Skol Douggery in South Philadelphia

On Sunday afternoon, in the middle of winter, fireworks arced randomly into the sky all over South Philadelphia. That was as sure a sign as any that the city was doing something it hasn’t gotten to do often, and not at all since, well, Twitter was invented and trolls were creatures that lived under bridges.

It was playing host to the NFC championship game, which — for a town that isn’t deemed worthy of hosting a Super Bowl (yet East Rutherford, N.J., was .. hmmm) — is something like a revival meeting, New Year’s Eve bash and Hollywood movie premiere, all rolled into one.

I was there, and here is my minute-by-minute journal as the evening unfolded:

4:11 p.m.: After a circuitous drive north in which my car was nearly running on fumes (turns out the Costco in Dover doesn’t sell gas) I arrive at an undisclosed street in South Philly. Normally there’s plenty of street parking left this early, but not today. Time to dig into a Wawa Classic — my first food of the day — and watch the AFC championship game. The Jaguars are up 14-3 in the second quarter. Lots of time left. 

4:27: The Patriots get a touchdown, but may have lost Rob Gronkowski on a helmet-to-helmet hit. On the previous drive, the Jags committed a fatal error with a delay of game that took away a first down and forced a punt. The Patriots will win this game. Jacksonville let them off the hook.

4:49: The NFL Mobile app stops working. It’s time to head to the stadium. Let’s do this!

I hear fireworks from my car. As the stadium comes into view, “E-A-G-L-E-S” chants begin at the SEPTA station at the corner of Broad and Pattison.

5:20: I’m inside the stadium. The only wait was for the Eagles app to load so my ticket could be scanned. There was no line. Tailgating is in full force.

5:28: Speaking of lines, the bathrooms already have lines out the door. A Vikings fan is spotted inside. “Don’t you know fans of the opposing team can’t use the bathroom here?” yells a younger man in Eagles gear. He’s clearly not joking, totally.

A crowd packs HeadHouse Plaza at Lincoln Financial Field before the Eagles host the Vikings in the NFC championship game.

5:30: I wade through the crowded concourse to the north entrance and HeadHouse Plaza. I’m shocked when I get there. It’s a sea of green. There’s a massive video board showing the Patriots-Jags game. Tom Brady throws a TD pass to pull New England within 20-17 with 8:44 left.

5:38: Blake Bortles throws two straight incompletions to kill a Jacksonville drive. Second down was a deep shot that had no chance and was nearly intercepted. Brady has six-and-a-half minutes, and I bet he’ll use nearly all of it.

5:44: The Jags force a punt after a borderline pass interference call. Fans cheer a hard hit on Brady on a second-down incompletion. “E-A-G-L-E-S” chants break out on the plaza.

5:53: Danny Amendola catches a TD in the back of the end zone. 24-20. A fan walking by wails, “You gotta be kidding me.” The Jags have 2:48 to get a touchdown. They had this game by the throat late in the first half. Turns out that their pass defense wasn’t so great when the pressure was at its highest.

5:56: Just as Bortles drops back to pass, the big board switches over to the in-stadium feed showing Nick Foles and Nate Sudfeld warming up on the field. The crowd boos that decision. Time to head to Section 211. The Jags blew their chance in the second quarter. Moments later, the game goes final.

On Tuesday, I had predicted a 24-22 Patriots win in which they would get a real scare. Maybe I should do this kind of thing for cash …

The concourse is packed with people watching the end of the AFC game, which holds up traffic for everyone else. Finally, I squeeze through. At the top of the stairs, two fans in German shepherd masks bark at me vociferously before high-fiving me.

6:12: I arrive at my seat. Come to think of it, there don’t seem to be thousands of dog masks here. Maybe Amazon sold out because there were only 100 of them in stock.

6:34: Nick Foles is the last player introduced. The intros are the loudest I’ve ever heard. The crowd breaks into “USA! USA!” as an American flag as big as the field is unfurled.

6:46: It comes to my attention there’s a Vikings fan sitting behind me. He’s wearing a blue and purple Under Armour sweatshirt so as not to draw attention and invective. He’s cheering each play … quietly.

6:48: Kyle Rudolph catches a TD pass. Looks like Najee Goode was in coverage. I got a bad feeling before the game when word came out that Dannell Ellerbe couldn’t go tonight.

For a brief moment, I can hear Merrill Reese on the WIP broadcast coming over the speakers in the concourse. That’s a true sign the building has gone quiet.

