Philadelphia is no longer the union-hall, lunch-bucket town of years past. Yet the city and its suburbs still teem with the descendants of the early Irish and Italian immigrants, and even those who've moved out of the row-house neighborhoods have their fathers' values underneath their coats and ties.
They appreciate nothing more in their athletes than heart and effort. And when their football team comes up short on the gridiron, they can tell play by play how it got there - its bootlegs and wideouts part of the mental playbooks that much of the city carries.
Now as the team heads for the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 years, the city is reveling - for a change - in what's right about their beloved Eagles.
Indeed, the passions and peculiarities of Philadelphia fandom are writ large this week. The city is abloom in green jerseys and cakes and carnations and hair ribbons. Much of the newspaper ink is green, and so are many faces. The green has been accumulating in closets and drawers for years now, especially through the four straight seasons in which the Eagles teetered on the edge of the NFC Championship.
Consider that the team's last NFL championship was in 1960, and the sports-crazed city's last championship of any kind was when the Sixers won the NBA title in 1983. Thus, Philadelphia fans might be forgiven if they have a little pent-up emotion to let out.
In Philadelphia, football is as much a part of the DNA as knee breeches and breached liberty bells. Going to a game is what you do together, probably with your father, your son, and maybe even your grandfather. The tickets are rare and passed down in the will. The fellowship is abundant and freely given, even if the team, at least until last week's decisive win over the Atlanta Falcons, has been the exasperating child that disappoints rather than pleases.
Appropriately enough, Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles' venue, looks like a giant toolbox emptied into a South Philadelphia parking lot. Now in its second season, its premium pricing and smaller capacity have certainly eliminated some of the local color of the old Veterans Stadium. It was there that Ed Rendell, then district attorney and now governor, became a local hero for reportedly betting $20 that a fan could hit the field with a snowball. It was there that football court was invented to expedite the adjudication of rough fans.
At the Linc, "tailgating" - with eggs on the grill, tents, heaters, TVs, generators, and Barcoloungers - begins at 8 a.m. on game days. "It's like a little city," says Pat Norton, a pharmaceutical executive from Belmont Hills, Pa., whose group of about 30 includes college friends of his son along with their fathers.
Win or lose, the Eagles are a sellout, much as in other old football cities, where families stay put for generations and the game becomes what people do on Sunday. While the Atlantas and the Seattles may follow a team passionately, it's different here because of tradition, says Ray Didinger, an NFL Films senior producer and local sports historian. "There's no bandwagon here. You're sort of born on the bandwagon and there's no getting off."
This year, even the athletes are acting like fans. The biggest booster at Sunday's NFC championship game was arguably the injured Terrell Owens, the Eagles' star acquisition this year, who bounded up on the bench, swinging towels, howling like a local loyalist. And the implacable coach Andy Reid was caught exiting the stadium like a regular, face contorted in excitement, yelling, hurling hat into the crowd. Even defensive great Brian Dawkins was so pumped up at game's end that he had to be shooed off the podium by the announcer, sent like a 14-year-old to run around with the trophy for a while to work off some energy.
And now, says Mr. Didinger, the extended family gets to see the errant son graduate after all, and all the missed curfews and so-so grades fade into memory as he's measured up for cap and gown. Hankies are out. Cameras ready. Plane reservations made.
Says Mike Barker, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been coming to the games as long as he can recall: "We've been there when they're bad, and now that they're winning it's incredible." A season ticketholder along with his father, brother, grandfather, uncle, and cousin, he says cheering on the Eagles "is the one thing I hope to be doing and need to be doing forever."
In the upcoming Super Bowl, Philadelphia's fans "may not be out on the field," he says, "but they're going to do everything they can to be a part of it."