Dissecting the stupid joy of football

The Redskins and Eagles congratulate each other after Philly’s 30-17 win at FedEx Field. Needless to say, the fans did not do the same.

 

Unbridled optimism heading into an Eagles season opener.

That’s the stuff of youth, and I’m not as young as I used to be.

Still, as I walked with my friends Brandon and Liam north on Morgan Boulevard toward FedEx Field, prime enemy territory, I was teeming with an irrational idealism about how the next four months would go for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Why was I feeling so positive?

Was it the talent the Eagles had stockpiled in the offseason (Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount, Ronald Darby)?

Come on now. I haven’t forgotten 2011 and the so-called Dream Team.

Was it the smooth play of the first-team unit in the preseason?

Nope. I won’t buy into that after what happened in 2015, when Sam Bradford and the Eagles shredded the Packers at Lambeau Field in an exhibition clinic that they would never replicate under Bradford and coach Chip Kelly.

Besides, the Eagles’ starters didn’t play much at all in this year’s preseason.

So what was it that had me thinking the Eagles would roll into FedEx Field, an uninspired slab of concrete that has aged like Robin Williams’ character in “Jack,” and leave with a two-touchdown victory?

Considering that the Eagles hadn’t beaten Washington since 2014 and hadn’t won at FedEx since Kelly’s NFL debut the prior fall, any good vibes about this game seemed out of touch with reality.

But football is not really about reality and common sense. It’s more than a little deranged. Why else would 80,000 people be so eager to spend hours driving and/or taking the train to a suburban void in Maryland, for an afternoon sitting among the increasingly intoxicated, while the bathroom queues grow like Soviet bread lines?

That’s football. None of us really know why we go through all that trouble to experience what amounts to 11 minutes of gladiatorial action. We just want to, and we’ll move heaven and earth, and rearrange our lives, to do it.

On Sunday afternoon, after I’d somehow gotten a sunburn on a day when the UV index was 1, 310-pound Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox scooped up a fumble (or was it a pass?) and frolicked into the end zone. A river of burgundy and gold flowed out of the stadium, and “E-A-G-L-E-S” chants rang out amid the midnight green and kelly green.

My irrational optimism had been instantly validated. Two-touchdown victory? Check.

The Eagles will head to Kansas City next. Doug Pederson faces his former coach and mentor, Andy Reid. Arrowhead Stadium is always one of the most intimidating venues in the NFL, even when the Chiefs are bad. This year it appears they are not bad and perhaps quite good. Meanwhile, the Eagles have no kicker at the moment, and Darby is out after his ankle bent sharply in a way it’s not supposed to.

There’s little reason for optimism. But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?

Advertisements

Three years

I’ve spent hundreds of hours the past three months delivering for Amazon.

A good friend messaged me recently about the job.

“I’m still surprised you’re OK with going to strangers’ houses,” he wrote.

I thought about his point for a moment. Amazon’s routes have taken me to all parts of Baltimore and its suburbs. I have delivered to McMansions in Lutherville and the Somerset Homes projects.

I also have delivered on South Bouldin Street, the street of my last address in the city. I have delivered to Foster Avenue, the street where I was attacked three years ago today. Once in a while I have a delivery that takes me past the very spot where I was hit over the head with paving stones. Today brought one of those routes — the kind of coincidence that inspires only silence.

During my deliveries there, the thought of my history with that neighborhood certainly has crossed my mind; it always does. But it does not linger for long. I had a job to do, after all.

One of the beautiful things about this delivery gig is that it has gotten me away from the television and computer screen, and allowed me to see parts of the city I’d never seen in my dozen years around the area. It has enabled me to interact, for a few fleeting seconds, with people I’d never otherwise have met.

Working as a deliveryman has reinforced my belief in people. The only times I’ve felt in real danger have been during interactions with drivers who believe that having a steering wheel in their hands gives them free rein to act like, as my high school English teacher Mr. McNulty used to say, knuckle-dragging neocretins.

Shift to shift, door to door, I see that people are not all that different. We are strangers only because we choose to be.

After all, it was a couple I’d never met who opened their doors to me in the middle of the night three years ago. Their names are Steve and Ania, and they graciously cared for me until an ambulance arrived.

