out of stuff. At ’PVI, he’d gather himself and be totally present in the moment.”

This colleague liked Tollefson; she thought he was complicated and sensitive, but his strangeness drove her a little crazy. “I couldn’t put a finger on what the hell was happening to him. I went to him a few times: ‘Are you okay, Don? Is everything okay?’ He would always say he was fine.”

Tollefson says that he was just as engaged in doing TV as always, but that his life was still a mess. Once, after a big Eagles game, a manager pulled him off the air because he was drunk. Yet he hadn’t admitted to himself that he drank far too much. Don was older, and despite marrying his second wife, Marilyn, he still didn’t really have a life, beyond the public persona. And the bottle.

“I got the sense,” the colleague says, “that something was terribly wrong, and that the facade was cracking.”

Over the years Don was at Fox, the sports department started to get wind of a more concrete problem — his charity work was beginning to draw suspicions. A different co-worker saw him come into the office one night a couple days before the Super Bowl in 2000 and try to book hotel accommodations on ticket packages he’d sold — it seemed awfully late for that. In 2001, Philadelphia Charge soccer star and Olympic silver medalist Lorrie Fair asked the same co-worker to come to a fund-raiser for multiple sclerosis at Tiki Bob’s Cantina in Northern Liberties, and suggested that he invite Tollefson as well.

Two weeks later, when the co-worker arrived at Tiki Bob’s, there was Tollefson, now emceeing the event — typical Tolly, never missing a chance to worm his way in and get before an audience. After he auctioned off sports memorabilia, Don told everyone to make out the checks to Winning Ways, his charity. The Fox co-worker made the winning bid on a golf outing.

After the event, Fair says, she called Tollefson about the money raised: Where was it? He said it was taking time to collect; she didn’t even know how much it was supposed to be.

The co-worker says the golf outing never materialized. But his check wasn’t cashed, either; he figures that’s because Don had to keep working with him.

Lorrie Fair gave up pestering Tollefson and never got any word from the MS Society that they received anything. “I was naive,” says Fair, who now lives in California. Though she can’t prove anything, she admits, “I probably got duped.”

Tollefson’s co-worker began watching him. Calls started to come into the office, people wanting to speak to Don: I’m supposed to get tickets from Tolly. Where are they? The co-worker sent a note to the Daily News about his suspicions; he never heard back. But the complaints started coming faster, according to another newsroom source, near the end of Tollefson’s time at Fox.

Meanwhile, his obsession to put himself front and center seemed stronger. In 2007, when the Phillies clinched the division title, a Fox broadcaster and a producer were up in the Citizens Bank Park press box, planning their coverage of the team’s celebration, when they saw Tollefson down on the edge of the field. What? Don never came to games. He hadn’t done any of the legwork for the Fox coverage that night, but sure enough, there was Tolly, on-air, having convinced hitting coach Milt Thompson to spray him with champagne.

A Fox broadcaster says in that same year, news director Kingsley Smith called him into his office and asked, “What do you know about Tollefson?”

“What do you mean?” the broadcaster said.

“I think he’s running a pyramid scheme,” Smith told him.

Tollefson says now that Kingsley Smith never said a word to him, and that he never got the sense he was in trouble. (Smith didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.) But by 2008, when he had a bad car accident and went on medical leave for shoulder injuries, his career was crumbling. He was seen during his leave at charity events, even as he was still claiming he couldn’t get behind a microphone. Two days after he came back to work, Don was fired.

The calls kept coming in to Fox, from people who wanted to know where their Eagles ticket packages were. As Don’s life unraveled, he did some TV work with the Eagles, continued mentoring kids, and spent a lot of time at home, getting drunk, and then drunk and high on painkillers — a combination that was killing him, he knows now. Until he finally went to rehab.

And then he was arrested.

DON TOLLEFSON HAS a gift. Once, it was the Tolly we saw every night on TV, the maniacal finger-pointer, the guy who found everyone “absolutely awesome.” Those who worked with Don attest to his back-slapping sunniness. But he admits now that he was hiding.

“I was trying to convince myself that my life wasn’t as depressing as I found it to be, because I had no real home life, even in marriage,” he says. Don seems thankful now that his estranged wife, Marilyn, lets him see their daughter, Gabriella, a couple times a week. “I was very lonely and depressed, because I couldn’t have adult relationships.”

Tollefson’s real gift is in how he can move people. Practically all the way up to the end, before rehab and jail, he could still perform. One of the charities he’s accused of ripping off was created for the family of Brad Fox, a Plymouth Township policeman killed in the line of duty in 2012. Tollefson was asked to make an appearance at the charity’s 5K. When the volunteers went to Kenney’s Madison Tavern in Warminster, he asked to speak briefly on the importance of police and first responders. But Don gave a much broader speech on the nature of heroism, on how a hero isn’t someone making millions a year playing football; a true hero protects our communities, or ventures overseas to make our country safe. That day in Kenney’s, many people listening to Tollefson grew emotional.

Was it real? Did Don believe what he was saying, or was he ingratiating himself and working the crowd for other reasons?

In a sense, those are questions he’s trying to answer for himself. From the time he started at Channel 6 in 1975 and was showing up at several hundred charity events a year, Don was hooked. “Hopefully,” he says, “the reason for doing them was in some large part for the charitable nature. But I now know that it fed the addiction of being a public figure. Certainly it was a combination — I only hope it was a balanced combination.”

His need for fame and good deeds is a toxic mix, especially considering that the Bucks County D.A.’s office is chasing him now for ripping off his own and other charities. That, in turn, produces the most daunting question of all, with the curtain on his addictions to fame and alcohol and painkillers ripped back: Did Tollefson really care?

