By Richard L. Gaw
I am not, nor will I ever be, a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.
This decision is one purely determined by geography and not by degrees of appreciation. I grew up in upstate New York and began rooting for the New York Giants at a young age, and my affiliation has endured through nearly every emotion that is known to any sports fan: anguish, fear, anger, frustration and jubilation.
I have lived through The Fumble, through seemingly endless dismal seasons, through sure victories snatched by the jaws of defeat and, most recently, through the DeSean Jackson punt return of a few seasons ago. I have stared into television screens dumfounded at implosion. I have kicked chairs at stupidity. I have tossed out every piece of Giants clothing, only to fetch it from the trash a few days later. In short, nothing in the way of human emotions separate me from an Eagles fan, except one: I have witnessed the Giants win four Super Bowl titles. To further rub salt in the wound, Dallas Cowboys fans have seen five of them; Washington Redskins fans have lived through three.
Admittedly, I can assure no one that if my team had never achieved such heights that I would still have enough patience to continue rooting for them, but in my 25 years of living in Wilmington and southern Chester County, I have come to admire the Eagles fan as an indefatigable soul, born into pessimism but astonishingly loyal to the end. With every passing season, and still no Super Bowl parade down Broad Street, they remain Rocky against the ropes, hardened by defeat and yet blessed with the faith of children. For many, their love of this team is not only one of geography but one of generations; their grandfathers rooted for Norm Van Brocklin and their fathers loved Dick Vermeil.
I needed to find the heart of what it means to be an Eagles fan, and so last Saturday, during their wild card playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, I joined them.
First quarter, Giordano's, Kennett Square
The maximum capacity of Giordano's main sports viewing room is 360. At kick-off, there may have been more than that. With its 15 large-screen TVs, the main sports viewing room of Giordano's is the Big Aristotle of sports bars in Chester County, and at game time, there were enough Eagles jerseys to outfit a special teams unit.
From the first possession, it was apparent that the two personal traits that define an Eagles fan are out in full force: fear and a short leash. Nick Foles, who compiled a 7-1 record in the team's last eight games and led the Eagles to their first playoff appearance in three seasons and a divisional crown, throws behind a receiver, and boo-birds chirp. Saints quarterback Drew Brees fades back to pass, and a sense of doom rises over the island of beer taps. One can already hear shoes dropping.
For Klint of Kennett Square, who began rooting for his team nearly 40 years ago, “to be a Philadelphia Eagles fan means sticking with them through thick and thin.” When asked what a Super Bowl victory parade down Broad Street would mean to Eagles fans, he recalled that in 2008, he and his wife watched the Phillies' World Series parade. “It was such an enjoyable experience for the whole community, and if it were to happen, if they were to win a Super Bowl, it would be a great experience," he said. "I thought before the season that they would be an 8-8 team, given that this was considered a rebuilding year. Regardless of what happens tonight, it's a fantastic team. They've exceeded everyone's expectations.”
With 4:40 left in the first, a heave by Brees is intercepted by Bradley Fletcher near the end zone, who runs it back to the 23. A pass from Foles to Riley Cooper, then a pass to Jason Avant, a run by LeSean McCoy, and another pass to Brent Celek moves the ball to the New Orleans 33. On fourth and one, McCoy slices through the Saints defense for a first down.
Giordano's is like a spiritual service led by a preacher who has just whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Fading back, Foles holds the ball for an eternity. Finding no one open, he drifts and drifts, and is sacked back at the 40-yard line.
Before I leave Giordano's, I look one last time at more than 200 faces peering up at the many screens. There would be no touchdown. The preacher has left the room.
Second quarter, la Verona, Kennett Square
As a local band tunes their instruments in the corner of the restaurant, Bryan Hewes of Kennett Square occupies a seat at the end of the la Verona bar. On the screen above him, a Saints receiver has just coughed up the ball inside the Eagles 20-yard line, but after further review, the referees said that Graham was down by contact. It leads to the first score of the game, a 36-yard field goal by Shayne Graham.
Hewes has been an Eagles fan since the days when Ron Jaworski was taking snaps at quarterback at the Vet, and he uses words like “disappointment” and “letdown” when describing what being an Eagle fan is like.
“They always had this thing where the games you expected them to win, they would find a way to lose, and then there were games you didn't expected them to win, and they found a way to win. It's been a roller coaster,” Hewes said. “We've all been ingrained that at the end of games, when it's really close, something bad is going to happen. During the last game, against Dallas, everyone figured they would lose, and then they didn't. It's like a breath of fresh air, and I love what Chip Kelly is doing.”
