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.

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