Don wants us to know that he cares deeply. In his lawyer’s office in May, on the heels of discussing his interview with James Meredith back in 1974, he goes on to talk for several minutes about the evil of racism, on how Eagles receiver Riley Cooper using the word “nigger” last year drove him nuts, on how we would not believe how many people in the Philadelphia sports world spout racial epithets and how despicable that is. Hatred of any kind, he says, makes him crazy. And that’s the driving motivation of his work with inner-city kids, especially. All this from Tollefson can come across as too much, or simply self-serving. But it seems to be equal parts what Tollefson does believe and what he would like to believe, about himself. He wants to help other addicts, once his legal problems are behind him — to become the sort of man Gabriella can be proud of. He is a 61-year-old in recovery, trying to re-form himself.

But when it comes to those Israeli bonds or credit-card scams or whether he hustled people through ticket packages or convinced people to trust him just because he was Tolly, Don turns silent. These allegations seem to have nothing to do with addiction; they’re all weird money-grabbing gambits. And when he’s confronted with them, one by one, Tollefson appears to go somewhere, as if he is leaving his lawyer’s office for a moment. Then, barely above a whisper:

“I can’t answer that.”

There are still many questions he hasn’t answered, for legal reasons, he says. But Tollefson knows the stakes go beyond a possible jail sentence. “I firmly believe that if you relapse, after as much addiction as I had for as long as I had,” he says, “you are kind of signing a death sentence. You’re headed in that direction pretty quickly.”

On that level — a man’s very survival at stake — you root for him. Don Tollefson knows he must come clean; he says that in therapy he’s totally open, about everything. But for us, he won’t go very deep into the story of what he has done wrong. His passion for mentoring inner-city kids pushed him to go too far, he does admit: “Sometimes my ambitions overcame my resources.” In the end, though, we need much more than that. Don Tollefson must come fully clean for us, too.

Originally published as “Tolly’s Last Stand” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

How Did Michael Strange Really Die in Afghanistan?

Charlie Strange holds the flag given to him by the military after his son's death. Photography by Neal Santos

Charlie Strange holds the flag given to him by the military after his son’s death. Photography by Neal Santos

Charlie Strange in a rest-stop parking lot at dawn, trying not to cry. Charlie somewhere in Maryland, a few hundred feet from I-95, lighting a cigarette, thinking of Michael.

Charlie is a big guy, six-foot-two and 270 pounds, and when he cries, every inch of him puffs and stiffens. He grits his teeth and seems to stop breathing. People see him suffering and try to comfort him. They say they understand his pain because they’ve also had loved ones die, and Charlie thinks, okay, but it probably wasn’t like this. It wasn’t your kid falling from the sky in a war 7,000 miles away and no one can give you a good answer why.

Charlie’s friends say his name without the “r” and linger on the “a.” Chaaaaaalie. He sometimes writes it that way, too: Chalie. He has a low, serrated voice and a color tattoo of the American flag on his left forearm, designed so that it looks like the flag is bursting through his skin. He dealt blackjack for a while at the SugarHouse Casino on Delaware Avenue, but now he’s on leave. One day not too long ago, he let out a cry so loud at his table that a gambler thought he needed medical attention and shouted to the pit boss, “There’s something wrong with your dealer!” The boss told Charlie, 50, to take the rest of the shift off; he was scaring the customers. Before he worked at the casino, Charlie was in the laborers union for 12 years, breaking things apart at job sites with jackhammers, torches.

Here at the rest stop, he takes a drag on his cigarette. I ask him what brand it is. He grins and says he doesn’t know. “It doesn’t cost $7.40 a pack. These cost five and a quarter, and Marlboros cost $7.40, and they taste the same.” Then he veers back into Michael. Michael was 25 when he died. Sometimes, Charlie says, people start talking about his son and then they stop and recoil and tell him they’re sorry to bring it up, and Charlie’s like, what, you think I forgot? “It’s every day, man.” He pokes my chest above the heart and traces a path down to my stomach. “Your heart goes like this.”

He gets back in his car, taking the shotgun seat. His second wife, Mary, a tall, thin woman with straight blond hair, steers onto I-95 south, heading toward Washington, D.C. Charlie addresses Mary as “Shnookums” and asks how she’s doing, and she playfully pretends to hit him. Michael wasn’t Mary’s son, but she has joined Charlie on his journey to find answers about him. And today is a big day for both of them. Over the past three years, they’ve been pressing journalists and politicians to investigate the nighttime raid into Taliban territory that killed 30 Americans, including Michael, and eight Afghans on August 6, 2011. It was the largest loss of American life in a single incident in the War in Afghanistan. Of the American dead, 22 were soldiers in elite Special Operations units; 17 were Navy SEALs, including members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that had killed Osama bin Laden 96 days before that. Michael was a Navy cryptologist who worked with the SEALs. They were all crammed inside a low-flying Chinook helicopter when a rocket-propelled grenade flew up from below and destroyed it.

The military later told Charlie and Mary and the other families that it was a lucky shot. Charlie doesn’t believe this. “I just want to know what happened, so it doesn’t happen to somebody else’s son or daughter.” On national talk radio, Charlie has blasted the military and the Obama administration, and he has met with sympathetic legislators, raising questions about the official account of the raid. He has publicly criticized and even sued the government at a time when Americans trust the government less and less. And he has been effective: Today, thanks in part to his efforts, Congress will hold a hearing on his son’s mission, and military staff will answer questions under oath.

As the Stranges draw closer to D.C., traffic thickens, and they start to worry about time. They’re stressed and tired. Charlie only slept for two hours last night, he says, which is normal these days. He took a long walk in the freezing cold, then a warm shower. Mary got 45 minutes of sleep. Now her phone rings. It’s Larry Klayman, their lawyer, a conservative political activist who’s helping the families of four dead soldiers. Klayman wants to know how they’re doing on time. Mary says they’re going as fast as they can.

