The Enemy Among Us: How Are There Cowboys Fans in Philadelphia?
I’ve written about all sorts of different things over the years, but I’d never experienced people so visibly disgusted with me until I started poking around for this piece. All it took was a simple introduction of the topic: football-watching humans, born and/or raised in the Philadelphia area, who identify as fans of the Dallas Cowboys.
We’ll pause briefly here to allow you to ready your Nate Newton-branded airsickness bags.
“That’s like rooting for another country in the Olympics,” said my aghast buddy Chris, an Eagles diehard, when I asked him for his thoughts.
It’s a good comparison. To the Philly faithful, the idea of someone with a 215 area code supporting The Star is just as nauseating as hoping the Russians crush us in ice hockey, or cheering for Chinese gymnasts to school our boys on the pommel horse.
Because of this, I long considered Dallas fans with Philly roots to be a fancified local urban legend, like Midgetville, New Jersey or the wandering SEPTA bus. How could a fandom so dramatically etched into the regional DNA beget any outliers, especially ones so traitorous?
(Just to be clear, noted Cowboy fan Domonic Brown is from Florida, so does not technically qualify for this discussion.)
Then I started meeting them, and I had questions.
How did they come to support not just an enemy, but THE enemy? What motivates them to stay Dallas fans? And, most importantly — how have they survived up to this point?
Though I’m a longtime resident of Philly, I didn’t grow up here. But I have developed a working understanding of the Eagles fan’s psyche. Dropping the C-word — Cowboys — has always been the quickest path to catching a glimpse of that midnight-green id. In my experience, most people bring up the brash Aikman-Smith-Irvin squads of the 1990s when qualifying their hatred. And damn those dudes were easy to hate, even for a non-Eagles guy like me. But the truth is that the rivalry, in all its primeval viciousness, reaches back decades, before many modern-day Eagles fans were even born.
The early days were all Dallas — “about as competitive as a hammer taking on a nail,” according to the late, great Steve Sabol. Ray Didinger traces it all back to a single play during the 1967 regular season, the first year to feature the Eagles and Cowboys in the same NFL division. Dallas linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, perhaps in retaliation for a controversial call that’d gone the Eagles’ way in a Philly win the year before, coldcocked running back Timmy Brown, fracturing his jaw and knocking out four of his teeth. Brown ate a liquid diet for nearly two months after the cheap shot.
“From that point on,” Didinger writes, “the rivalry was personal.”
So personal that it’d spread out over multiple gridiron eras, creating a sports-geek treasure trove of memorable moments. The 1980 NFC championship game, which saw the Eagles wreck the Cowboys 20-7 at Veterans Stadium. The strike-screwed 1987 matchups, featuring Randall Cunningham’s infamous fake kneel play in the second game. The 1989 Bounty Bowls, and the legendary war of words between Buddy Ryan and Jimmy Johnson. The mid-’90s playoff games, which saw Dallas besting Philly en route to two of the three rings they’d claim that decade. The 1999 Michael Irvin injury game, which many Eagles fans don’t like to talk about.
At the turn of the new century, the Eagles began dominating the rivalry, making the playoffs 10 times between 2000 and 2013, including trips to four straight NFC Championships and one Super Bowl. The Cowboys, meanwhile, notched just one playoff win in that time period, in 2009 — it was against the Eagles, because of course it was. (For the record, Dallas holds a 59-47 lifetime edge over the Birds.)
This season, with both teams at 7-3 heading into Week 12 ahead of a huge Thanksgiving Day meeting, is a perfect time to revisit the rivalry and explore its most-ostracized subculture: the Philadelphia native who disowns all geographic loyalties, choosing instead to declare Jerry World their spiritual home. I tracked down a handful of these fans to figure out how the hell they got this way.
The Cowboys’ “America’s Team” reputation, which came to fruition thanks to the franchise’s flashy new-money personality and ubiquity on national TV broadcasts, has been part of the conversation since the 1970s. But that doesn’t explain how people who spend their formative years in Eagles Country come to cheer for the team’s most reviled adversary. If you’re assuming family has something to do with it, you’re at least half-right.