6:51: I text my friend Liam: “Birds can’t fall behind by double digits in this game. There’s no Drew Brees here”

6:54: Trey Burton fails to get both feet in on a third-down catch on the sideline, followed immediately by a personal foul on Shelton Gibson for interfering on the punt return. Two big mistakes and the first quarter isn’t even half over.

7:04: Patrick Robinson intercepts a third-down pass and cuts across the field, sneaking inside the pylon at the far end zone. You hear about stadiums rocking — this one just did. Utter bedlam. 7-7 after Jake Elliott puts it down the middle.

7:14: My friend Brandon texts me: “It’s time for Dougie P to unleash hell”

7:20: Blount gets two yards for a first down at the Minnesota 26. The Birds are putting together a nice drive as the first quarter ends. Luckily that means they’ll be driving toward the south end zone — my direction.

7:25: Blount runs over Andrew Sendejo at the 5-yard line and barrels into the end zone. 14-7 Birds. There’s a mass exodus to the concourse for beer and bathrooms.

7:30: Eagles bring a corner blitz on third-and-short. Keenum hurriedly lobs a pass off his back foot to Jerick McKinnon, but it’s off by several yards. Eagles take over at their 30 after a punt.

7:55: Alshon Jeffery catches a 53-yard bomb down the right side for a TD on third-and-10. The pocket caved in on Foles, but he stood his ground. It’s 21-7, and the crowd is starting to feel it.

8:02: The defense is swarming, as they say. Keenum has nowhere to go on third-and-6. Could’ve easily been sacked. Another exodus to the concourse. This is the one downside to having an aisle seat.

Brandon: “Keenum is shook. As Mobb Deep would say, “scared to death, he’s scared to look, he’s shook”

8:03: Ertz gets wide open along the sideline for a 36-yard gain. Ajayi takes a short pass for 13 more yards. Jake Elliott is good from 38 yards.

That looks like a dagger drive for the Birds. That drive began at their 20 with 29 seconds on the clock. Twenty-nine seconds! And they got three points. Now they’re up three scores and their offense will be on the field to start the second half.

8:13: Brandon texts me as the Roots finish their set: “This could be the year”

Me: “You gotta beat the best to be the best”

Liam: “I know I said 31-10 but asking the birds to only score 7 more seems unfair.” Liam also predicted 100-0. I had it 20-19 — Eagles, of course.

8:26: Torrey Smith catches a deep ball and crashes through the pylon. 31-7. THIS IS HAPPENING. Someone in the front row of the section double-high-fives me so hard it stings.

8:35: The stadium is doing the Skol clap. Maybe a tad early. The Vikings are at the Eagles’ 17 with just over 22 minutes of play left.

8:40: The officials say Adam Thielen made a circus TD catch on fourth-and-goal. The video board says otherwise. I’ve never been happier that instant replay exists. Eagles take over. The Skol chants are back, briefly.

Foles > Skols

8:49: Foles threads a third-and-5 pass to Nelson Agholor for 42 yards. Now I’m ready to do the Skol.

8:53: Ajayi carries it to the 2-yard line below my section. That’s the end of the third quarter. Damn the luck.

The perfect (G-rated) headline for this game comes to mind: SKOL DOUGGERY. I text Brandon another one that is not G-rated.

8:57: Alshon skies up for the TD on third-and-goal from the 5. The pass was a perfectly placed dart. Foles is having a hell of a night.

The Skol chant is stadiumwide. A new security guard named Derrick is in the section keeping watch. This ain’t the Vet.

9:02: A prolonged “We want Brady!” breaks out in the south end. It’s so loud I can’t hear Ed Hochuli announce a penalty on the Vikings for unnecessary roughness.

Brandon: “I would like to know if there was ever a take at the beginning of a season that was ever proven as embarrassingly wrong as Mike Lombardi’s take about Pederson”

9:05: Brandon says Fox punching bags Joe Buck and Troy Aikman claimed the crowd is chanting “Foles.” All I hear is “Skol.” (Update: Later on, fans in my section chanted “Foles! Foles! Foles!” while making the Skol sign.)

9:10: Cox is all over Keenum on fourth-and-2, and a meager throw falls to the ground. The clock slips under 12 minutes. That should do it.

Why is Foles still in the game? Sudfeld should get the spotlight. No need to risk anything here.