Half an hour later, they finally thread their way into D.C. They pull over near the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, where the hearing will take place. Charlie pops the trunk and switches his leather jacket for a blazer, and Mary helps him tie a tie. A friend who has tagged along in the backseat stays with the car to park it, and Charlie and Mary walk to Rayburn. They proceed through a metal detector and into a cafeteria, where Klayman, a sandy-haired man of 62 in an olive suit and an orange-and-blue-striped tie, is sitting at a circular table along with members of two other families who lost loved ones on the helicopter. They talk strategy for a second. Klayman has scheduled a press conference after the hearing. If the families don’t get the answers they want today, they’ll say so. “In a very dignified way,” Klayman says, “we’ll make sure your voice gets heard.” Then Klayman and the families stand and walk into the hearing room together.

WHEN MICHAEL DIED, his aunt, Maggie O’Brien, kept hearing the word “warrior.” Warrior, warrior, our brave warriors. “That’s not my Michael,” she says. “In our lives, he was kind and funny. Oh God, funny funny funny funny.”

Michael was the kid everyone wanted to hang out with. He grew up in the Northeast with his brother, Chas, and his sister, Katelyn. He went to Catholic grade school, then North Catholic High, where he played rugby. He dated a woman named Santina Mairone. “Probably the funniest person I’ll ever meet,” Santina says. “I mean, I’ll never laugh like that again.” You’d be at a party, nothing would be happening, then you’d see a flash of skin and Michael would be naked, grinning, streaking the room. There are a lot of crazy drinking stories. Michael liked beer and, especially after enlisting, Jameson Irish whiskey. He liked to get a cheesesteak and a milkshake on Torresdale Avenue. You always think of guys in spy work driving black SUVs, but Michael drove a blue Mini Cooper. He worked at Byrne’s Tavern for a while, making sandwiches. He was a handsome kid with short brown hair and two percent body fat.

He went off to boot camp at 18. “He wasn’t sure about college,” Charlie says. “He’d seen other people that were working and getting laid off in the trades, and he said, ‘I’m gonna try this.’” Before long, the military sent Michael to train for five months as a cryptologist in Pensacola, Florida, so he could learn how to decode encrypted messages between terrorist cells. “We didn’t know he was that smart,” Charlie says. “That’s some bad shit, you know?” After Florida, in 2005, the Navy sent Michael to its Naval Information Operations Command in Hawaii, which works closely with the 2,700 Hawaii employees of the National Security Agency. He deployed to Afghanistan for the first time later that year, and then to Iraq in 2006, where he spent nine months embedded with SEAL Team Two, providing crypto support. He’d go into battle with a kind of laptop that could pick up enemy signals and locate snipers and “squirters” — military lingo for people who flee a target area.

Michael eventually left Hawaii for a coveted spot in Virginia Beach, Virginia, home to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six. Michael bought a house in Virginia, had a girlfriend and a dog named Schmayze. All that time, he never let on to his family that what he was doing was dangerous or special. He told Santina he had a “dorky” job. He told his Aunt Maggie he worked in an office. “He said, ‘You don’t have to worry, I’m in the office,’” Maggie recalls. He almost never talked with friends about life in the military. One time, he emailed Santina to say that Afghanistan was a “hell-hole. This place is fucking ridiculous. The people are savages.” Otherwise, all Michael said about fighting was that “he couldn’t wait for his time to be up,” his friend Danny Clayton says. He told friends he wanted to be a firefighter, or maybe a nurse.

Charlie kept in touch with Michael by phone when he was away. Michael never made it seem like he was in any danger. In June 2011, though, something changed.

This is the story Charlie tells more than any other. Often, when he’s talking about Michael and Afghanistan, it can be hard to follow what he’s saying. There are so many strands of the story, so many questions Charlie has about each strand. But he always comes back to June 6, 2011 — a simple moment between a father and a son. Charlie tells it to me for the first time when I visit his apartment in the Northeast. “Michael was sitting right there,” he says, pointing to a spot on a black couch. “We’re talking. And he grabs me by the arm and he talks about a will. I’m like, what? He’s like, ‘Dad, I’m not messing around.’” According to Charlie, Michael also told him, “You wouldn’t believe what goes on in this country,” meaning America.

Michael left for the base in Virginia four days before the end of his leave, en route to Afghanistan. “He never left Philadelphia four days early,” Charlie says. “So something was up, something was different.”

In late June, right before he left for Afghanistan, Michael called Charlie and left a voicemail. Charlie has kept it all these years: “I love you, Dad. I’m taking off. If you get up on email, send me an email, and I’ll see you for Thanksgiving at Aunt Maggie’s house.”

CHARLIE GOT THE NEWS in a phone call from his daughter. August 6, 2011. He dropped the phone, screamed, and doubled over.

He drove to Michael’s mother’s house, where everyone in the family was gathering. Four uniformed guys from the Navy were there. They didn’t say much, just that Michael had died, that they were so sorry. Someone turned the TV to a news channel. Charlie couldn’t take it. He walked outside. He was pacing, banging his forearm on the metal railing on the steps. Mary came running out. She’d just seen on TV that a helicopter with the call sign Extortion One-Seven had been hit by an RPG, killing 30 Americans, including many members of SEAL Team Six.

Charlie learned a few additional details over the next few days. He saw on the news that Extortion 17 had been called in to rescue some Army Rangers who were in danger; that’s what the military had said to reporters. And he heard from his Casualty Assistance Calls Officer, or CACO, that the helicopter had burned up. Charlie says his CACO told him there were no remains. Michael had essentially been cremated.

He didn’t discover much more until October 2011, two months after the crash, when the military invited all the families to Little Creek, a naval base in Virginia, where Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt presented the results of the military’s investigation into the tragic mission. They were all in a big theater, with two projector screens. The military handed each family a folder containing a summary of the findings and a CD that held the full 1,364-page investigative report.

Here’s the official account of what happened, according to military documents. On the night of August 5th, an assault force of Army Rangers flew into the Tangi Valley, in a mountainous region south of Kabul, to locate and kill a powerful Taliban commander named Qari Tahir, code name “Lefty Grove.” Supported by two Apache attack helicopters, an AC-130 gunship and multiple surveillance aircraft, the Rangers searched a compound where Tahir was thought to be hiding. He wasn’t there. A number of suspected Taliban fled the compound. A gunner on one of the Apaches shot and killed six, but others got away.

