After three hours of standing nervously, anxiously, and excitedly, I finally sat down.
And as I sat down, I stared out at the sea of green in the stands and peered across the Linc at the scoreboard: 2 minutes remained, 38-7 Eagles. Was it really happening? As tears welled up in my eyes, I glanced over to the left, out at the Philadelphia skyline, at Citizens Bank Park, the site of that magical moment in ’08 and then over at the parking lot where it all started, where once stood the Vet, where this story of football, faith, and family truly begins.
Those fall Sundays smell of cheesesteaks, ring with roaring cheers, and speak of priceless memories.
Above all else, I remember those Sundays always began with my dad taking me to church, a life-shaping reminder that faith always comes first. No matter how much I may have resisted and might have complained about starting ‘gameday’ with church, my dad’s commitment never wavered.
Occasionally, it was made even more meaningful with a trip to St. Richards in South Philly, where my dad had grown up going. As I sat in my white and green #12 Randall Cunningham jersey, my mind would often wander down to the corner of Broad and Pattison where my prayers would continue even if God rarely answered them with a Birds victory in those dark days known as the Marion Campbell/Richie Kotite years.
From Sunday mass, it was off to that our next pregame tradition: Pat’s Steaks! No Eagles Sunday was complete without standing along the corner of 9th and Passyunk, the cold December winds whipping our frozen hands and chapped faces. Talking about our prospects for that day’s game and embracing that same pre-game tradition that scores of Birds fans before us had reveled in, we stood frozen just to get to the front of the line and utter those two magical words: Wiz Wit! Mounds of cheese-splattered meat sloppily heaped upon a hearty roll was a prize to behold. With each bite of this culinary masterpiece, grease dripped down my cheeks, some drops even oozing their way down to my white jersey (what to some might have been viewed as annoying stains became battle scars, permanent reminders of our weekly pilgrimage).
After drowning that mountain of meat with a birch beer (which of course contributed a hint of purple to complement the many grease stains on the once-pristinely-white Cunningham jersey), it was off to that Cathedral of Concrete, Veterans Stadium.
Although the media labeled the place a dump, that never mattered; after all, it was our dump. Section 332 became a second home for us, a place where we could gather with others who, no matter what differences there might be between us, came to unite for a common cause: to cheer on our Birds! Whether it was meeting some of Joe Montana’s relatives in the seats behind us or slapping hands with complete strangers, the stands always provided a unique experience.
And the action on the field certainly gave us plenty of opportunities to leap out of seats 17 and 18 in erupting jubilation. It was Jaws hitting Quick for 99 yards to beat the Falcons in overtime; it was our raucous chants of “defense” that preceded huge sacks by Reggie; it was Randall making plays with his legs that the NFL had never before seen; and, above all else, it was that annual battle against the evil empire, the Dallas Cowboys, especially stopping Emmitt on 4th and 1, twice…the loudest I had ever heard a stadium until tonight, until this night when the stadium was absolutely shaking from the opening kickoff.
On this night, even as our Birds fell behind early 7-0, the crowd brought noise and passion that literally caused the earth to tremble beneath our feet as Patrick Robinson scored on a pick 6, as Nick Foles masterfully picked apart the Vikings vaunted defense, as Doug Pederson called a flea flicker– a flea flicker!– the beacon of backyard football, that sent 68,000 friends dancing, singing and hugging in the middle of a mild winter night.
It was then, with the clock ticking down towards the final minute, I stared at the inside of the black hat with the old-school kelly green Eagles logo. I smiled as I read the initials: “J.R.” The week before, my father-in-law had found his father’s hat and wore it to our house for the Falcons game, the game in which these “underdog” Eagles first announced they weren’t going down without a fight. And it was this hat that my father-in-law asked me to wear to the game so that “Pop” could be there. This past weekend, the weekend his Birds would clinch the NFC Championship, had marked exactly nine years since Pop’s death. So as I stared at the initials etched into this hat, I thought of that man so full of strength, faith, and love, I though of visiting him repeatedly in Hospice as his body weakened, and I thought of the smile on his face when we watched together as Joe Blanton slugged a home run in the 2008 World Series, the final sports memory we would share together.
But yet it wasn’t, because he was with me there, in section 239 in the Linc. And I thought of the others that weren’t here with us physically, especially my uncle Walt, one of the four originals who had started this family tradition of Eagles season tickets some 40 years ago at Franklin Field. I thought of last weekend before the Falcons playoff game when my dad and I watched a DVD of the 1980 NFC championship victory over Dallas, a day when he, his brothers, and cousins braved the frigid cold to cheer on their Birds. A day he remembers as if it were yesterday.
Just as January 21, 2018 will be a moment I and thousands of others will never forget.
When the clock finally hit double zero, my cousin Greg and I embraced, with tears of both joy and nostalgia in our eyes. We had been entrusted to keep strong this family tradition when the Eagles moved to the Linc and dad and Uncle Jim passed the tickets onto us. We had celebrated an NFC title in the frigid snow in ’04, but since then had been forced to endure frustrating year after frustrating year, but we kept coming back with faith, with belief, with hope each fall that it would finally be our year.
And now our faith had been rewarded. This team, spearheaded by a second-year coach and a talented young quarterback that took the league by storm. This team that had to endure so many injuries to so many key players. This team that had been counted out after that star quarterback went down.
But like this city’s patron saint, Rocky Balboa, this team refused to quit. Even as others doubted them, this team rose to the occasion. This team never wavered.
Even with its underdog status, this team ignored the naysayers. This team did exactly what Adrian reminds Rocky and the 68,000 faithful fans on the Lincoln Financial video screen before each home game:”just win.”
And that is just what this team does. It finds a way to win.
And after this latest win, in seconds, the field was transformed, fireworks erupted, confetti flew through the air, and before we knew it Terry Bradshaw was out on the field starting a chorus line that quickly drowned him out: “Fly Eagles Fly on the road to victory.”
Indeed, we will continue to fly, continue to soar, continue to sing, hug, cheer, and, above all believe, because it is not just our Eagles going to the Super Bowl. It is a decades-long bond of family, faith and football that is no doubt similar to thousands of other families throughout Pennsylvania, all of whom will come together to revel in the joy of our Eagles playing in the Super Bowl.