A football life

Sept. 11: In a few days, I’ll reach a very belated milestone in my life as a sports fan: my first trip to see an Eagles game in Philadelphia. After being on the team’s season-ticket waiting list for the better part of 10 years, my former roommate Justin finally got the call from the ticket office: Two seats were available. Fortunately for me, when he got that news, he dialed my number.

Given that I’ve been an Eagles fan for nearly 25 years, how is it possible that I’ve never seen them at home in person? I’ve been to the South Philly stadium complex more times than I could ever remember, and I’ve been to Phillies and Flyers games — even drove out to Columbus and Buffalo this year to see the Orange and Black — but somehow I’ve never made the trip to an Eagles home game.

In fact, I’d never actually been to an Eagles game of any kind until last season. On the day of their matchup at FedEx Field, my friend Brandon’s parents ended up with a spare ticket and invited me. So I got on I-95, stayed in the left lane almost the whole time (a true rarity, for anyone who knows my driving style), parked at the wrong Metro station (by accident, but hey, it was free) and got to the stadium in the middle of the first quarter — all to see our beloved Iggles, quarterbacked quite poorly by Mark Sanchez, lose to The Team Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken.

I’ve followed the Iggles for so long, I can remember when Reggie White was the Minister of Defense and Jerome Brown was an up-and-comer and Roger Ruzek was the kicker. I remember the sorrow over Brown’s fatal Corvette wreck and the Reggie Rally and Ricky Watters’ lamentable “For who? For what?” soliloquy — archly dubbed “Wattersgate” by The Inky. I remember Randall Cunningham and the mottos inscribed on his hats — including his “Let Me Be Me” retort to critics.

I’ve done so much else Eagles-related over the years, too. I’ve watched most of their games every season, and every playoff game. I went with Brandon and his family to downtown Philly to listen to Andy Reid’s radio show live at Engine 46 Steak House — and won a signed David Akers hat. When I was in grad school at the University of Maryland, I trekked with my friend Liam to the only Eagles bar in the D.C. area that I know of, the Rhino Bar in Georgetown, to watch the 2005 season opener against the Falcons. Things really started poorly in that one, even before the opening coin toss, when the top linebacker on the team, Jeremiah Trotter, and Atlanta nickel corner Kevin Mathis threw punches in the middle of the field, just a short distance from where Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and Falcons owner Arthur Blank were having a friendly little chat. That game was on Monday night — the last season that “Monday Night Football” was on ABC — and I can remember hearing one of the announcers (Mike Patrick?) coming on during the pregame and announcing the ejections. At that point a lump grew in my throat, and it remains there today.

I watched “The Garbage Picking, Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon” with Tony Danza when it aired on ABC. I watched “Invincible” and its many anachronistic errors and creative twisting of history. And I do not care much for Disney.

When I lived in Allentown, I even went to Eagles training camp a few times when it was held at Lehigh University. One of those times, during the summer of 2006, I was there to cover the team as an intern for The Morning Call, and I got to talk to the late Larry O’Rourke, who covered the team for the Call for many years. I remember at one point during a full-team scrimmage I was standing on the sideline, and I realized I was only a few feet from the longtime radio voice of the team, Merrill Reese, who was recording a camp update for WYSP. That’s one of those moments that gets etched into your memory and you never forget it.

And now, after a couple of decades of following the team, I’m going to see the real thing in person — and more than just once.

The idea of going to NFL games is still a strange thing for me to process. I think a big reason for that is I’m so used to watching them on television, which is an extremely compartmentalized way to experience anything. It’s like the difference between eating TV dinners for every meal (which more or less describes my teenage years), then setting food in a restaurant for the first time. The two things both involve food, but they’re basically different worlds.

*********

Sept. 15: It’s hard to know what to think after the first game of the season — and I’m not just talking about the Eagles’ 26-24 loss to the Falcons, I’m talking about any season opener.

In 2015, it seems undeniable that the NFL preseason is now treated as a necessary evil — one that costs full price for the fans. Each game is, at best, a glorified practice. The starters barely play, not because they don’t need the work (evidenced by the shaky play and officiating around the league this past weekend) but because coaches are afraid of creating needless injuries and unwanted media attention. Millions of dollars are at stake with every play of every football game, and teams understandably don’t want to risk their investments on an exhibition. How else to explain why some first-stringers — Aaron Rodgers, for example — don’t take even one snap during the four-game preseason?

The strange thing about NFL season openers is that while this rust means it’s often difficult to draw solid conclusions about where a team will be four months hence, these games make a stronger imprint on us than, on average, any other week in the regular season. This is probably due to the hype that precedes them: After seven months of no football, our pleasure, our rapture, our exquisite sin returns to us; football is back, thank God, and not a moment too soon.

Thinking back, I can conjure up memories from many Eagles season openers. The most infamous one might be the first game of the Ray Rhodes era, against Tampa Bay at the Vet in 1995, a game remembered not for Rhodes but for Ricky Watters, who also made his Eagles debut that day after signing a free-agent contract worth almost $7 million. When Watters was questioned by the media why he short-armed a couple of passes over the middle, he said, “I’m not going to trip up there and get knocked out. For who, for what?”

In hindsight, with the body of knowledge about head injuries and long-term health that has been discovered in the past 20 years, perhaps Watters was vindicated. But at the time he was castigated.

