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The Dying of the Light…Philly-Style

The final game at the Vet was an apocalyptic downer.

WE ROLLED UP TO THE VET with a busted-up car and hangovers that had us all jumpy. The worst kind. The night before, Pastor Steve and I had barely escaped death, locked in a high-speed chase around lower Manhattan. He cut off a car with blacked-out windows. Another car with blacked-out windows showed up out of nowhere, and we were the mouse at 70 miles an hour. They tried to force us onto the curb. We bumped them, they swung perpendicular to our car, we jumped the curb and ran over a pile of trash and took off in the wrong direction down a one-way street. Ten minutes of “Bullitt” flew past, then we got locked behind a bunch of cabs at a red light. Four guys in gold chains and puffy jackets rushed Pastor Steve’s car and played punch-up with lead pipes.

“I guess it was the law of averages,” Pastor Steve was saying as he stepped into the frigid Philly air. “My driving finally caught up to me.” Pastor Steve is the oddest of Eagles fans. He grew up in the woods somewhere in New England, and listened to Eagles games on a HAM radio setup when he was a kid. Now here he was, pulling into the last football game at Veterans Stadium on a personal invitation from the team owner himself. I never asked questions.

Lifting myself out of the car, I sidestepped a pile of steaming puke, then ripped my jeans on one of Pastor Steve’s smashed taillights. We took off across the parking lot, squeezing through a rusted hole clipped in the fence. Filthy gray piles of snow were everywhere. The wind slashed across my face. In the distance, there it was — Veterans Stadium, a charmless collection of concrete slabs and wavy interior walkways, all of it ringed with a white cap that could have been snow or icing or a sure sign of aging.

I knew all about how decrepit the Vet was, but I couldn’t wait to get inside. I’ve been to a few of those new stadiums and arenas in the last decade of furious building around the sports world. All I ask is: Where’s the savagery? Do sports fans really go to games in search of comfort?

We found my brother-in-law at the bar inside the Holiday Inn up toward the Walt Whitman Bridge. He was chumming around with some tall guy named Cliff. Cliff was buying everybody drinks. Eric made friends easy, especially in this crowd. The Eagles were his reason for being. He and his brothers were Irish Catholic from across the water in South Jersey, and they still talked about the only other NFC title game played at the Vet, when the Eagles kicked Dallas up and down the field in 1980. God, did I hate the Cowboys. We all did. Eric didn’t have a ticket, but Pastor Steve and I were going to get him into the stadium somehow. “There’s no way I’m missing the last game at the Vet,” Eric said, and his eyes bulged.

Eric rearranged his Eagles ski hat, then he and Cliff started up the first cheer of the day: “E-A-G-L-E-S-Eagles!” A bizarre ritual to anyone who doesn’t root for this team, but in spite of the cheer’s drawn-out length — because of it, really — it’s worn like a badge of honor around Philly. We downed a few beers, then flicked our heads to see Ron Jaworski scooting off to the stadium, walking past a crude oil painting of himself on the wall of the bar. The game was still four hours away, but out in the hall, there was already a staggering line at the bathroom.

I’d seen all this a hundred times before. My dad was a sportscaster in Philly when I was a kid. I played sherpa to a ton of camera equipment and, in return, I got to roam the sidelines during the games. These were the Buddy Ryan-Rich Kotite years, when Randall Cunningham compiled a highlight reel every week, and Reggie White separated quarterbacks from their will to compete.

I remember standing a few feet away when Keith Byars struck the Giants’ Pepper Johnson in the pit of his soul, launching him into the air, where his fists and feet joined together like a roped calf. I remember standing in the Eagles locker room after a big win and watching Jerome Brown interrupt a teammate’s interview with CBS by talking about the way a certain girl could do a certain thing. A commercial that used to run locally had me frozen in adolescence, hopping like a spaz behind the end zone after a Mike Quick touchdown.

Most of all, what I remember is the sound of the place, the roar that pierced my head when Eric Allen grabbed an interception or when Cris Carter scraped the sky for six. The ear would break down the roar into waves, sine curves. It was like cupping a stereo-grade seashell to my ear.

It had been 10 years since I’d seen an Eagles game at the Vet. I was ready to believe that the place had changed. I knew I had changed. I knew Randall Cunningham had changed. When I talked to him last, he was leading a Bible study/rock ‘n’ roll hymnal in Las Vegas. Philly fans never understood Cunningham. I know I never did, though I gladly accepted Randall’s opaqueness of spirit in return for his physical unpredictability during a game. He was pushing 40 in Vegas, and I asked where he found the motivation to continue playing in the NFL. He leaned forward and looked me in the eye and said, “When my team wins the Super Bowl, they’re gonna want to know what the quarterback has to say. And when they come to me with their cameras, that’s my opportunity to spread the gospel. And when I die and I go to meet St. Peter, he’ll look at me and say, ‘You weren’t just a quarterback. You were a quarterback for Jesus. Come on in.’” We all need deadlines.