Dave Sykes began playing football in middle school when he first saw Brian Dawkins play for the Eagles. He described being an Eagles fan as “pride-swallowing siege. You need to get acclimated to disappointment, not only as an Eagles fan, but as a Philadelphia fan in general.” He counts his lows in the hundreds, but his highs have all been worth the torture of waiting. “When they Phillies won the World Series, I was sick as hell, but I said, 'Even if I have to go the hospital, I am going to see the parade.' After Brad Lidge threw that last pitch, I cried a little. If the Eagles were ever to win a Super Bowl and have a parade, I would quit my job if I couldn't find a way to get to the parade. I am not a band wagon jumper. I am a diehard Eagles fan. We'll be the first ones to boo our team, but if anyone else boos our team, it's on.”
With 4:12 left in the half, Brees is intercepted by DeMeco Ryans, who gets the ball to midfield. A pass from Foles to Cooper moves the ball to the Saints 32-yard line. With 1:10 left, Foles finds Cooper in the end zone for a 10-yard TD strike. Hewes and Sykes rise in unison. Every bar stool is filled. The preacher has come back. Another Saints field goal brings the score to 7-6, and at halftime, as the band plays behind him, Sykes sits at the bar. His hands rest against his chin. He appears to be praying. At this moment, I can hear queasy stomachs, accustomed to a lifetime of blown leads, churning from West Chester to Oxford.
Third Quarter, Half Moon Cafe, Kennett Square
As I enter the Half Moon Cafe, the Saints have gone up 13-7, and on its next possession, a four-yard plunge by Mark Ingram stakes the Saints to a 20-7 lead with 3:54 left in the quarter. After a 40-yard Foles pass to DeSean Jackson gets the ball to the 9-yard line, McCoy darts through the right side for a one-yard TD run four plays later. A few minutes later, a 31-yard field goal by Alex Henery pulls the Eagles to within three.
All around me, Eagles fans watch the corner TV screen above them. There is no sound on the TV, just blaring pop music.
Matt Genereaux, president of the Kennett Run, has rooted for the Eagles since he was 3 years old. “You love them, you hate them, then you love them again,” he said. “They're guaranteed to break your heart. It think it's part of the franchise. Philadelphia teams just have it within them to do that.”
Cooper drops a pass thrown directly at him. I make a quick exit from the Half Moon at the end of the third quarter and listen to the voice of Eagles' announcer Merrill Reese call the game on the car radio as I drive to my next destination. I remember what Hewes told me at la Verona, that when you're an Eagle fan, there lives within you the belief that something bad is bound to occur, and yet, through the thick, foreboding emptiness of Kennett Square, Henery's 31-yard field goal cuts the Saints lead to 20-17, early in the fourth, and I hear cheers coming from the homes on Union Street.
Fourth quarter, The Hilltop, Avondale
I arrive here with 7:43 left in the game, with the score now 23-17, Saints. A few band members wait patiently for the game to end. Fans huddle around every TV, as if for warmth and connection. The Eagles are driving now. The holes in the Saints defense are opening up. A four-yard TD strike from Foles to Zach Ertz with 4:54 ties the game at 23, and a Henery PAT makes the score, 24-23, and the main room at the Hilltop seems to let go the pent-up breath of an entire region and yet, within all of this exhalation, there remained the fact that five minutes were left in the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Saints plod up the field in undramatic fashion like workhorses, using short gains, pitch passes and keepers by Brees. Ball to midfield. Ball to the 23. The game clock burned in the corner of the TV screen like a slow form of torture to the crowd, who became quiet in the knowledge that barring a miracle, the Saints would call one last time-out, kick a last-second field goal, and extend the never-ending wait of what it means to be an Eagles fan for one more year. Five second left, four seconds left, three second left. Time out. The field goal unit marches onto the field.
The ending tonight, like it has always been for generations of Eagles fans, is the unfair cataclysm that happens when hope collides with history. After all, hope is the thing with feathers, but history has all of the guns.
Moments later, a man grabs a microphone to announce that the band is about to begin playing.
As I leave the parking lot and head home, a lifelong companion of the same experiences, I am reminded of what Chris Ferron of Unionville told me back at the Half Moon Cafe, one hour before.
“Being an Eagles fan is like a relationship with a person that you now you're in love with, but there's some things there that you have to work out. You always work them out at the end of the day,” he told me. “You're always in love with them, but it's always a little rocky. But you've got to love them, because that's who you've chosen to be in love with. No matter what happens, I always come back the next day and say, 'I still love you.'”