The Rangers weren’t in danger. They didn’t require a rescue mission, as the military had initially told the press. Instead, what the Rangers needed was an “Immediate Reactionary Force” to catch the squirters.

Extortion 17 was that force. It was a CH-47D Chinook, a workhorse the military has used since Vietnam. Loaded with 30 American soldiers, eight Afghan soldiers and one military search canine, it lifted off at 2:22 a.m., piloted by an experienced National Guardsman. Sixteen minutes after takeoff, as it descended toward its preselected landing zone, a small group of Taliban fighters in a tower atop a mud-brick building fired multiple rocket-propelled grenades at the helicopter. One RPG hit a rotor blade. As a commander told General Colt, “My assessment is that this was a lucky shot of a low-level fighter that happened to be living there. He heard all the activity and he happened to be in the right spot.” The helicopter went into a spin and crashed within five seconds into a creek bed. A subsequent flash flood complicated recovery efforts, washing away some parts of the helicopter.

The military believed the mission was done by the book, General Colt told the families in Little Creek. As a Pentagon official would later testify: “We believe our forces employed sound tactics in planning and executing their fateful mission.”

After Charlie and Mary went home, they opened up the printed report they’d been given. There was no ink on most of the pages. Then Charlie put the CD into his computer and printed out the report. His computer crashed. A friend who works in computer security inspected the computer and told him it had been infected with a virus; the CD had been full of spyware.

Charlie was grieving, of course, as he struggled to process all of this. He was going to AA meetings, as he had for the previous 22 years, and often spoke about Michael there. He was working to build a nonprofit foundation in his son’s name, the Michael J. Strange Foundation, which organizes periodic retreat weekends at which families of fallen soldiers can find healing. He was also seeing a therapist, along with Mary; talking to her was “like taking a Xanax, bro. She’s good.” But he still carried Michael around with him. He requested Michael’s autopsy report, and in December 2011, the Navy sent it to him on a disk. He was expecting to see pictures of a horribly burned body, but instead, Michael seemed mostly intact, except for a badly mangled right ankle. (According to a Defense official, there was “a lot of chaos” in those first days after the tragedy. “I think there was speculation by some people that the bodies would be in really bad shape. Now, whoever said something did not have authority to say that.”)

Charlie started having nightmares about Michael getting ejected from the helicopter, falling to the ground, in pain, calling out. It was hard for Mary, too. “When your spouse loses a child, it changes him,” Mary says. “So I’m mourning part of my husband also.”

Some families who have lost their children in America’s wars have found clarity and some comfort in protesting the wars themselves. This route wasn’t available to Charlie. His son had told him that if the troops weren’t over there holding the terrorists at bay, the terrorists would come to America. “I do believe we have to let our men fight,” Charlie says. Mary adds, “With both hands.”

BY EARLY 2012, though, Charlie was discovering a new way to channel his grief. He was reading through the partially redacted 1,364-page report from the military, often at night, when he couldn’t sleep. The length of the report would come to have a kind of talismanic power for him: the 1,300 pages. It included transcripts of more than 60 interviews with commanders and soldiers, identified only by their job titles. Charlie made notes on what he read, copying down quotes and bits of military argot, asking questions, writing “Bull-Shit” in the margins more than once. He kept in touch with a few other parents of Extortion 17 victims, including Doug Hamburger, father of Patrick Hamburger, an Army staff sergeant, and Tracy and Alan Litman, parents of Nicholas Null, a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician. And it turned out that the Hamburgers and the Litmans were doing the same thing he was — reading the report, looking for answers. Although the main thrust was that the mission was sound, 1,300 pages is a lot of material. The families found pieces to grab onto, areas of dispute. They started sharing information, and pretty soon they felt like they were getting somewhere.

They had a whole long list of concerns, but most of them can be boiled down to one word: vulnerability. In reading about how the helicopter went in and went down, the families saw how vulnerable their loved ones had been. They were vulnerable, it seemed, because of the choice of helicopter, a bloated Chinook instead of a more nimble Black Hawk. They were vulnerable because the helo had no countermeasures for RPGs — no military helos do. They were vulnerable, the families believed, because of the military’s rules of engagement — rules that, according to Charlie, protect civilians at the expense of soldiers. In the report, one soldier, an aircraft navigator, spoke of seeing two “squirters” and asking to shoot them “or even provide containment fires to try to slow their movement,” and his commander told him no, “just maintain eyes-on.” (It’s not clear from the documents why the commander denied permission to engage.)

There was more. The soldiers were vulnerable because the Tangi Valley was a dangerous area, a “historical hotspot” for Taliban activity, according to one soldier in the report. They were vulnerable because the Rangers on the ground had already been searching houses for three hours, eliminating the element of surprise, and because the Apache escorts, distracted by their search for Taliban fighters, didn’t check Extortion 17’s landing zone for enemy activity until the last minute — facts that unsettled the commander, navigator and sensor operator on the AC-130 that was flying overhead at the time, as they later told General Colt. And the soldiers were vulnerable because they were pursuing a target, Tahir, the Taliban commander, who wasn’t there.

There also seemed to be no way for the families to learn why their loved ones had been so helpless, because the black box was nowhere to be found. In the report, one commander said the black box had washed away in the flash flood. Charlie found that unlikely: How often did it rain in Afghanistan?

To Charlie, all roads seemed to be leading to the same place. He’d been reading about Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and the rampant corruption in his government. He’d also read about the numerous deadly “green on blue” attacks by Afghan soldiers against American troops: The Afghans were our partners in the War on Terror, but from time to time, an Afghan soldier would open fire on a U.S. base; insider attacks killed more than 50 in 2012. No Afghan commanders had been questioned in the report, only U.S. commanders. Charlie thought he knew why: The Afghan soldiers, in some kind of suicide mission, had leaked the helicopter’s route and position to the Taliban. If this was true, though, I once asked Charlie, why would the U.S. military try to cover it up? He replied, “They don’t want to show weakness.”

