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Eagles are a passion in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA -- Buildings that show their age, but also their dignity and character, they stand just blocks from the gridiron, their names emblazoned on each front. Grasso. Stolfo. Gangemi. Leonetti. Carto. Drive on and there are more. Monti. Cannon. Donato. Terranova. Baldi. Penna.

Funeral homes, each and every one. No fewer than 17 on Broad Street alone and down at the corners of Wolf and Shunk, you seemingly have one for each night of the week. Citywide? Bless the souls in this great town who pass on, for there is no shortage of theaters for those final, public tributes, the list of choices filling more than four pages in the local yellow pages.

Quipsters would suggest that such an abundance is necessary, given all the sporting dreams and hopes that have died over the many decades here, and perhaps there is a tinge of truth to that. But just as true is this: They needn't worry about visiting hours for Eagles passion, for that is eternal, an indestructible marvel that is relentless in fury and generational in depth.

"I can relate my experience and tell you that it's typical here," said Ray Diddinger, a producer for NFL Films who for 27 years covered the Eagles as a beat reporter and columnist for two Philadelphia newspapers. "My grandparents went to Eagles games back in the Davey O'Brien days [1939-40] and they brought my mom to games in 1946 and she brought me to games in 1956.

"The whole experience with pro football was a way of life. Every Sunday, the ritual was go to church, then go to the Eagles game. It was hard to tell where the religion stopped and the football began."

To Diddinger, an image from the final game of last season underscores the burning passion. There had been a third consecutive loss at home in the NFC Championship game, this time to Carolina, and TV cameras filmed Eagles fans leaving the stadium. "Suddenly you see a man crying and the cameras catch him screaming, `You broke my heart again,' " said Diddinger.

"Now, fast-forward to this past summer, the first day of practice, and 25,000 fans showed up. Twenty-five thousand. I guarantee you, the guy who was on those steps outside the stadium yelling, `You broke my heart again,' he was one of the first in line to go to that practice."

Joe Banner smiles at the story. Boston-born and Boston-raised, he thinks it helps puts Eagle-mania in perspective, then he explains further, in a way that a Bostonian could relate to. "There are four popular pro sports teams here, just like Boston, but one continually stands out, just like Boston. In Boston, it's clearly the Red Sox, here it's the Eagles."

Get that? The Eagles are to Philadelphia what the Red Sox are to Boston. Only Banner suggests the passion goes even deeper. He mentions a study that was conducted last year, in which 75 percent of the nearly 8 million people in this wide area conceded they were "serious Eagles fans."

Banner, the Eagles president, lets that number linger, then he smiles.

"That," he said, "is a staggering number."

Heading south
Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles will depart for Jacksonville, Fla., and their Feb. 6 date with the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. It is a stretch to suggest that everyone in this city will go with them; then again, perhaps it isn't, because this party has been in the planning stages for decades.

It's the team's second trip to the game's greatest showcase, the previous one coming after the 1980 season.

It would be the first NFL title since 1960, and while that 45-year gap may pale in comparison to the 86-year wait that finally ended for a certain baseball team located on Yawkey Way, this city's celebration would easily match anything that has ever been seen -- the parade of duck boats included.

Go ahead, throw those barbs from afar, the jokes about brutally-tough Philadelphia fans being crude and rude, cold and ruthless. Most of the jokes come from people who never saw Shibe Park, never stepped inside the Vet, never put their hands around a Philly cheesesteak. Take it from someone who came from afar and never left, this is one great city.

"Absolutely awesome. The greatest fans in the world," said Tommy McDonald, the Hall of Fame receiver who was born in New Mexico and embraced by University of Oklahoma fans, only he chose to make his home just outside of Philadelphia, in a town called King of Prussia.

"The fans are why I stayed up here. They were always so good to me," said McDonald. "They bleed green."

His former Eagle teammates agree, many of them living as heroes forever in a Philadelphia community that still cherishes what that 1960 Eagles team did. Sound the roll call and watch the river of joyful tears flow down Market Street at the mention of Chuck "Concrete Charley" Bednarik, Tom Brookshier, Pete Retzlaff, even a kid from South Boston, Dick Lucas -- champions who have made this their home.

"People wondered why we were winning [in 1960]," said Lucas, who grew up at the corner of E Street and Broadway and played at Boston College. "We were the mystery team."

The Green Bay Packers were expected to win that day after Christmas -- a bitter cold Sunday weeks before the inauguration of John F. Kennedy -- only Bednarik put a halt to the great Jimmy Taylor inside the 10 late in the game and protected a 7-0 lead. Hardly in a hurry to remove himself from Taylor, Bednarik thought he heard something coming from the bottom of the pile.

"Taylor was trying to get up and all Chuck kept saying was, `What are you saying? I can't hear you,' " said McDonald with a laugh. "I can still see Chuck sitting on Jimmy while he watched the clock in the end zone."

Finally, the last precious second ticked off and the Eagles were champions of the NFL for the first time since the glory days of coach Greasy Neale and the legendary Steve Van Buren in 1948-49. As Philadelphia quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and heralded teammates such as Maxie Baughan, Marion Campbell, Timmy Brown, Clarence Peaks, Sonny Jurgensen, and Jimmy Carr celebrated, Green Bay's coach boiled over.

"I'll never forget Vince Lombardi that day," said McDonald. "He was furious. He said, `This will never happen again,' and I guess he sure knew what he was talking about because [Green Bay] never did lose another playoff game under him."

At the other side of the field, Neale was telling people he was retiring. Why? "He said, `We'll never do that again. It's a good time to leave,' " said Brookshier.