You never know when you will need help, or can help someone else, and in that moment the connection between all of us is never more obvious.

Eagles, chips and sinking ships

Thoughts on the Eagles season from afar — specifically, from breakfast in a hotel on Venice’s Grand Canal:

Two years ago, Kacey and I went on a Caribbean cruise. The Eagles were 9-3 and coming off a 33-10 Thanksgiving feast of the Cowboys in Dallas. We watched on the ship as the Birds lost a winnable game at home to Seattle the next week, which started a three-game losing streak that eventually left them at 10-6 and home for the playoffs. That Seattle game was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end for Chip Kelly in green.

Last month, we left for a longer cruise, this time to the Mediterranean, plus an Italian sojourn. The Eagles were 4-2 and coming off a smackdown of Sam Bradford and the 5-0 Vikings. Since then, they have lost to the Cowboys and Giants, winnable games that they couldn’t close out.

I sense a trend.

Incidentally, Europe doesn’t care a whit about American football, so I didn’t watch a single play from either game. The cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas, had a “sports” bar with 20 TVs, but they only showed billiards, moto GP or cycling, with every TV tuned to the same channel.

In the end, I won $56 at the craps table starting with a $5 comp chip. That’s more luck with a chip than the Eagles ever had.

Flex Regum Fidelum Et: Or, the Amazon Man Always Rings Thrice

img_20161005_163150900

Crossing guard, construction worker or deliveryman?

With some extra time on my hands thanks to my career hiatus/early retirement/vacation binge, I put in for a job delivering Amazon packages. Why not, I figured — the pay was advertised as $18 an hour, the schedule is extremely flexible (work when you want!) with no commitment, and I know the area well enough. Also, I drive a hybrid, so I reasoned that gas expenses would be low.

And, if nothing else, I miss listening to NPR, so I reasoned that a delivery gig would actually make me more knowledgeable about the world.

The application for the program, called Amazon Flex, was simple and entirely electronic, and after almost a week of waiting for the background check to clear, I received a welcome email last Tuesday night.

Using the Flex app, I marked the days of the week, hours and general geographic area that I wanted to work. Nothing was listed for this week, though the app reminded me that same-day shifts sometimes become available. They are first-come, first-ferved, and “often go quickly,” Amazon advises.

As I loaded my car with groceries at about 2:30 Wednesday afternoon, a notification on my phone caught my eye. It was from the Flex app; a shift was available from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The pay: $18 per hour for two hours, or $36. Take it, or someone else would.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Amazon does not reimburse drivers for fuel or tolls — or anything else. All of its Flex delivery “partners” are, for tax purposes, “independent contractors.” Amazon does provide auto insurance, but there are several restrictions that make it petty limited, unless you get hit by an uninsured/underinsured driver, and then it’s pretty good.

Amazon’s pay rate is flat — $18 an hour. For a given shift, they’ve set aside a certain number of packages, grouped by neighborhood, and estimated the time each set of boxes will take to be delivered; I recall from a training video that this time estimate could be high, low or spot on, but the pay is set in stone.

Ready to earn my first $36 and beat the 120-minute clock, I drive 15 minutes to the Amazon warehouse on Holabird Avenue and check in with a guard. She hands me an orange vest, the kind a construction worker or crossing guard would wear, and tells me to go to dock 125. There I find a canvas bag containing 12 packages. I scan the bar code of each into my phone, though one was crossed out in pen and needs to be typed into the app using the order number.

I am ready to go. Guiding me is a GPS navigation feature in the Flex app, which a training video had said would provide an efficient route taking all packages into account. I pull out of the Amazon lot and head north just after 4:30.

One thing I notice right away was that the default turn-by-turn navigation doesn’t display the destination address, though it does list distance and estimated travel time. So as I continue north using side streets and back roads, I don’t know where I will end up. After about 20 minutes, I home in on the target, which I find out is on Brehms Lane in Belair-Edison, a neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore that is a “microcosm” of the city.