BY EARLY 2013, Charlie and a few of the other families had come to agreement on a set of suspicions. But they didn’t really know what to do next. None of them had any experience with political activism. That changed when they started talking to Larry Klayman.

Klayman is a famous anti-government litigant. Starting in the ’90s, while heading a group called Judicial Watch, Klayman repeatedly sued the Clinton administration — 80 times, he says — and he doesn’t seem any fonder of President Obama. Klayman believes, in the face of all evidence, that Obama was born outside of the U.S. and is a Muslim. In a column last September, Klayman called for Americans to tell Obama, “Mr. President (to use the term loosely), put the Quran down, get up off your knees and come out with your hands up!”

All of which is to say: Klayman is a fringe character. But the Stranges took a liking to him. He was a fighter, an underdog with local ties (he’s from Narberth), and they identified with that. More than anything, what galled them about dealing with the military was their sense that all these educated generals thought they were stupid. “They weren’t betting on he and I fighting for what’s right,” Mary says. “They thought we were just a couple of schlubs from Philly.” It was also undeniable that Klayman had a lot of connections in Washington — something the Stranges lacked. And while some of Klayman’s crusades were kind of “off the wall” (Charlie’s words), Klayman and the Stranges basically got along. Charlie says, “I’m not a big fan of the President.” Adds Mary, “Larry says what everybody else thinks but they’re afraid to say. He’s not afraid to say it.”

In May 2013, Klayman called a press conference at the National Press Club to push for a Congressional hearing and to introduce the families to lawmakers and the media. Several prominent Republicans showed up, including former Florida Representative Allen West and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Charlie spoke for 16 minutes. He said a lot of stuff. He said the Obama administration had broken the sacred silence of SEAL Team Six by mentioning the SEALs’ role in killing bin Laden: “Where did it all start? Joe Biden in Delaware, in a tuxedo, with half a load on, telling everybody it was an elite Navy SEAL team.” (One day after bin Laden’s death, on May 3, 2011, at an awards dinner in Washington, Biden twice praised the SEALs, and then-CIA director Leon Panetta confirmed the SEALs’ involvement in an interview that same day. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized these disclosures at the time, saying he was worried about the SEALs’ safety.)

Charlie went on. He said that a drone should have taken out the squirters in the Tangi Valley, and that the only reason a drone wasn’t used was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. “To win the hearts and minds of them people? They hate us. My son told me they hate us.” A few minutes later, he broke down crying.

He wasn’t done putting pressure on the government. As Charlie continued to push for answers about Extortion 17, he opened a battle on a new front. Last June, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed to the world that the U.S. government was gathering “metadata” on the phone calls of millions of Verizon customers, Klayman called Charlie and talked to him about it. Was Charlie a Verizon customer? Charlie said he was. Would he like to sue the government to stop this kind of data collection in the future? He said he would. “So we don’t become an Orwellian society,” Charlie says.

The suit was a long shot. Klayman made himself a plaintiff, along with Charlie and Mary. In his complaint, he listed the following as defendants: “Barack Hussein Obama II,” Attorney General Eric Holder, director of the NSA Keith Alexander, the CEO of Verizon, a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Verizon, the NSA and the Department of Justice. The complaint seemed more than a bit grandiose, especially given that no judge had ever rebuked the NSA the way Klayman and the Stranges were demanding. And Klayman’s style attracted some ridicule. In oral argument, he told the court about some unusual text messages the Stranges had gotten, texts from Michael’s old number that contained only ones and zeroes, and said he’d gotten some bizarre messages himself; he also talked about the disk that Charlie thought contained spyware. The government, Klayman said, was “messing with me.”

Klayman won, though. In a 68-page opinion, a federal judge wrote that while the Klayman/Strange claims about being “messed with” were irrelevant, the plaintiffs did have standing to sue as Americans, given that “everyone’s metadata” in this country “is analyzed, manually or automatically.” The judge called the NSA’s technology “almost Orwellian.” The decision was a crucial victory for civil libertarians, opening the door to future legal challenges against the surveillance state. Says Klayman, “Not to toot our own horn, but it’s the biggest decision in the history of government litigation.” Charlie puts it a little differently: The government “got their socks whacked.”

CHARLIE WAS CHANGING. He wasn’t just some Philly guy anymore. A union dude, a blackjack dealer. Chaaaaalie. Now he was Charles Strange, plaintiff. Charles Strange, the guy who took on the freaking NSA — and won. He was a public figure now, and getting more public all the time, because even as the NSA case was winding its way through the courts, Charlie was acting as a kind of unofficial spokesman for the families of the soldiers killed on Extortion 17. And this was becoming an important role, because the right-wing media was chasing the story.

The first to pick up on it were talk-show hosts and bloggers, mere hours after the helicopter went down. On August 7, 2011, blogger Pamela Geller suggested that the loss of Extortion 17 was related to the Obama administration’s earlier naming of the SEAL team involved in the bin Laden raid, and that it had been done as some kind of unspecified “payback.” The next day, Michael Savage, famous for once telling a caller that he should “get AIDS and die, you pig,” said on his radio show, The Savage Nation, “Did somebody in the Defense Department tip off the Taliban that it was SEAL Team 6 in that helicopter? Not exactly the same men who killed Osama bin Laden, but their brothers in arms. Who tipped off the Taliban?” In other words: Not only were the American soldiers betrayed by the Afghans; they were betrayed by their own government. By the Obama administration.

