Dreams: Not as Crazy as You Think
A local writer’s new book, If Football’s a Religion, Why Don’t We Have a Prayer?, shows that our most obsessed sports fanatics are a little more complicated — and interesting — than they appear, as the following excerpt reveals
He always had trouble sleeping, but the nights before a game were the worst, leaving him fidgety, tossing with anticipation. Shaun Young awakened at 5:45 and watched a videotape of an Eagles game played three seasons earlier. He had breakfast, and pumped iron to get his blood flowing. Then he drove to the stadium. Three hours before Philadelphia was to play Dallas, Shaun had already dressed in his Eagles jersey, shoulder pads, football pants and turf shoes. This might have been unremarkable, except that Shaun made a living dumping trash, not quarterbacking.
Each football Sunday, he followed an exacting routine. He painted the right side of his face green, then the left side silver, followed with dabs of eye black. He slid an Eagles earring into the lobe of his left ear and covered his shaved head with a bandanna that flowed down his neck and was emblazoned with a predatory Eagles logo. Shaun, who was 33, worked on a sanitation truck in Springfield, Delaware County, and he devoted his life to the grunting men who push a ball up and down a field.
He spent his workdays jumping on and off of a truck, lifting cans and bags and removing the curbside stink of middle-class discard. The Eagles represented to Young an idealized reflection of himself as possessing a basic, lunch-pail integrity.
And so did he put his fidelity to the Eagles on the line each day.
On January 11, 2002, the day before Philadelphia hosted Tampa Bay in a playoff game, Shaun was lying on the sofa in his apartment when his appendix burst. He fell to the floor and curled into a ball, remaining in a fetal position for 15 minutes, understanding what had happened and knowing that if he went to the hospital he would miss the game the next day. No way was he missing the game. So he took a shower, then sat in a steaming tub and kept reminding himself that he had a high tolerance for pain. He drove to Veterans Stadium a day later and sat through the game, which the Eagles won, 31-9. The next morning, he entered the hospital. By then, his white blood cell count was triple what it should have been. He felt such acute discomfort and disorientation that he did not remember driving to the emergency entrance or calling his mother and stepfather to let them know he needed surgery.
He remained in the hospital for a week, and when the hosts at WIP found out, Young became celebrated as the archetypal steadfast Eagles fan. Strangers visited his hospital room. People he had never met called the hospital and serenaded him with the Eagles fight song and chanted the familiar “E-A-G-L-E-S” chant in the cadence of a rushed, celebratory scream. The Eagles played another playoff game while he convalesced, against Chicago, and the doctors and nurses told him he could have a small party but cautioned, “No kegs.”
It always surprised people to learn that Young did not drink. He might have been the only Eagles fan who didn’t. Not an ounce. Never had. In fact, he lectured school kids on avoiding alcohol and drugs. Sure, he gave himself completely at Eagles games, climbing on railings and screaming so loudly and deliriously that he often could not recall what he said or did, losing himself in a way that felt “like an out-of-body experience.”
But he did not understand how fans could appreciate a game when they were too drunk to remember their names, much less savor football’s spectacular muscularity. Unfailingly, people seemed stunned to learn that Young was not another nut job, that away from the game he was quiet and inconspicuous. When told this, people reacted with astonished looks, as if they had been handed a wild animal and told it could be petted.
After the Eagles won the playoff game 33-19, a nurse arrived to find Shaun crying. For the first time in 21 years, Philadelphia had advanced to the NFC championship game. The nurse thought he needed more medication, until he burbled, “I’m fine, the Birds are going to the championship game.”
She started laughing and told him, “You are completely out of your mind.”
“My family is a little concerned with some of the things I’ve been through,” Shaun said. “I remember the first day I came down in this outfit, in ’95. My mom had a girlfriend over. Mom looked at me completely blank. ‘I think this is my son, Shaun, but I’m not quite certain.’ She shook her head and laughed.”
The sense of camaraderie, of recognition and belonging, is what attracted Shaun. He had played sports vigorously as a boy, and even though high-school football eluded him, he still kept in shape, lifting weights five or six days a week. He saw himself in shoulder pads and greasepaint as assuming a role that was both natural and theatrical, just as the Eagles’ mild-mannered safety Brian Dawkins viewed himself on Sundays as a fierce, sledgehammering figure called Idiot Man. Emotion took over for both of them, even though one was a teammate, the other a Teamster.
“Maybe it’s the camaraderie, how much fun we have when we win,” Shaun said. “Maybe even part of the attraction is, ‘What would the feeling be like to lose and rebound again?’ I didn’t think that as a kid. As I got older, maybe subliminally, it might have been, ‘What kind of person can I be or will I be if I go through this, if I put my energy in this, if I put my heart into this, and we lose? Where will I be? Will I have enough in me to go back?’ I never gave up, no matter what. I was like that as a kid in sports. I guess that goes hand in hand with being a fan.”
“He’s always fascinated me because there is nothing there but true feeling for a football team,” Angelo Cataldi of WIP said. “He’s so wrapped up in it. I swear, there’s never a moment when he stands back and says, ‘They’re running up and down the field with a ball. How real is that?’ No, it’s like, ‘I’ve decided to define my life by the fortune of these men wearing these uniforms and trying to advance a ball up a field.’ I love him. I’ve always had great admiration for him, because it’s genuine.”
Shaun occupied a singular position among the Eagles faithful, something less than a player but more than a fan. A former Eagles player, Marc Woodard, a linebacker in the mid-1990s, once told Shaun, “You’re more famous than I am.”
“I’ve got some dates because of this mystery-man-behind-the-makeup thing,” Shaun told me. “Some interesting situations. Once, we went out to dinner and were hanging out, watching movies. Things went to a good level. As it was getting there, she saw the shoulder pads sitting up on the closet shelf. She asked me if she could wear the pads, you know what I mean? I said, ‘Whatever,’ and she grabbed them and threw the pads on and we did okay.”
Last February, Shaun’s group had planned to party near the stadium in Jacksonville if the Eagles won the Super Bowl. But they were in no mood after the close defeat, so they packed up and headed back to Pecan Park, near the airport. Shaun removed his face paint and his shoulder pads. He lay on the floor of their RV and tried to sleep but couldn’t. The space around him seemed cramped, confining, defeat pressing in on him. He got 38 phone calls, but ignored all of them. The game kept playing in his head — Why this? Why that? — a fan’s unanswered questions slapping back and forth like windshield wipers. He tossed and turned, finally nodding off for maybe 10 minutes before the sun came up on an empty morning, the wait of 44 seasons without a championship extending to 45.
Jere Longman is a reporter for the New York Times who has written about sports for nearly a quarter-century, including a three-year stint covering the Eagles for the Inquirer. His two previous HarperCollins books are the best-selling Among the Heroes and The Girls of Summer. He has lived in the Philadelphia area for the past 23 years.
From the forthcoming book If Football’s A Religion, Why Don’t We Have A Prayer? © 2005 by Jere Longman. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers. E-mail: email@example.com.