Philadelphia in Love and Hate

You almost can hear the jaunty jangle of the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” theme song playing.  The music is followed by the caption “The Gang Goes to the Super Bowl.”

Call this an open love letter to a city I always loved to hate…at least when it comes to sports.

For decades I delighted in chumming up friends and family from Philly like bluefish to fresh bunker. I ladled out insults about Eagles earning ring pops rather than Super Bowl rings. I used to wonder if most Eagles fans even knew how to spell in their signature chant E-A-G-L-E-S!

In the 1980s, the Eagles were like the NFL’s version of Wile E. Coyote –they would usually split divisional games. Then they would crash and burn in the playoffs—in the much the same way as Washington teams now (sad to say). Regardless of record the Eagles would always give teams a fight, a poke in the eye or a stray cleat to the back of the leg. It was part of their charm.

In the stands, most Philly fans resembled soccer supporters from Europe in the 1970s more than the sheep-like fans that inhabit the NFL in recent decades.

This season’s Eagles wore the same green—yet they were different. Strangely, they weren’t a team that inspired hate. As a team they were resilient, tough and more importantly talented.

Philly fans in contrast remain a model of consistency. Appropriate behavior when translated to modern sports fandom often means minimal passion. The NFL wants fans to consume food, buy stuff, clap a few times and get out in an orderly fashion—this is why the Philly sports fan always stands apart.

As a boy with family ties to Philadelphia and Washington I viewed the Philadelphia sports fans as entertaining and a bit edgy. They were the great northern villains. They spoke with funny accents and old Veteran’s Stadium was always packed with animated characters. The Vet had sun-bleached artificial turf that could chew up knees like a bull shark. It even had a court and jail onsite for easy bookings for unruly fans.

As a teen in the 1980s I used to spend summers with my late grandparents. Both were life-long residents of Philadelphia, who later migrated to south New Jersey in retirement.

My beloved grandpop was a World War II vet, former baseball player in the Carolina League, salesman for MCA Records and a long-suffering Philadelphia sports fan. My grandma was equal parts Rosie the Riveter and Mrs. Claus with a pack of smokes. She was the one who taught me how to stick my tongue out and blow raspberries as a baby. Later, she taught me the art of flipping the bird at other motorists in busy traffic circles. This was a marvelous contrast to the lady who would cram as many presents as a car trunk could hold each Christmas.

In retrospect, I learned valuable lessons from my visits to “Filty-delphia,” as an old college professor used to call it. Here are a few.

The Schuykill River was a stinky, polluted urban river—but it did have fish for me to catch as a kid.

Phillies games were a blast in the 1980s and they even won a championship in 1980—then the curse of Billy Penn haunted the city until 2008.

Mounted policemen in Philadelphia were affectionately called “Rizzo’s Cossacks.”

The Flyers were the “Broad Street Bullies.”

I could mow 12 lawns in midsummer compared to only two in Virginia—for more money.

It’s ok to yell “You’re a bum!” at future Hall of Famers.

Don’t cheer too loudly as an away fan if you like having tires on your car or a full set of teeth.

The Phillies Phanatic  is and was a comedic genius.

It’s ok to boo the pass-punt and kick kids if they miss field goals or botch a pass…but only if they are wearing a Cowboys, Giants or Redskins helmet.

The late Chief Z had his feathers plucked there.

Sometimes it’s ok to throw snow balls at Santa.

One can speak about the Body Bag game, but not the Redskin playoff wins.

Lastly, I’m thankful to Philly for my education on traffic circles, the shore, hoagies, Wawa, cheese steaks, jetty fishing, the Jersey Pine Barrens, Barnegat Light, Cape May, Atlantic City, boardwalk cuisine, the charm of diners and the art of moderation at games.

As a Redskins fan I cannot cheer for an Eagles victory—but I’ve grown a bit more nostalgic and less militant in my support of teams. However, in some dark corner of my soul that smells like a sizzling cheese steak I hope that the unlovable rogues of Philly somehow find redemption.

An Eagles victory might make sense this year in a world where chaos, civility and culture appear to be hurtling us all into the abyss. The NFL deserves it.

Then again…it is Philadelphia.