“Pop always watched Dallas, so that made me like Dallas,” says Dennis Carter, a Germantown guy who became a Cowboys fan in the mid-’70s, when he was about 10 years old. “You don’t want to root for no losers. I don’t think it was a bad choice.” His was far from a silver-and-blue home, however. While he, his father and one of his brothers repped the Boys, his mother and four other siblings were staunch Eagles supporters, making for interesting gamedays in their single-television household.
Doug Allen, who grew up in Yardley, began following Dallas thanks to an uncle and cousins on his mother’s side who lived in Fort Worth. He declared his Cowboy love in a more dramatic and dangerous fashion: He slipped on a Cowboys jacket and attended a game at The Vet when he was 11 — accompanied by his father, a longtime Eagles fan. “He walked me around and let me see how many people would give me shit,” says Allen. “He said, ‘That’s all because you’re a Cowboys fan.'” He’s since attended multiple Eagles-Cowboys games in Philly, with no serious incidents as of yet. His dad still gives him shit every Sunday.
Another local who went against his father’s wishes: South Philly native Jerome Walker, who resisted his entire clan’s Eagles loyalties and proclaimed himself a Dallas fan at age 7 after finding himself enamored with the play of running back Tony Dorsett. To this day, he’s the only Cowboys fan in his circle. “I just won’t root for the Eagles,” he says. “It’s not in me.”
Alfonso Zancolli, who also grew up in South Philly, was given a Cowboys replica helmet by a cousin as a young boy. “I treasured that gift like it was a royal crown,” he recalls. This gesture grew into serious Dallas support that lasted from the mid-’70s through the mid-’90s, when Zancolli denounced the Texas team after owner Jerry Jones controversially canned coach Johnson. He now roots for the Eagles.
For Chaz Brown, who grew up in Voorhees, meeting Hall of Famer Dorsett as a kid fostered his lifelong Dallas loyalty. “My teacher told my dad that I shouldn’t wear my Cowboys stuff in fear of being bullied or getting in fights,” says Brown, a chef who recently opened a restaurant, Seoul Chicken, in New York. In true contrarian fashion, “I made sure that I always had on a jersey, hat or backpack — whatever I could find.”
But … Why?
There’s a theory that the most virulent Eagles-Cowboys hatred springs from the Philly side of the rivalry — that all those decades of Dallas dominance, not to mention their five Super Bowl rings, have made the team without hardware bitter. These fans have differing opinions on the matter.
Brown was actually at the October 1999 game made famous by Eagles fans loudly celebrating the hit that ended Michael Irvin’s playing career. (The HOF receiver has gone on to say that he considered it a compliment.) “That one pissed me off,” says Brown. “I get grief from all fans, but Eagles fans might be the damn worst.” Brown also points out that he doesn’t consider the Eagles to be the Cowboys’ primary rival — that role, in his eyes, belongs to the Redskins.
“Eagles fans are super-loyal to their team, but they’re also the fastest to talk shit on their own players,” says Allen. “It’s like giving a speech at a wedding saying the couple’s going to be together forever, and then turning around that Monday and saying, ‘You guys are definitely going to get a divorce.'” He attributes the vitriol to the Eagles’ inability to capitalize on the multi-season window that offered their best chance at a Lombardi Trophy.
Carter, the cafeteria supervisor at One Bright Ray Community High School at K and Erie, notices that his coworkers’ smack talk fluctuates from week to week. “When [the Eagles] win, I can’t get them out the kitchen,” he says. But when they lose, it doesn’t seem like anyone wants to stop by and talk football on their lunch break.
In what might be the strangest wrinkle of this whole anomaly, a loyalty to the Cowboys does not necessarily translate to an aversion to all Philadelphia sports. “I have tattoos of every other Philly team on my body — Sixers, Flyers, a huge rising sun Phillies tattoo,” says Allen. Both Walker and Carter also consider themselves big fans of the city’s other three pro teams. They understand that family, friends and disapproving onlookers will always find this distinction bizarre — but they’re not changing for anybody. “I know you’re not to supposed to say never,” says Walker of refusing to support the Eagles despite rooting for the rest of the town’s sporting establishment, “but this something I will say never on.”
“There were a couple years I probably could have switched,” says Allen. “But that would be the last thing I’ll ever give up. You’d have to torture me to say anything nice about the Philadelphia Eagles. I love Philly. I’m here to stay. But if I have kids, they won’t be Eagles fans.”
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