The Eagles are punting. It’s been a while.

In Philly sports moments of my life, this day ranks in the top five. The others: Game 6 of the 2008 World Series (Part II), 2004 NFC championship game, Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals. Mitch Williams striking out Bill Pecota to end the 1993 NLCS is close but doesn’t make the cut.

Not many people have left. We are savoring this one.

9:24: Ronald Darby jumps a route and nearly picks off Keenum inside the Eagles’ 10. The ball bounces to Corey Graham, who corrals it. Sometimes it’s just your day. Eagles take over at the 7 with 5:52 of clock to burn.

9:30: Ajayi reverses field for 16 yards. Come on, Doug — give the ball to Corey Clement.

9:31: Liam demands an apology for doubting his score prediction. I couldn’t be happier to be wrong.

Liam humbly reminds me of his day-before prediction.

9:35: Two-minute warning. This crowd ain’t going anywhere. 

9:40: Game over. The Eagles sideline surges onto the field. The Linc is as loud as it’s been all night.

9:43: Brandon: “The Eagles will beat the Patriots”

9:54: The confetti has all fallen. Terry Bradshaw has spoken. But no Carson Wentz, disappointingly. The man should have gotten the mic.

9:55: Brandon: “It bet it’s insane out there”

Me: “It’s all the emotions. I don’t want to leave”

Brandon: Just sleep there man”

Time to head out. On this night, the work of 69,596 is done.

The Eagles are going to Super Bowl LII.

As I float down the stairway on the southwest corner of the stadium, I pass a grinning security guard.

“Seven points? That’s all they came for?” he says.

On to Minneapolis …


Check out Brandon and me on our Eagles podcast, Trash Talk. And follow the podcast on our Facebook page and on Twitter.

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School Daze, or: The Miseducation of an Eagles Fan

I’m back in college again.

I’m not taking classes or anything. It’s just a mindset, triggered by the Eagles’ win against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round last Saturday.

That victory sent the Birds to the NFC championship game, and for me, it brings back lingering memories from college. Forget about papers and parties and the ever-scenic drive through Central Pennsylvania. Sure, there are some moments there, and we’ll see how long they stick around in the memory bank, but I will never forget the Eagles’ run of four NFC championship games in four years, which coincided perfectly with my undergrad years at idyllic Susquehanna University.

I remember exactly where I was when I watched each of these four games, which as Eagles fans know all too well, ended in three straight losses before a victory at the tail end of the 2004 season.

Join me on a trip into the vast wasteland …

 

This week, Eagles host the conference championship game for the first time since the frigid afternoon of January 23, 2005. Amid swirling winds and temperatures in the teens, the Eagles bullied the Atlanta Falcons — the franchise they defeated last weekend — and ended three-year run of watching the other sideline celebrate earning a trip to the Super Bowl.

So much has changed since those four games, both with me and with the world. As a college student back then, my only dream of going to Eagles games was as a writer covering the team many years later. I could barely afford my books, much less paying over a hundred for a Birds ticket. And playoffs? Playoffs? I could forget about that.

So my only option was to watch them on my small, grainy, 27-inch TV (no HD back then), usually alone. The borough of Selinsgrove is just far enough away from Philadelphia that Eagles fans were far scarcer than Democrats. Luckily for me, my boss in the sports information (public relations) department, Jim, was a “four-for-four” Philadelphia sports lifer, and we spent endless hours rehashing the travails of the Iggles, 76ers, Flyers and Phillies.

Halfway through my freshman year, the Eagles knocked off the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in the divisional round, sending them to St. Louis to play the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams for a trip to the Super Bowl. Those were virtually the same Rams who two seasons earlier had shocked the league behind grocery bagger-turned-gunslinger Kurt Warner.

While the Eagles had strained to get past a Bears team that was forced to turn to backup QB Shane Matthews “Band” in the first quarter, the Rams had utterly dismantled the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, intercepting Brett Favre six times (a playoff record in the post-merger NFL).

The Rams were double-digit favorites, and I remember having zero confidence in an Eagles victory. I rationalized how a loss would make sense. This was their first real taste of the big stage. They’d be better next year. That would be The Year.

Pat Summerall: Today, the Eagles … uh, not many people give ’em a chance.

I usually watched Eagles games alone, going back to when I became a serious fan of the team in the early 1990s, and this habit continued into college, especially after it became clear that if you talked about the “Eagles” on the Susquehanna campus, people either thought you were referring to the band or a local high school team.