Yes, the Vet had changed, if only a little. The rainbow seats had been replaced by a set in uniform blue. But they were still the same hard plastic, better for standing on rather than sitting. The seats were so unforgiving, I figured it would be the last thing to get misty-eyed about on a day of wistful moans. Yet, in the week leading up to the big game, rumors spread through the Philly papers that some fans were planning on packing wrenches in order to walk out with a stadium chair. That way, I guess, they could always remember just how uncomfortable the Eagles had always made them — it was 43 years since their last championship. In the car on the way down to the game, some guy named Matt rang up the local radio station, WIP, and with all the authority of the sports-talk caller said, “All you Bob Villas out there — leave it at home. Somebody I know’s dating this cop, and he said they’re gonna have metal detectors today.” The host thought over the info for a second, then said, “Matt sounds like he’s plugged in.”

“THIS IS WHERE ALL THE FREAKS go to tailgate,” Eric yelled in my ear, over a mixture of Kid Rock and Metallica, which changed in proportions with the shifting wind. With one stride, we crossed into Hades, and a funny car engine ripped off my ear. There were huge pipes and cylinders and gleaming gewgaws attached to a giant shopping cart. The thing must have been 15 feet tall, and there were two guys in winter coats sitting in the kiddy basket, goosing the engine. A crowd gathered around the cart when the drivers started throwing free junk into the air. Just as quickly, the cart was gone, speeding down Packer Ave. in a blur of linked metal and blue smoke.

A woman stuck her torso through a window of the Holiday Inn. She was wearing a Tampa Bay jersey. A crowd of guys caught sight of her and started booing. Someone threw a handful of ground beef in her direction. Then she took off the jersey and flung it over her shoulder. She was completely naked. The crowd gave her a cheer:

“E-A-G-L-E-S-Eagles!”

Eric, Pastor Steve and I came upon fans in Eagles gear taking turns break-dancing in a circle. They were popping and locking in Reggie White jerseys, spilling gobs of Yuengling from cans stuck in cozies. A couple of them dropped to the ground, but the puckered asphalt grabbed onto their jeans when they tried for backspins.

Someone placed a chair in the circle, and a middle-aged woman started giving a guy a lap dance. She wore a green construction hat, with Eagle-wing decals stuck on the sides. The crowd tripled in size, and the woman had her shirt off a moment later. A balled-up dollar bill shot from the crowd. The buck hit the woman in her hard hat and bounced off.

“That’s Warren Sapp’s liposuction’s in there.” That’s what the man said, pointing to the strange goo that fired his homemade grill. He was feeding wood into the base of a 12-foot red chimney. He had just swung an axe and split a log on the parking lot ground, and now he was tossing kindling into the fire. It was a life-size cardboard cutout of the Maytag repairman.

A turkey boiled in brine at 250 degrees, and a school bus expelled smoke whenever the front door swung in. This was a minibus for preschoolers. It was painted Eagle green, and above the windshield it read, “Show us your tits.” Inside the school bus, they passed around a cigarette. All the seats on one side had been replaced with carpeting, and a guy in a full-face Eagles hunting mask had a woman in an Eagles football helmet in his clutches. The walls were decorated with laminated ticket stubs from Vet games past. “And these over here,” explained a guy in a baseball hat with a mechanical Eagle attached to it, “these are from when they had the players’ kid pictures on the tickets and you had to guess who was who. I think this one is Spagnola.”

A fan in a green wig, Lone Ranger mask and black cape hoisted man after man over his shoulder and onto the roof of a random trailer home like he was a superhero doing his duty. A stubby man in an ankle-length mink coat and Eagles sunglasses walked calmly into the teeth of a harsh wind with a corncob pipe in his mouth. A roly-poly standing on top of a Winnebago removed his shirt and started rubbing his bare belly. Men in Kelly green jumpsuits relieved themselves on the power converters located on the other side of a fence. A fire alarm squawked like a diving submarine over at the Holiday Inn.