There was, and is, zero evidence to support this absurd claim. But inflammatory words like these established the tone for what would follow. And if Charlie was sympathetic to the narrative of enemies within, you can understand why. Through 2012 and 2013, his world was becoming more and more bizarre. He was in regular communication with a lawyer who didn’t think Obama was born here. He was reading documents produced by a military that had been caught lying more than once in recent years, most prominently in the sad case of Pat Tillman. (Tillman was the former NFL player and Army Ranger killed in Afghanistan in 2004. At first, the military said he was hit by Taliban fire; officials promoted that heroic story for a month before finally admitting that Tillman was killed by friendly fire from his own buddies.) He was mourning a cryptographer son who had worked closely with the NSA, the agency that had secretly been gathering data on all of our phone calls. And all the time, people in the media, people who seemed to matter, were amplifying some of Charlie’s deepest suspicions. He didn’t know what to believe, but it seemed safest, somehow, in weird surveillance America, to believe the worst.

Charlie did The Savage Nation last July. The show reaches five million people on hundreds of stations. Charlie told the story of how his son grabbed his arm in June 2011 and spoke about a will. Savage asked him, “Your son knew he was being sent to his death?” Charlie said yes, all the soldiers knew. Savage said, “So, you’re saying they” — meaning the Obama administration — “planned to execute your son and the others on purpose?” Charlie said, “One hundred percent, sir.” Charlie said much the same thing on The Alex Jones Show.

When I ask Charlie about his interactions with the media, he turns out to be conflicted and decently self-aware. He says he wasn’t sure what to make of these radio hosts a lot of the time. They were willing to give him a microphone to get Michael’s story out, so he was willing to take it. He once asked me what I thought of Michael Savage and Alex Jones, genuinely wanting to know. He disliked Sean Hannity of Fox News, who was always bashing unions; after a while, Charlie stopped responding to Fox News interview requests.

At the same time, it was tough for him to keep any interested party at arm’s length. People were fast becoming invested in the story of Extortion 17, hoping to use it as a crowbar to pry loose damaging facts about their political enemies. Since those first gusts of speculation on blogs and talk shows in August 2011, the establishment arm of the right-wing media had picked up the story and done actual reporting, particularly the Washington Times, which published a long investigation last October. The Times concluded, “The helicopter’s landing zone was not properly vetted for threats nor protected by gunships, while commanders criticized the mission as too rushed and the conventional Chinook chopper as ill-suited for a dangerous troop infiltration.” However, the newspaper did not conclude that Extortion 17 was the victim of a green-on-blue attack, or that the military had covered anything up.

The more stories Charlie read, the more he soured on journalists. They didn’t seem able to get deep enough. But maybe politicians could, with their subpoena power and their ability to view classified material.

Last year, Klayman helped Charlie set up meetings with two House Republicans, Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz. Issa, 60, from California, is a conservative who prides himself on irritating the Obama administration. He runs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which he has shaped into a kind of catapult for launching anti-Obama narratives over the castle walls of the media, particularly regarding the killing of four Americans by Islamic militants in Benghazi in 2012. Benghazi has since become a favorite topic of Obama critics, shorthand for broader concerns about America’s ability to fight terrorists, and Issa, from his committee perch, has driven the debate. As for Jason Chaffetz, he’s an up-and-comer on Issa’s committee, a 47-year-old Utahan with a cherubic face.

Issa and Chaffetz sat together with Charlie and listened to his story. Chaffetz floated in and out of the room, but Issa stayed for an hour and a half. They said they’d try to help. Charlie pinned his hopes on Congress.

HERE WE GO. February 27, 2014. A hushed hearing room in the Rayburn Building. Big-ass paintings of former committee chairmen on the walls. Video screens that say “Afghanistan: Honoring the Heroes of Extortion 17.” A large wooden dais, security guards at the door.

Charlie’s sitting stiff-backed in a long row of seats facing the dais. Mary is next to him, and Klayman, and Hamburger and the Litmans. Chaffetz is running the show today, as head of the national security subcommittee. Issa isn’t here.

Up on the dais, Chaffetz introduces himself and begins his opening remarks. He says he’s not going to air any classified information, as much as the families might want that. He says the purpose of the hearing is to “dispel potential myths and to learn from the events so we can ensure that proper reforms are implemented.” He thanks the five witnesses. The highest-ranking witness is Garry Reid, a middle-aged guy in a dark suit. He’s a deputy assistant secretary of defense. The four other witnesses handle casualty and mortuary services for different branches of the military.

After his statement, Chaffetz yields to the ranking Democrat, John Tierney of Massachusetts, who says that “there are other families and their representatives who have contacted the subcommittee and expressed grave concern about today’s hearing. They’ve asked for privacy and they seek closure.” It’s true that the four Klayman families are only a subset of the families who lost loved ones. The rest would rather let it be, and grieve in private.

After this initial skirmish, the hearing settles into a long gray stretch of calm questions and even calmer explanations. The exchanges don’t feel partisan, or for the most part even all that adversarial.

Reid takes point. On the issue of the black box, he says there was no black box. “The aircraft is not a digital — it does not have a suite of digital electronics. It has gauges — analog gauges.” Why, then, does it say in the military’s report that one commander thought the black box had washed away in a flood? Reid says the forces were trying to recover bodies and wreckage in a “hostile environment,” and the commander was confused. And what about that flood? Did it really occur? Yes, Reid says; he studied the climate data. Off to the side of the room, a large photo is mounted on an easel, showing a wide expanse of mud — the flood’s aftermath.

Reid continues to address criticisms and discrepancies. Was the Chinook the appropriate aircraft for the mission? Yes; a Black Hawk couldn’t have been used, he says, because it’s not designed for high elevation, in the mountains, where Extortion 17 was flying. What about the Afghan soldiers? Did they leak the flight route or landing-zone location to the enemy? Reid says they were all highly vetted and had trained with the Americans for seven months, and there was no possibility of a leak, because no one outside of the U.S. command was even told about the mission. “We do not believe the mission was compromised,” he says. (In his prepared statement, Reid also addressed concern about the rules of engagement, denying that the rules “restricted our forces” and arguing that the Apache teams tracking the fleeing Taliban exercised “sound judgment.”)