I park my car on the narrow street. A man walks by wearing a Comcast polo shirt. As I click the “I’ve arrived” button on the app, I notice the man motioning me to roll down the window. “I think you’re looking for me,” he says. “I saw all those boxes and figured you were delivering.” He fishes out his ID. Before I can hand over a package, I have to scan it again with my phone, which I notice is stalling out while trying to pick up a nearby Wi-Fi signal. After a moment, I fix the issue and hand the man his delivery du jour. “Thanks, Boss,” he says. Fortunately, he does not try to sell me an Xfinity Triple Play deal. One down, eleven to go. Thirty minutes have passed already. I’m on pace to finish around midnight.

Stop #2 is at The BLVD at White Springs apartment complex off Rossville Boulevard in Nottingham. I arrive at 5:18 p.m. A dirty mattress leans against a fence surrounding a dumpster. A man answers the door.

“Y’all said you was coming back tomorrow,” he says. “Sorry, I don’t know anything about that,” I reply and hand over the goods.

Stop #3 takes me back south, to Pelham Avenue in Belair-Edison. Why didn’t the Flex app have me go to this address when I was near here before? Belair Road has turned into a rush-hour racetrack. “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” comes to mind. The rowhomes on here are gritty like the New York subway.

A group of kids next door jump and tumble in the tiny front lawn. “Can we go to the park? Can we go to the park?” they shriek.

No one answers the door for the delivery. The QR code on the box won’t scan either, so I enter the first four digits of the bar code. That seems to satisfy the machine.

I turn left on Mannasota Avenue and back north. On the left is a small corner store. “CLARKS GROCERY WE SELL BEER ON SUNDAYS” read two large signs on the front. You won’t find this place on Google Maps. A bit farther up (or is it down?) the road is a ramshackle building that advertises snowballs and ice cream. “We accept food stamps” it says on the front.

Stop #4 is at Rosedale Garden Apartments near Golden Ring Road. It’s less than a mile from the Golden Ring Mall (not really a mall anymore). I’ve been going there for years, yet I never would’ve guessed these apartments were here.

I click for the next address. Joy! It’s in the same building! I grab the box and head to the third floor. I knock. After a moment, a man answers; he appears to have been sleeping. He says he’s the customer’s wife. I type his name into the app as the recipient and walk back to my car. It’s 6:15 and I’m not even halfway done.

Stop #6 is the Eagles Walk Apartments in Rosedale. They are set in the woods, with squirrels romping about.  Did you know a group of squirrels is called a scurry? God bless the Internet. I walk up to the building; the worn stairwell is open to the outside.

I can’t tell which apartment is the customer’s. There’s an option in the app to call the customer, so I try that; no answer. I call Amazon and they can’t reach her either, so I’ll have to take it back to the warehouse at the end of the shift. Then I notice with dismay that there’s another package for the Pelham address. The app didn’t seem to indicate that. Guess I’m going back there before the warehouse stop. It’s now 6:45; I was supposed to be done 15 minutes ago.

I mark the Eagles Walk package as undeliverable. The next delivery is at the same complex, and it has the same problem: The apartment number is missing from the delivery summary. I call Amazon again; the woman who answers provides the apartment number. She’s so helpful, even cheery, that I ask her about the previous delivery. She points out that the apartment number was listed, just in a way that was a bit confusing, so I go back and leave that one.

There’s one more to go at Eagles Walk. As I approach the building, I notice that the stairwell is open to the elements. Odd. A scraggly cat sees me and follows me up the steps. “IT HAS COME TO OUR ATTENTION THAT SOME RESIDENTS ARE FEEDING STRAY CATS. PLEASE DO NOT FEED THEM,” says a flier. It has a picture of a stray cat in case anyone is unsure. I look down and am pretty sure it’s the same cat that’s following me.

On the third floor, a girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old, answers. I read her the name on the box and ask if she knows that person. “Uh huh,” she says, followed by a deluge of words that I can’t make out. The scraggly cat saunters through the doorway. The girl says something about a kee-kat, though it sounds like she’s trying to say her name is Keekat. I hand her the parcel and walk away while she’s still chattering. The app demands to know whom I delivered the package to. I ponder whether to type “Keekat” but decide on “Child.” I hustle back to my car. Night has fallen.