Hardly any Eagle fan would have thought that day it wouldn't be until 1978 that the franchise would see its next playoff game and the drought of championships would near 45 years. While the Eagles are on a particularly good stretch right now -- seven playoff appearances in 10 years -- it hasn't always been that way. Within two years of that title, the Eagles had back-to-back seasons in which they went a combined 5-20-3. Then there was 1968-75, eight consecutive non-winning seasons that translated into a 33-74-5 mark and an invitation for Dick Vermeil to take over.

Vermeil listened, but wondered why he should leave what he considered to be a premier job, that as head coach of UCLA.

"Jim Murray, then the general manager, told Dick that the fans in Philadelphia were starved for a winner," said Diddinger. "He said, `Dick, if you win the coin toss, they'll give you a standing ovation.' "

Vermeil took on the challenge and while there was nothing Philadelphian about him -- he was a California guy, for goodness sakes -- the fans were swept away by his no-nonsense, earnest approach. He was a blue-collar guy in the ultimate blue-collar town. Three seasons into his tenure, Vermeil had the Eagles in the playoffs, and two years later they got to the Super Bowl, only to lose to Oakland.

Disappointing, yes, but to Eagles fans, Vermeil had delivered on his promise. Though he left Philadelphia 22 years ago and has coached two NFL teams since then, Vermeil has a farm not far from here and he can be seen on billboards throughout town, a sure sign that he's one of them.

"It says a lot about Vermeil," said Diddinger, "but it says more about Philadelphia. When they adopt you, they adopt you."

Political following
How to measure the passion?

Start with the fact that there are 65,000 season ticket-holders and another 65,000 on the waiting list. "We've pretty much stopped taking names," said Banner.

Consider, too, that the former mayor who is now governor -- Ed Rendell -- has been part of the two-hour local cable TV wrap-up show that reviews each and every Eagle game. (Do you wonder if Tom Menino or Mitt Romney could do that?)

On a bad day at training camp, the team will attract 8,000 fans.

Shake your head when travel agents tell you that Super Bowl packages run anywhere from $1,700 to $7,000 -- depending on whether you go for one, three, five, or seven days -- and that the phones are ringing off he hook and the lines go around the corner.

Then drive around this city, walk into its restaurants, sit in its cafes, cast your eyes out over the skyline where you can see steam pouring from a multitude of smokestacks, stroll between towering office buildings that cast long and cold shadows. You can feel the passion. It is unmistakable.

"Like Boston, Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods," said Diddinger, "and the one thing that unites this city is the Eagles. Religion cannot unite it. Politics cannot unite it. Not like the Eagles."

Banner remembers his first days in the city, after he had come along at the request of Jeff Lurie, who bought the club in 1994. There was a desire to build a new stadium and training complex and in Rendell they discovered they had a strong ally. "He supported us," said Banner, "and when people asked him why, he told them that the thing that always brought the people of Philadelphia together was the Eagles. You can go around the ethnic neighborhoods and you'll see a lot written in the native tongue -- except for the banners that proclaim, `Go Eagles.' "

Banner, a longtime friend, said Lurie had always wanted to buy a pro football team and indeed there was an unsuccessful bid to purchase New England. In his pursuit of the Patriots, however, Lurie was concerned about one glaring aspect of the product -- the fact that so many home games did not sell out, that there were low attendance figures and relative apathy in the fan base. "One of the reasons Jeff came [to Philadelphia] is that he didn't have to worry about selling tickets," said Banner. "The team is so entrenched here."

How entrenched?

"We had a season [1998] when we won three games," said Banner. "The next year we had an increase in season ticket requests."

He shrugs his shoulders, smiles, then shakes his head. "Obviously, we can't take the credit for that," said Banner. "This city has always had an unquestioned passion for this team."

People have argued over the years that the passion is overboard, that the fans can be vicious and borderline uncivil. What lives in infamy is the time a jail cell was constructed right at the football stadium to house rowdy fans and, yes, there were inmates that day. Longtime Philadelphians beg for perspective.

"I never heard a boo in that stadium while I played," said Brookshier. "The people in Philly were always very natural with us. I think it's the work-ethic thing. They respected us, but didn't make a fuss over us."

It is noted by many that the great Van Buren, now 84, can be seen daily when Philadelphia Park is open, a horse-lover and a quiet man who simply enjoys being around the many friends he has always had in this town.

"This is not a bandwagon town, not when it comes to the Eagles," said Diddinger. "There's anger, yes, but the fans stick with you. They get disappointed and let down, the way they do with the brother or an uncle who means well, because it's that family attitude. But they've been there year after year, even though they've been given reason upon reason to throw up their hands."

Philadelphians, of course, don't want to be patronized. They don't need wide, glitzy streets through their neighborhoods and they get along just fine, thank you, by parallel parking down the middle of Broad Street. An endless succession of one-way streets makes you feel like you're driving in a maze. It gets cold in the winter, it gets hot in the summer, but the food is brilliant, the bars serve great beer, and the people are proud. Just don't lie to them or try and cheat them out of an honest game's effort. They'll know you're a phony, they'll love you if you're not.

Jim McMahon, the rebel quarterback who came here for the 1990-92 seasons, discovered all of this one day as he made his way through a tunnel from the stadium to the players' parking lot. It had been a particularly bad game for him and the fans waited to vent, a string of unprintable words sent his way. In his inimitable fashion, McMahon responded by flashing his middle finger.

"Next thing you know, the fans were screaming at him again. Only this time they were yelling, `McMahon, you're the man,' and they kept saying it. They loved the fact that he gave it right back to them. That's the kind of town Philadelphia is."

It's where freedom was born. It's where pro football passion will never die. 

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