It’s easy to see why Extortion 17 hasn’t become as politically salient as Benghazi, even with its much greater loss of life. The picture Reid is painting here is of a legitimate mission in a difficult war. Commanders may have made judgment errors, but only because they were operating in the heat of battle with imperfect information. Classic fog-of-war stuff. Which may be why Chaffetz and the other Republicans aren’t making any sharp accusations about green-on-blue attacks, or the black box, or the military’s choice to use a Chinook. Instead they’re mainly asking about ancillary issues, like the logistics of the soldiers’ burial. It turns out that when the bodies were flown from Afghanistan to Dover, some were draped with American flags and some were draped with Afghan flags, but the military didn’t know which bodies were which, raising the possibility that some American dead were draped with Afghan flags. Also, at a brief ceremony for the dead on the base in Afghanistan, a Muslim colonel had said a prayer for all the dead. Chaffetz tells the witnesses there should have been two different ceremonies, one for the American dead and one for the Afghans. “I don’t want some Afghan saying something about my son,” he says. Charlie and a few other parents let out an approving whoop.

A little before the two-hour mark, Chaffetz goes on a brief riff about soldiers and war. Through sniffles, visibly weeping, he says he hopes the families of the dead soldiers “feel the love of this nation.” Then he turns off his mic and adjourns the meeting.

Charlie and the families stand. Chaffetz walks over to thank them. Klayman asks Chaffetz for another hearing where the families can speak; Chaffetz smiles and shakes his head no.

The families file into the hallway and huddle with Klayman, deciding what they’ll say at their press conference. After 10 minutes of private discussion, they walk out together onto the Rayburn steps, where five or six reporters are waiting. Klayman introduces Doug Hamburger, who says, with restraint, that he still has questions the committee didn’t answer. Then it’s Charlie’s turn, and the mood changes. “The panel was horrible,” Charlie says. “Is there a difference between a Chinook helicopter and a Black Hawk? Well, I’m going in the Black Hawk.”

After answering some questions from reporters, Klayman and the families hop in taxis and ride to a nearby lunch spot, and as they eat and talk about the hearing, they grow more and more disappointed. Klayman says he thinks the hearing was “an orchestrated attempt to placate the families,” a “disgrace” and a “cover-up,” and that the witnesses were some of the military’s “most ignorant people.” He adds, “Look, 95 percent of the American people do not trust the government. So we’re not way off here.”

The day is over for Klayman and the others. They had their shot, and it didn’t go the way they wanted it to. But Charlie has another meeting today, another chance at satisfaction.

BOB BRADY LEANS BACK behind his desk, hands clasped around his belly, and invites Charlie and Mary to sit down.

Brady: nine-term Congressman. Head of the Philly Democratic Party. Friends out the wazoo. Former union carpenter, with silver hair and a thick Philly accent. He first met Charlie two years ago, at a ceremony honoring Michael, and has spoken with him multiple times, but they’ve never gone into detail about Extortion 17. Brady’s office is a large room with purple carpet and two brown leather couches. A pair of boxing gloves that say BRADY hang from a bookcase, and a Louisville Slugger rests against another.

As three aides look on, ready to take notes, Charlie starts telling Brady the story of his son, but it’s like he tries to tell the whole thing all at once. A 1960 helicopter, he says. Refurbished in 1985. Somebody leaked something out. It was a green-on-blue. “I’ve got the proof. Just want to show you a few pages real quick.”

“Sure, show me anything,” Brady says.

Next, Charlie talks about his son’s body, and being told his son was cremated, and then getting the pictures of his body intact. He talks about the black box, and being told that a flash flood washed it away, and then being told there was no black box. “It was an ambush, it was a setup,” Charlie says. “Where’s my papers at?” He puts on his glasses and riffles through a blue Modell’s bag.

“You still down at the casino anymore?” Brady says.

“No, I’m out.”

“I was down to see you at the casino. You weren’t there.” Brady grins. “Good excuse to go to the casino.”

“They knew,” Charlie says. “It’s in the paperwork.”

“How would … ” Brady says, uncertain. “How would they know?”

“Who told Karzai, who told the Taliban?” Charlie says. He hands his handwritten notes to the aide on the couch, then starts listing a number of generals who left the military or retired after the Extortion 17 disaster; Charlie thinks they’re part of the cover-up.

“Ten months later, Benghazi happened,” Mary says.

“Who are these people?” Brady says, frowning. “People investigating?”

“There’s so many questions,” Charlie says.

“They’re not giving you any answers,” Brady says softly. “What was the result of the hearing?”

“It wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t even a hearing, I don’t think. They said a Chinook didn’t have a recording device. Chinook has three kinds of recording devices … three different, you can Google it … 1,300 pages. My son’s dead. Fought for this country. Loved Philadelphia … after the bin Laden raid, he came home, he said, ‘Yo Dad, I got a will. … ’

“This is bullshit, man,” Charlie says, his voice growing louder, the anger starting to lift him out of his chair. “Thirty guys. Twenty-two of the best guys in the world. And you tell me it’s a lucky shot? You’re lucky I — ”

Brady cuts him off with a quick question on an unrelated topic, and Charlie puts his papers back in the Modell’s bag.

“I’m going to shut up,” Charlie says. “I know it’s getting late.”

Brady is the first guy to interact with Charlie today who seems to understand that what he’s dealing with here is a political activist and a dutiful military parent but also a human being who is suffering. “You need some closure,” Brady tells Charlie. He says getting another hearing might be tough — he understands secrecy and clearances, understands why the hearing had to go the way it did — but he might be able to set up a private meeting with some folks in the Pentagon. “If you can’t find out what happened, at least you can get in front of some people and speak your piece,” he says. “You’re not just doing it for your kid, you’re doing it for all the kids who come after. And there are a lot of kids who come after. Too many kids.”