After 20 minutes, I am back on Pelham. This time the lights are on. A petite, bespectacled, young white man answers the door and graciously accepts the delivery. Three stops left. At some point I noticed that at least one is in Dundalk.

Stop #10 is north again, past Morgan State University. “PACKAGE IS LATE. CALL CUSTOMER AND ASK IF THEY STILL WANT IT,” the Flex app warns. This is a first. I call, but no answer. Guess I’ll deliver it anyway.

The GPS pronounces “Goucher Boulevard” as “Gouker,” which amuses the editor part of my brain. Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” plays on 102.7 JACK-FM. I crank it up and open the sunroof.

Stop #11 takes me onto the Beltway and back to Dundalk, less than five minutes from my house. I arrive at about 8:15 and deliver it promptly to a first-floor apartment across the street from a 7-Eleven.

The last stop pops up. It’s in Rosedale. HUH?! I was there already twice, and I just drove past! I can see that this app is not to be trusted. I zip north on Merritt Boulevard and get back onto the Beltway. No one is home at this apartment, so I quickly scan the box and leave it, with a blessing that it doesn’t get stolen. It’s 8:35 p.m. I’ve been on the road for four hours and traveled, by my estimate, 80 to 90 miles, the distance from my house to South Philadelphia. For my efforts, I will receive $36.

I look forward to my second shift.

I didn't know my car could hold 45 packages, or that I could deliver them in less than four hours.

I didn’t know my car could hold 45 packages, or that I could deliver them in less than four hours.

Postscript: A few hours after my first foray as deliveryman ended, I was poking around the Flex app and noticed a “feedback” button. Figuring that Amazon would want to know how inefficient its GPS was, I submitted a cordial complaint about having to shuttle unnecessarily between Rosedale, Northeast Baltimore and Dundalk. The next night, there was an update to the app — probably just a coincidence. Right after installing the update, I signed up for my second shift. In three hours and 45 minutes, I delivered 45 packages (compared to 12 in four hours during my inaugural shift). No GPS problems to speak of … though there was one package that I ended up with at the end, seemingly forgotten by the app. Clearly, even a foolproof system has its flaws.

The fan who couldn’t stay away forever

Carson Wentz scrambles for 10 yards and a first down in the second quarter against the Steelers.

Carson Wentz scrambles for 10 yards and a first down in the second quarter against the Steelers.

Having season tickets in the upper deck of the Linc is, I imagine, something like neighborhood bars used to be. Beyond the ever-flowing alcohol, the 200 level provides the feeling of community and continuity, of seeing faces each week who eventually become familiar, sprinkled with newcomers and those simply passing through.

Or maybe I watched “Cheers” too much as a kid.

On Sunday, with the Pittsburgh Steelers in town and widely expected to beat the Eagles, I settle into my seat about 20 minutes before kickoff. The two seats to my right, usually occupied by a middle-aged couple, are still empty; this isn’t a surprise, because crowds for late-afternoon games tend to straggle to their seats a few minutes before kickoff. As the masses file in from the concourse, a man and a woman (I would later find out his name was Jim and the woman was his daughter) arrive and claim the two seats next to mine. They are not regulars.

We exchange no pleasantries. Everyone — including the towel-waving zealots from Da Burgh who dotted the stadium — is dialed into the game, focused on every play as if it determined the value of their very existence. Jim snaps photos occasionally with a zoom-lens camera.

During the last minute of the first half, Jim and I strike up a conversation about two straight dropped passes by Trey Burton and whether the Steelers, taking over deep in their own territory with two timeouts left and the Eagles ahead 13-3, should try to move the ball downfield or play it safe and run out the clock.

We chat more, and then Jim says something that shocked me. This game is the first time he’d seen the Eagles play in person since January 11, 1981, the frigid, blustery day the Eagles defeated the Cowboys for the NFC championship. Jim recalls that the Cowboys were heavy favorites that day. (Actually, they were favored by only a point, according to Pro Football Reference. Both teams were 12-4 in the regular season; the Eagles won the division based on the tiebreaker of point differential in division games.)

Eagles fans know at least one play from that day, a play that stands as one of the defining moments of the franchise. Wilbert Montgomery took the handoff on the second play from scrimmage and glided untouched off right tackle for a 42-yard touchdown that sent the Birds to a 20-7 victory and a berth against the Raiders in the Super Bowl in New Orleans (I won’t get it into what happened there).