For the Eagles-Rams game, though, I was persuaded to watch with a friend of friends of his on the third floor of Smith Hall, the freshman dorm.

I think the only reason I agreed to go there was that the TV was at least twice as big as my little Zenith.

I kept waiting, waiting, waiting for the Rams to take over the game the way they had done against Favre, but it never happened. The Eagles were up 17-13 at the half after a late touchdown catch by Todd Pinkston.

Could this really be happening?

The second half of that game was filed away to the repressed memory repository. The Eagles offense seized up — three straight three-and-outs — as the Rams took a 12-point lead. The Birds rallied to within five and had the ball at midfield, but then No. 5 threw one of the most killer interceptions of his career, to Aeneas Williams, and suddenly the game was over. The Rams would be facing the New England Patriots in New Orleans.

I didn’t stay friends with anybody in that dorm room that day.


The loss to the Rams stung, but not for long. In my naive college-age mind, it crystallized a belief that 2002 would be The Year, capped with a ticker-tape sendoff in the finale for Veterans Stadium.

When Donovan McNabb broke his leg midway through the season, that belief was severely tested. The Birds got a first-round bye on the arm of third-stringer A.J. Feeley, setting up a storybook scenario where McNabb would come back for the playoffs and he — and a smothering defense — would chew their way to three wins and the Lombardi Trophy.

The first part of that playoff playbook was a Saturday night divisional-round game against the Falcons at Veterans Stadium. With a trip back to Susquehanna looming the next morning, I watched the game with my friend (and “Trash Talk” podcast co-host) Brandon Fisher and his family a couple of towns over from my parents’ place.

This was an ugly game — no offensive touchdown until McNabb threw a blitz-beater on fourth down (questionable Andy Reid decision there) to James Thrash, who ran 35 yards untouched to seal a 20-6 win.

Back at Susquehanna the next afternoon, I unpacked in my room on the first floor Aikens Hall with the other two playoff games on my TV. My big project was putting together a Wal-Mart futon (not the wisest request of mine, in hindsight) and while I pieced that together, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and first-year head coach Jon Gruden — the Eagles offensive coordinator for years 1-3 of the Ray Rhodes era — took apart the San Francisco 49ers.

Can it really be this easy?

The Eagles had beaten the Bucs five straight times, including in the previous two postseasons. I did very little work in the sports information office that week. Jim and I talked about this Bucs game as if it were scripted. And we talked about the two teams left in the AFC: a geriatric Oakland Raiders squad and a Tennessee Titans team that had finished one yard shy in the Super Bowl three years earlier.

For this Eagles-Bucs game, I was back to my old routine — no distractions, no watching the game with friends of friends who didn’t care about it. My roommate, who lived just a few miles from the campus, invited me to watch the game at his house. I declined.

Brian Mitchell took the opening kickoff from Martin Gramatica at the 4 and ran diagonally across the field. He passed Gramatica, who shied away from the play as usual, and in a flicker I saw there were no Bucs between Mitchell and the end zone. But B-Mitch was a senior citizen in the NFL, so he was tackled around the 25. Two plays later, Duce Staley took a handoff and went up the middle, scarcely touched by the fingertips of a couple of Bucs. Fifty-two seconds were off the clock. The Vet crowd warmed the frozen air with a collective yell, and the Super Bowl felt closer than it had at any time a year earlier against the Rams.

Cris Collinsworth: I don’t think Jon Gruden can believe what has just happened to his football team.

Those words from the analyst, who was Fox’s third man back then, ring so ironic now.

I have only two other memories from that game. Eagles fans who lived through it know them well.

There is Joe Jurevicius taking a short pass over the middle and streaking over the middle like Bandit leading a pack of bumbling county mounties. The 71-yard play would be his only catch of the afternoon.

There is something very wrong with this game.

There is Ronde Barber, stepping in front of a predictable short pass from McNabb around the Bucs’ 5-yard line and streaking the other way for a game-sealing touchdown.

It was like coming to the last chapter of the Great American Novel and finding only blank pages.

The Year would have to wait.


The Eagles opened the 2003 season on a Monday night against, of course, the Bucs. I don’t remember why, but I chose to watch the game on a tiny TV in a booth at the choke-and-puke cafe on the Susquehanna campus. Hank Williams Jr. did his little ditty and the camera locked on Sylvester Stallone as he flexed for the crowd at this new, postmodern edifice, Lincoln Financial Field, which had edges as jagged as Rocky Balboa’s jawline.