The Eagles lost that game, 21-6. At least I and the rest of the fans in the Philly area didn’t have to sit through it — it was blacked out because more than 6,000 seats at the Vet went unsold, and neither the Fox affiliate showing the game nor owner Jeff Lurie would pay for the seats to get the blackout lifted. I remember I was down the shore with my mom, brother and sister. I went into a convenience store hoping it would have the game on satellite. It didn’t, but the man behind the counter told me the blackout had turned into a blowout.

Some other Eagles season openers over the past 20+ years stand out. Here are some of my memories:

1991 — Eagles 20, Packers 3: The Eagles began the season with high hopes: Would Randall Cunningham, heralded by Sports Illustrated two years earlier as “The Ultimate Weapon” and “the quarterback for the ‘90s,” finally get it together? On the first play of the second quarter, he was hit by Bryce Paup. Moments later, radio man Merrill Reese delivered the news: Randall had a torn ACL. “There goes the season,” blurted color commentator Stan Walters. He was right — the QB position became a turnstile featuring Jim McMahon, Pat Ryan, Brad Goebel and, finally, Jeff (Don’t Call Me Shawn) Kemp.

1999 — Cardinals 26, Eagles 24: When the Eagles hired Andy Reid as coach after the 1998 season ended in a 3-13 dumpster fire, the move was panned by the media, in large part because no one knew who the hell he was and there was some big names available. Inky columnist Bill Lyon (my favorite growing up) called Reid “a large, lumbering, slightly rumpled man with a walrus mustache.”

Then the team came out in the season opener in Arizona and took a 21-0 lead in the first 15 minutes. After the Cards rallied to within 24-23 in the fourth, the Iggles had the ball at midfield with two minutes to go. But Doug Pederson momentarily forgot he was Doug Pederson and threw deep. The Cards picked it off and won on a field goal as time expired. We should’ve known at this point that Reid was going to have time management problems.

2000 — Eagles 41, Cowboys 14: For Eagles fans, this is known simply as the “pickle juice” game, a stomping at Texas Stadium in 109-degree heat in which the visitors gulped brine while they announced to the rest of the league that they were contenders. Dallas won the opening toss — and the Iggles responded by executing a perfect onside kick. The only thing weird about the game was that after Troy Aikman got knocked out (literally), Randall Cunningham replaced him. It was hard seeing Randall in a Cowboys uni.

2003 — Buccaneers 17, Eagles 0: The first game at the Linc turned into one of the darkest nights in Eagles history. The Birds (and fans, including me) had been counting the days since eight months earlier, when the Bucs crashed the farewell party at the Vet and dashed what was supposed to be a sure Super Bowl trip for the Iggles. For that Monday night they filmed a special intro with Sylvester Stallone reprising his Rocky role in the ring, and it got everyone jacked up — and then the camera cut to Stallone at the Linc! Wearing a Duce Staley jersey and flexing! The theatrics were off the charts … unlike the game itself. The only play I remember was a fake field goal Reid dialed up from the Tampa 1 on fourth-and-goal on the Eagles’ second drive. Koy Detmer, the holder, lofted a pass to L.J. Smith in the end zone. Smith dived — and the ball clanged off his hands. The whole thing was more unwatchable than “Rocky V.”

2005 — Falcons 14, Eagles 10: The Eagles lost at the Georgia Dome (sound familiar?) despite starting a possession at midfield with a couple of minutes to go. The ejection of the anchor of the defense, MLB Jeremiah Trotter, for fighting during warmups was the most Eagles-esque way to begin the season in which they were widely picked to return to the Super Bowl. Somebody named Mike Labinjo started in place of Trotter and made a total of three tackles. A few weeks later, the T.O. situation went kablooey and the team finished 6-10 after started 3-1. Happy 10-year anniversary to that debacle.

2012 — Eagles 17, Browns 16: It should’ve been a major red flag to the fanbase when the Eagles nearly lost to the Browns to begin the season. And they would have lost, had Clay Harbor not caught a 4-yard touchdown pass with just over a minute left. An ugly game that began an ugly 4-12 season, Reid’s last in Philly.

2013 — Eagles 33, Washington 27: FedEx Field was the venue of the first installment of the Chip Kelly Show. I was impressed by the electric efficiency of Kelly’s offense as it glided to a 33-7 lead. What will be forgotten is that the Iggles did little in the second half and the home team would’ve had a chance to win if it had recovered a late onside kick.

2014 — Eagles 34, Jaguars 17: One surefire way to cause sheer panic in any fanbase is to spot the Jaguars a 17-0 halftime lead to begin the season. According to Pro Football Reference, the Eagles’ Win Probability score in this one was 8.9% before Darren Sproles scampered 49 yards for a TD on fourth-and-one just after halftime.

And I’d put this season’s opener on this list, too. At halftime, with the Eagles down 20-3, I turned the game off and was about to go finish cleaning the barbecue grill — which was caked in a whole summer’s worth of char and congealed animal fat. But then a notification of Walter Thurmond’s interception popped up on my laptop, and I was suckered back in. Later on, as Kelly seemed to hem and haw about what to do on fourth-and-1, something looked off to me. And then moments later the game was turned off again, this time for good.

It didn’t end how I wanted it to, but as an Eagles fan I’m used to that. And it cranked up the anticipation for the Week 2 game against the Cowboys — my debut at the Linc — even that much more.

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