I ask Jim why he never went to a game after that.

“I don’t know. I’ve watched every game on TV,” he says.

I’ve followed the Eagles for almost as long as I can remember. I’ve watched most of their games for the past 25 years, including every playoff appearance. Growing up, it was my dream to go to their games, but I never had a way to get there nor the money to buy a ticket. The closest I came was briefly covering training camp in Bethlehem when I worked at the Morning Call newspaper in Allentown 10 years ago.

Even then, I still didn’t attend a game in Philly until last season.

How was Jim able to stay away for over 35 years from the team he followed so passionately? As I think about this while sitting in my seat on Sunday, I contemplate how much sports, along with the world in general, have changed since January 11, 1981. Three months earlier, the Phillies had just won their first World Series title, the only championship in a year in which all four of Philadelphia’s major pro teams reached the final round. Veterans Stadium wasn’t a decade old, and the startup PRISM cable network had yet to turn a profit. Ronald Reagan was nine days away from being inaugurated as president.

“This third quarter feels like it’s lasted hours, hasn’t it?” Jim says. The Eagles have easily built a 13-3 halftime lead into a 34-3 laugher. Most of the Pittsburgh fans have put their towels in their pockets and headed for the Turnpike.

One Steelers fan remains steadfast behind my seat, and the usher for this section, Jamal, sneaks over after each touchdown to playfully taunt him by holding his Eagles sign in front of the man’s face.

With 7:04 left in the game, Jim and his daughter get up to leave. We shake hands. This is a heck of a game to break your attendance drought on,” I say, adding that I wish I’d been able to see an Eagles game at the Vet, the way he had. “It was a shithole, but it was our shithole,” he says. “It was loud the whole game. I couldn’t talk for the next two days.”

He smiles, and I can see that for a moment the joy of that day replaying in his mind.

I don’t think he’ll wait so long before coming back.

Won’t get fooled again?

Carson Wentz throws a pass in the first half of Sunday's game against the Browns.

Carson Wentz throws a pass in the first half of Sunday’s game against the Browns.

 

There was a moment on Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field that captured what it’s like to be an Eagles fan. It didn’t happen on the field, it was not recorded by cameras, I’m sure, and I doubt it was noticed by anyone but me.

The Eagles were leading the Browns 22-10; about six minutes remained in the third quarter. Carson Wentz, in his debut as Eagles quarterback, had just floated a 35-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor, the kind of throw that his predecessor, Sam Bradford, had struggled with.

The building felt like it was swaying, and strangers were hugging and high-fiving and screaming unintelligibly. Whole sections of the upper deck were competing to see who could scream “E-A-G-L-E-S” louder. An unopened bottle of water soared like a missile down from the upper reaches of the stadium, narrowly missing the young fan quietly occupying the aisle seat next to me. That was odd enough, but it was not the moment I’m talking about.

Amid all the exultation and exhortation, the game had resumed. I noticed a middle-aged man sitting in front of me, in the first row of the section, a few seats to my right. He was wearing an Eagles hat spun backward, his graying sideburns peeking out. He leaned forward in his seat, silent, hands folded over his mouth. It looked, almost, like he was praying, except with his eyes locked in a thousand-yard stare. It was a pose you’d expect from someone whose team was losing by 12 points in the third quarter, not winning.

I thought to myself: That is what it’s really like to be an Eagles fan. It’s not a franchise for the faint of heart. And it hasn’t had many days like Sunday. Yes, the opponent was the bumbling Cleveland Browns, who had a couple of very Browns-like moments (including calling an aimless direct snap on fourth-and-five from their 41).

But the Eagles had not started a rookie quarterback in the season’s first game since 1939. This is not a team with a history of success with rookie QBs; in fact, entering Sunday’s game, rookies had won only 11 games for the Iggles in the modern history of the league (in other words, since 1950). Several QBs (Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson come to mind) have won that many, or more, games in their rookie season alone.

And consider: Wentz had thrown only 24 passes in the preseason before he broke two ribs. Not to be forgotten is that he started only 23 games in college, and that was at North Dakota State.