The “Rocky” films, at least, had moral victories. There were none of those on this night, which ended in a 17-0 win for the Bucs. I went back to that cafe for the next week’s game (no idea why), and the Eagles looked equally inept in a 31-10 loss to the Patriots.

I missed the third game of the season, a visit to the Buffalo Bills, because I scored a ticket to the Phillies’ last-ever game at the Vet (a loss to the Braves). The Eagles won that day, the spark of a stunning run to a 12-4 record.

Home on break, I watched the divisional-round game, against Favre and the Packers, with Brandon and his family, half of which left the room with the Eagles down 14-0 after one quarter.

Those who bailed on the game missed Freddie Mitchell and fourth-and-26, along with Favre’s gift-wrapped interception in overtime that sent the Birds to a 20-17 win. That meant a third straight NFC title game, with the Carolina Panthers — upset winners in double overtime in St. Louis in the divisional round — coming to town the following Sunday.

For me as a fan, the timing was horrible. The day of the game, I had to take a train to Arlington, Virginia, to begin a semester-long internship program. Luckily for me (or so I thought), the Eagles were the late game that day. I missed all of the AFC title game between the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts while sitting in orientation meetings, during which I kept sneaking glances at my phone (back then, getting a sports score on a phone was state-of-the-art technology). I hurried back to my top-floor apartment at the Riverplace complex just in time for kickoff of the game that mattered.

Third time’s a charm, right?

I lived in that apartment with three other guys, all of whom I’d met only hours earlier: Cedric, a Cowboys fan from Ohio (*eyeroll*); Tim, a Vikings from Minnesota; and David, a Virginia kid whose Sundays were all about the more traditional type of religion.

Cedric used to call me “Johnny” even though I told him I hated it.

Don’t worry, Johnny, the Eagles are going to be fine.

The Eagles started slowly — Brian Mitchell wasn’t on the team anymore, so no long kick return this time — and the Panthers got a touchdown on a badly underthrown ball that Brian Dawkins is certainly still mad he didn’t adjust to.

On the next drive, the Eagles offense got humming. Runs by Duce Staley and short passes to James Thrash and the People’s Champ (aka Freddie Mitchell) put the ball at the Carolina 23.

Cris Collinsworth: Freddie Mitchell is starting to feel it. He’s a guy who really was a disappointment here … but after that fourth-and-26, he’s something of a hero in Philadelphia now.

On the next play, everything changed. The Panthers brought an all-out blitz. McNabb was tripped by DE Mike Rucker, who came through untouched because of a miscommunication on the offensive line. McNabb fell, and LB Greg Favors sprinted around left tackle and fell on the quarterback. Hard. McNabb stayed down for a few moments.

Just before Fox cut to commercial, it showed McNabb kneeling on the field, helmet off, talking to the training staff.

He’ll be fine, Johnny.

Donovan McNabb tries to catch his breath after being sacked by Mike Rucker and then hit late by Greg Favors in the second quarter. McNabb’s rib cartilage was separated, and he left the game after throwing three interceptions.

After that play, McNabb completed only four more passes to Eagles receivers. Three of his attempts ended up in the arms of a rookie cornerback, Ricky Manning Jr.

The only other memory I have from that game is Deshaun Foster bouncing off seemingly all 11 Eagles defenders on a 1-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter that should’ve been stopped for a big loss.

McNabb left for good on the Eagles’ first series of the fourth quarter, and Koy Detmer killed a last-gasp drive by throwing a pick to Philly-area native Dan Morgan at the Carolina 11.

Three NFC championship games, three losses.

Outwardly, Cedric made a show of sympathy, but I know he was laughing on the inside. After all, he was a Cowboys fan.

If there was any consolation, it was that the dozens of other students in the program had to wake up early the next morning and go to their internships. The program hadn’t gotten me one yet, so I was free to wallow in another season down the drain.


I know for a fact that I took those losses pretty hard, because even with the addition of Terrell Owens in a bizarre three-way deal with the 49ers and Ravens — who originally claimed to have traded for Owens — I didn’t block out time to watch the Eagles’ preseason home opener, which happened to be against those Ravens.