Charlie thanks him, shakes his hand, and goes outside to get some air. Mary stays behind in Brady’s office for a minute. She tells Brady her husband is “a good fucking man” and he doesn’t sleep.

Out on the sidewalk, Charlie is sobbing. Brady emerges and sees. Mary takes a couple of pictures of Brady and Charlie together. Charlie seems boosted by this, and regains his composure. “If you have a bad night, call me,” Brady tells Charlie. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 a.m. I don’t sleep.” Then he gives Charlie his cell number and his AOL email address.

Charlie and Mary walk back to their car and steer it into the thick late-afternoon traffic. Mary puts on a Kid Rock CD, rolls down the window, turns up the volume.

BRADY MOVES QUICKLY. By the time I see Charlie and Mary next, three weeks later, at Tony Luke’s in South Philly, the Congressman has already reached out to the Pentagon. Charlie and Mary are just waiting on a date and a time for their meeting.

They order steaks and fries. Charlie says he lost a tooth two or three weeks ago. He grinds his teeth from stress, and a tooth fell out.

Now he mentions a conversation we had a few weeks ago, on the car ride home from D.C. That afternoon, I asked him if he ever thought, even fleetingly, that maybe it really was a lucky shot that killed Michael. What if there are innocent explanations for some of this stuff? For instance, what if Michael talked to Charlie about a will in June 2011 simply because he realized Afghanistan was a dangerous place, not because he feared betrayal? What if the moments Charlie finds so ominous — hearing that Extortion 17 was a rescue mission when it wasn’t, being told his son’s body was cremated when it wasn’t, receiving a report with no toner — were simple human errors and miscommunications, not evidence of conspiracy?

In the car at the time, Charlie had good-naturedly told me no, he never considered that it might have been a lucky shot. There were too many odd things about the official story, too many red flags. Now he shoots me a look. There’s confusion and hurt in it.

“Do you really think it was a lucky shot?” he says.

I tell him I don’t know. I think the military miscalculated, exposing his son to great danger without adequately supporting or protecting him. That much is clear from the documents and from the tragic result of the mission. As for the other stuff Charlie talks about, I can’t say. The truth may be hanging out there beyond my ability to reach it.

Charlie leans back in his chair and scowls. He seems baffled and a little wounded, so I change the subject and ask to see the tattoo on his back. Charlie says sure. He pulls up his shirt, revealing a black-and-white picture of Michael drawn by Mary’s son, a tattoo artist. Michael is wearing a headset, holding a rifle, smiling. “So Michael’s always looking over Charlie’s shoulder,” Mary says.

Their meeting at the Pentagon comes three and a half weeks later, on April 30th. Charlie and Mary get up early, drive down to D.C., park near the Pentagon. Two aides meet them there and lead them through the building’s elaborate security system. Charlie carries a bunch of exhibits from the 1,300 pages in his black-and-red SugarHouse Casino duffel bag. They enter an office where four defense personnel are waiting for them.

Charlie asks the defense folks if they read the 1,300 pages. According to Charlie, one official tells him no, he read the executive summary and watched Charlie’s appearance at the National Press Club. Charlie stands up. You didn’t read the 1,300 fucking pages? He walks out of the room. “Had to get some air. Had to breathe, you know?”

After a few minutes, he returns, sits, and starts asking questions from a list he’s brought. The official answers as best he can. “He was honest,” Charlie says. “He said, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t hear that.’” It goes on like this for at least three hours, Charlie pulling exhibits out of the bag, the official parrying, until Charlie and Mary have had a chance to ask every question on their list. Finally, Charlie makes his demand: He wants a new investigation.

“Somebody should be held accountable,” Charlie says. “Tell me it was a lucky shot, maybe bad planning? Whoa whoa whoa whoa. My son, my 25-year-old son, isn’t here. I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear a guy got fired.”

The official who led the meeting with Charlie and Mary agreed to speak to me on background. He said his goal for the meeting was to bring the Stranges “some additional comfort” and “to help them understand the info they have been given.” In preparation, he said, he did read the full classified investigation, not just the summary, though Charlie was frustrated that he couldn’t cite chapter and verse of specific exhibits; the official also spoke with a number of key military personnel. He told me he had trouble following Charlie’s argument about how the deaths of his son and the SEALs on Extortion 17 were linked to the earlier SEAL raid on bin Laden — Charlie and Mary’s theory of betrayal. “I don’t quite understand the logic: Somehow we accommodated Karzai by serving up the helicopter in a valley … but in their mind, it’s true.” No amount of explanation could convince the Stranges otherwise. “They are obviously having a very difficult time,” the official said, “and — completely understandable. Look, and I understand the more I say, I have the potential to make it worse.”

I asked him how the military could say that Extortion 17’s mission was tactically sound, given that some of the people involved in the fight that day — the AC-130 crew, for instance — were clearly uncomfortable with it. He said, “If the procedures were wrong that night, they were wrong quite a bit, because [commanders on the ground] followed the templates. … Units in command learn from every operation. We’re not saying we would do it identically the same next time.” The military, he said, did ask one of its task forces to study new technologies for protecting helicopters from RPGs, but the task force concluded that the technologies weren’t ready yet. He added, “The enemy prevailed in that piece of battle. That happens in war.”

Charlie’s journey has hardly been futile; by forcing the military to testify before Congress, he added important facts to the record, and along the way he spawned a legal decision, in the NSA case, that impacted the whole country. But here’s my sense of it: Even if the Pentagon did fire all the commanders responsible, even if some official did come out and say in plain language what seems obvious from the mere fact that America in 2011 dispatched 30 young humans into the sky in a faraway country and failed to bring them back alive — look, we fucked up — there would still be no answer to Charlie’s fundamental question. Michael was fit and full of life. He was 25 years old. He was Charlie’s son. Where is he now? Where is Michael Strange?

Originally published as “Grief in the Age of Paranoia” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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