But the kid had himself a day in front of about 70,000 fans at the Linc. On the opening drive, his second throw appeared to be wide to the right but was caught one-handed by tight end Zach Ertz as he spun to the ground, turning a looming third-and-10 into a first down. The play was huge, especially after Jordan Matthews’ drop of Wentz’s first-ever pass gave fans flashbacks to last season. It was the first of 22 completions for Wentz, (37 attempts) for 278 yards and two touchdowns in a 29-12 win.

Sitting in the 21st-century version of the 700 Level, I got the sense that a lot of fans were holding something back, though. They’ve seen too much in recent seasons — the departure of Andy Reid, the rise and fall of Chip Kelly, the turnstile at the quarterback position — to get smitten easily. They won’t get fooled again, or so they think.

I can only conclude that’s why that fan was watching Sunday’s game so intently. Like all of us, he’s seen too much over the years to get his hopes up, at least just yet.

I’ll be looking for him in two weeks, when the Eagles host the Steelers. But win or lose, I don’t expect him to be smiling.

Carson Wentz: Always comfortable in a crowd.

Carson Wentz: Always comfortable in a crowd.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Linc

IMG_20160812_133031177_HDR

Still plenty of sunflower seeds left for my friends at the Linc.

I drove two hours through rush-hour traffic to Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night hoping to see something I hadn’t seen before.

That did happen, though it wasn’t the performance of Carson Wentz, who made his Eagles debut in a preseason game that had all the excitement of a bowl of vanilla ice cream. (Idea for the Eagles PR staff: Give away free ice cream to fans willing to come out and watch a glorified scrimmage on a sweltering day).

It was an odd thing that occurred as my friend Jim and I made our way through security on the south side of the stadium.

As we walked up, we saw that there was no line at the gate (in contrast with the typically packed north entrance). Wth kickoff about 15 minutes away, we were hoping to breeze through security and make our way to the upper deck.

As a sports fan, I rarely go to a game without bringing food. It’s a rule I live by. On this night, I didn’t have much, just a few things to snack on as I slowly roasted in the 90-degree heat.

I set my see-through (by Eagles edict) bag on the security table and dropped my wallet, keys and cellphone into the gray plastic tray. I eased through the metal detector and reached over for my belongings. A group of security employees stood around killing time.

I heard one of them, a petite woman, say something. I thought at first that she was talking to one of her co-workers. I noticed that she was looking at me expectantly, so I quickly realized that whatever she said had been directed at me.

“Would it be inappropriate for me to ask you for your seats?” she asked.

Huh? Why was an Eagles security employee asking me for my seats? Was she secretly a scalper? Did she really want to watch the game?

I was befuddled. You don’t want to be asked strange questions at the security checkpoint.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“Would it be inappropriate for me to ask you for some seeds?” she asked.

One of the things in my satchel was a small bag of sunflower seeds, Old Bay flavor. I opened the bag months ago and have been slowly working my way through its contents.

What do you do when a stadium security employee asks you for some of your food? I’d never had that happen to me. It felt like an “Impractical Jokers” skit. You can’t really say no there, can you? You’d look heartless. You’d be a bad person.

So I plucked out the bag of sunflower seeds, popped it open and poured a small pile into her open hand.

But then it became like feeding the birds. A second security worker who had been manning the empty line crept over and furtively held out her hand; apparently she didn’t want to be seen by her superior taking food from a fan. I smiled and poured her some seeds.

Then a third hand appeared. I was like the Oprah of Old Bay sunflower seeds: You get seeds! You get seeds! And you get seeds!

They thanked me, and we all laughed.

“Enjoy the game,” they said. It’s the standard Lincoln Financial Field greeting.

“Only if it’s a win,” I said. It’s my standard reply.

I thought about asking them for a picture with me and the bag of seeds, but thought better of it. After all, they were apparently afraid of getting caught seed-handed.

Thankfully, it all took less than a minute and then Jim and I headed up to our seats to see a “train wreck” of game — the word choice of a fan in Section 211 whose shrill voice is seared into my brain from last season.

I didn’t eat a single sunflower seed that night. It’s a long season ahead, and I want to be prepared if I happen to see those workers again.