Jonathan P. Baird: Flying with the Eagles

  • The Philadelphia Eagles celebrate after their 17-13 win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFL championship game in Philadelphia on Dec. 27, 1960. AP file

  • The Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz holds the George Halas Trophy after the NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 21 in Philadelphia. AP

For the Monitor
Sunday, February 04, 2018

It is not easy being a Philadelphia Eagles fan while living in New England. You are definitely part of a minority group: a leper in Patriotland.

I know there are some geographical transplants who successfully make the transition to rooting for the Patriots. This is harder when you come from Philadelphia and grew up as an Eagles fan.

Patriots fans are passionate, but Eagles fans are rabid.

I went to my first Eagles game in 1957 when I was 6 years old. The Eagles played the Detroit Lions at the old Shibe Park, also known as Connie Mack Stadium. The Eagles lost that day, and I remember that I cried. It was the first of many losses to come that I witnessed.

The Eagles are one of the NFL teams that have never won a Super Bowl, a fact never far from the minds of Eagles fans. In the Philadelphia mind, whatever our successes, we are still in sports hell.

The beginning

I learned about football from my parents. Both were sports nuts. They were hardcore Philadelphia fans, especially the Eagles and Phillies. My dad got season tickets to Eagles’ games starting in the late 1950s. He and I used to park far away and schlep across the often freezing bridge to Franklin Field, the University of Pennsylvania stadium where the Eagles played.

There are some happy Philadelphia football memories. The year 1960 was the last time the Eagles won the NFL championship. It was in the era before Super Bowls. I was there with my dad, watching the Eagles beat the Packers 17-13.

Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, nicknamed the Dutchman, led the Eagles. I went to Friends Central School with Van Brocklin’s daughter, Karen. Norm seemed like a really nice guy. When he came to school in the afternoon to pick up Karen, he went to the school playground and he threw the football around with us kids. How cool was that? He also punted to a small army of students who wanted to receive his kicks.

Van Brocklin actually was the Eagles punter, something you would never see today. There are not any pro quarterbacks who double as punters now.

That 1960 Eagles team was the only team to defeat the Packers in a playoff game during Vince Lombardi’s tenure as head coach of the Packers. However, that championship win has not been duplicated.

I do not think Patriots fans can understand the feelings of Eagles fans because of all the Patriots’ success. Patriots fans are spoiled rotten, and it is not just the Patriots. In the last decade, Boston has had the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins all win as well.

Before the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, it had been 25 years since any Philly team won a major sports championship. We are talking the 1983 Sixers with Doctor J and Moses Malone as the last winners. That qualifies as a sports drought.

Booing Santa

After the 1960s, I admit I lost interest in football for a long time. I was not at Franklin Field in 1968 when that famous episode in Eagles history happened: the booing of Santa Claus.

It was Dec. 15, 1968. The Eagles were 2-11 at the time. Still, 54,000 loyal Eagles fans showed up. The weather was miserable that day, snowing and sleeting. It was biting cold with a whipping wind chill. Fans had to clear their seats of three inches of snow and slush.

The half-time show was supposed to feature Santa making an entrance on an ornate sleigh dragged by eight life-sized fiberglass reindeer. The sleigh float quickly got stuck in the field, which had turned to muck. That necessitated the entrance of Santa by foot. The other problem was that the Santa who had been hired for that day was a no-show.

As a result, the Eagles entertainment director approached a young fan, Frank Olivo, who, in the holiday spirit, had dressed in a red corduroy Santa outfit. Olivo was recruited on the spot to step in and play Santa.

As the 50-piece brass band played “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Olivo entered the field between two columns of Eaglette cheerleaders dressed as elves. Olivo recalled what happened next: “That’s when the booing started (when the band played ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’). At first, I was scared because it was so loud. But then I figured, hey, it was just good-natured teasing. I’m a Philadelphia fan, I knew what was what. I thought it was funny.

“. . . When I hit the end zone and the snow balls started, I was waving my finger at the crowd, saying, ‘You’re not getting anything for Christmas.’ ”

Olivo says he was actually hit by several dozen snowballs. Maybe 100 were thrown. People joked that some of the people sitting in the upper deck were more accurate passers than the Eagles’ quarterback.

Olivo was thankful for the snow. When the Eagles entertainment director asked if he wanted to play Santa the next year, he declined. “I told him, no way. If it doesn’t snow, they’ll probably throw beer bottles.”

The Vet and beyond

I know the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl in 1981 under Dick Vermeil, but they lost to the Raiders. In that era, the Eagles played at Veterans Stadium, also known as the Vet.

The Vet was famous for its concrete-like turf and its court in the basement. I never saw the Eagles Court but it was full service: starting in 1998, the Eagles had a court, a judge and a jail at the stadium. Apparently, justice was dispensed quickly for drunk or unruly fans. Penalties included forcing offenders to give up season tickets, pay a $400 fine and sit in jail for the rest of the game.

Philadelphia had so many lean years. All the losing seasons, bad coaches and bad teams are a blur to me. Football got somewhat redefined during those years. A good year was not about making the playoffs. A good year would be defined as a year when the Eagles beat the Cowboys or Giants.

Then along came the Jeff Lurie/Andy Reid era. That changed the Eagles’ fortunes. Reid turned the franchise around. Eagles fans became used to winning. For almost a decade, the Eagles were contenders and usually they were the best team in the NFC East. They made it to four straight NFC championship games and one Super Bowl.

My dad used to call me on the phone multiple times during Eagles games to report on developments. That went on through almost the whole Andy Reid time in Philly until my dad died. We had some wonderful times following those games and the team. I knew a lot without watching myself because of my dad’s reports.

I am not going to say much about the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. It could have gone the other way. It was a close game and the Eagles lost, 24-21. That game was not Andy Reid’s finest hour.

Post-Andy Reid came the short-lived Chip Kelly era. Hailed as an offensive genius, Kelly had some success in his first two years. He helped develop Nick Foles into a fine quarterback. However, he made some devastatingly bad personnel moves, trading Lesean McCoy and letting Desean Jackson walk. He also let Jeremy Maclin go in free agency.

Kelly became infamous for his autocratic tendencies and his lack of emotional intelligence. Jeff Lurie fired him before the end of the 2015 season.

Lurie then hired Doug Pederson, who had once been an Eagles quarterback and who was an Andy Reid assistant with the Chiefs. Pederson has done a remarkable job. It is hard to say enough positives. Not only have the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl in his second year, but they have a core of players who make them look very good for a decade to come.

Here I have to mention Carson Wentz, a once-in-a-generation player. What is not to love about him?

When Wentz was injured against the Rams, most observers gave the Eagles up for dead. Except the team never got that message. This team has a great vibe and resiliency, overcoming many injuries. While they are certainly big underdogs, that is nothing new. In the playoffs, they were underdogs against both the Falcons and the Vikings. The Eagles have embraced the underdog role, even wearing dog masks.

Before my dad died, he said, “Jonny, maybe you will get to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl.” Being fatalistic, I said, “Dad, I doubt it.” This team has made me a believer though.

Fly Eagles Fly!

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)