Instead I went to shoot pool with a friend at a mostly empty dive bar in South Jersey called Stubini’s, which was showing the game. On the Eagles’ first play from scrimmage, McNabb lofted a bomb to T.O., who caught it in stride and glided to the end zone for an 81-yard score.

Get’cha popcorn ready.

With T.O., the Eagles ascended to a different plane from the rest of the NFC. I had a Monday night film class (read: easy A) and in Week 2 the Eagles played on Monday night against the Vikings. At intermission I told the professor I wasn’t feeling well — and then I promptly went back to my room in the Sassafras B townhouses, Apartment H, and watched the game, a 27-16 win.

With each passing week, the idea of a fourth straight NFC championship game began to take shape in my mind. The Eagles were not only going to win this time, they were going to win the whole damn thing.

In Week 15, that belief met reality, in the form of a horse-collar tackle by the Cowboys’ Roy Williams that broke T.O.’s right leg and tore a ligament.

With Owens, the Eagles were a three-hour tour de force. As Owens said before he even took a snap with the Eagles, he and Donovan McNabb belonged together “like peanut butter and jelly.”

Without him, they were the same ol’ Birdsmaids of the past three seasons.

Before the Eagles’ divisional-round playoff against the Minnesota Vikings, several Eagles made no secret of their belief that they could win without T.O., apparently not really knowing, or caring, how thin-skinned he was.

I drove back to Susquehanna that morning to begin my final semester, settling in front of the old Zenith with a Taco Bell bag in hand (it was the only celebratory food I could afford). Five Eagles had more than 40 yards receiving — Brian Westbrook, Freddie Mitchell, Greg Lewis, L.J. Smith and Todd Pinkston — and Mitchell recovered Smith’s fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. It was that kind of day.

That set up another visit from Vick and the Falcons. That team genuinely scared me. They had hung 47 points on the (admittedly mediocre) Rams in the divisional round, and I was convinced that the Falcons were better than the squad that had challenged the Eagles at the Vet two years prior. I also was convinced that Vick was a quarterback the likes of which the NFL had never seen and would be playing in a Super Bowl in short order.

I said it before, I’ll say it again: I was naive.

My suitemates were watching the game in the common area, but I was taking no chances with this one. I would be watching in my room — no distractions, no chatter, no Cowboys fans.

If I could’ve been watching the game from a soundproof hyperbaric chamber, I would’ve. Preferably the one next to T.O.’s.

Sometime after kickoff, my phone rang. Back in those days we actually answered the phone. It was a friend who I hadn’t talked to in a while, just wanting to chat on a Sunday afternoon.

Don’t you understand this is this the NFC championship game?!

I wheedled my way out of the phone call after far too long and turned my full attention back to the game. This was a close affair deep into the third quarter. Without T.O. the Eagles had little chance of an easy victory against a good team, but their defense made sure they didn’t need much offense on a day with zero-degree wind chill. Vick had run for over 900 yards that season, but the Eagles caged him in and allowed him only 26 on four carries.

Chad Lewis celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the 2004 NFC championship game. The Eagles won, 27-10.

A two-yard touchdown pass to Chad Lewis as the clock wound down set off the celebration. A quest that had begun when I was a mere freshman was over.

I was reminded of one of my Philadelphia sportswriting heroes, Ray Didinger, who had said — in all seriousness — that the Phillies’ collapse from sure pennant winners in 1964 nearly caused him to flunk out of Temple University as a freshman.

But Didinger graduated, and so too would I.


EPILOGUE

Three years after the T.O. Experiment imploded, the Eagles improbably reached the 2008 conference championship game, in what turned out to be the coda to the Andy Reid Glory Days. I would’ve gone to a playoff game that season, but they were all on the road — at Minnesota, then at the Giants and finally at Arizona for a meeting with old friend Kurt Warner, once again for the right to go to the Super Bowl. I had to watch this game on a tiny screen, though not by choice — I was working Sundays at the Washington Times, and they hadn’t upgraded their TVs since sometime in the early ‘90s (or maybe since the place started up in ’82).

This conference championship was wacky, high-scoring and mistake-filled (mostly for the visitors), and after a disastrous first half, the Eagles rallied furiously to within 25-24 in the fourth quarter.

There were a few moments, very brief, where I was convinced the Birds were going back to the Super Bowl.*

And now, nine years later, they have another chance.

 

*They did not. Google can tell you the rest.

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?

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

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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.