Nobody cared. Nothing mattered. It was the end of school, when you burned all your books and trashed the classroom. The old Spectrum where the Flyers won the Stanley Cup had been replaced. You could see that the Eagles’ new stadium—Lincoln Financial Field—was almost finished, its upper decks hanging a few lots over like big broad shoulders. And the first bits of tall wrought iron rose high where the Phillies’ would soon be playing out their futile existence. This guard was changing, the last of it, the newsreels and the grainy highlights all about to go away.

And it was all happening in perfect Philly style, with the pride of the true barbarian. Tampa Bay’s stadium has a  pirate ship attached to it like some infantalized attraction. Some people get too much sun.

Philadelphia has its own troubles. It’s too big, too close to New York to avoid it. It’s been a long comedown since the First Continental Congress. Philly’s second place, and the teams never win, not for 20 years. This tends to make you bitter and caustic, and in need of a little sunshine to lift your spirits.

Which is what Eagles fans knew they had coming, if only the team could pull out one more win. A trip to San Diego and the Super Bowl was on the line. All the Eagles fans in that parking lot had the same thing written on their faces. Drunk, yes. But they also realized how perfectly everything was shaping up. The last game at the Vet. The NFC Championship. The Super Bowl. If it wasn’t a storybook, it was at least an obviously prepackaged tour.

Eagles supporters aren’t like Cubs fans or Red Sox fans, whose allegiance has something of a boutique quality. Eagles fans want desperately to win, and win now before they die. So why do they get so down on their team at the slightest sign of difficulty? Why do they boo in such a way that brings them lasting fame? Because Eagles fans deserve better than second-place, and they’ve been burned so often in the past that it just feels like a better bet to boo. At least that way they’re getting in the game. At least that way they can show how much they care, which is terribly much.

But this day was different. It was all so geometric. How could it go wrong? How could Philly lose to a city of such thin blood? And how could the Eagles leave their fans anything but a gleaming memory of the old barn?

Pastor Steve and I left Eric at the boiling turkey and made our way to the stadium. A minute before, Pastor Steve was pounding beers in the “Show us your tits” school bus, and now he was heading to a silver-service brunch date with Jeff Lurie and friends. I had to grab my own pass, and I got stuck with several hundred other fans waiting for a security frisk. A fan with scraggly hair and a scar slicing his jaw line cracked a Budweiser can over his head. Spray flew everywhere. He took a big gulp, then handed the can to a stranger standing behind him. “Pass it down,” he said.

I HAD PASTOR STEVE on the phone, but with no warning, four F-14s screamed over the stadium. It was hard to make out, but Pastor Steve was saying that he had a ticket for Eric, a way to sneak him through a side door. I called Eric, but there was no answer, and I made my way down through the crowd.

People were still filing into their seats when the coin flipped at midfield. Fans wore jerseys and hats dating back several logo changes. All of the team’s history was coming to bear in a single moment. Ron Jaworski was out on the field, reenacting a play from the 1980 NFC title game. He handed off to Wilbert Montgomery, who jogged into the end zone holding the ball over his head.

The real game quickly erased that moment of sentimentality. When Brian Mitchell ran the opening kickoff 70 yards, the Vet erupted, just as I remembered that it could. A random fan on the concourse grabbed my hand as I darted past. “We’re going in,” he said. Duce Staley punched it in from a few yards out. Less than a minute into the game, and the Birds were seven points closer to San Diego. Inside the Vet it was like Rome, with bodies spilling over one another, confetti flying, hollers ringing out.

And there wasn’t a single part of it that was manufactured. The same old ads for M.A.B. Paints and Herr’s potato chips hung from the crude scoreboards. There were no “official” noisemakers or rally caps. The closest the Eagles front office came to enforcing unity was handing out white homer hankies, and even those looked like they were pulled prematurely from the hamper. All of this meant something. It meant that whatever happened in here today was of the fans’ doing. It did not come from a memo on some TV executive’s desk in New York. And it was not fabricated by Starter or Home Depot or any of the other companies that have gradually eroded the things that make places like the Vet, in all its crumbling decrepitude, a place that cannot be improved.

The crowd was bundled mostly in black and blue all the way around the bowl, like one big bruise. The field looked even rougher, and everyone in the football world knew just how awful and unforgiving the artificial turf was. When I found Pastor Steve and squeezed into his row, he pointed toward the field. “This is the true frozen tundra,” he said. “You break your arm when you get pounded into this stuff.” I called my brother-in-law again on my phone, but got no answer.

I met a few people in our row. Handshakes went around until I met a guy who said he was the Governor of Pennsylvania. I laughed in his face. Then I looked at Pastor Steve, and remembered his brunch date. This was, in fact, the Governor of Pennsylvania.

Gov. Mark Schweiker had been coming to the Vet since it opened in 1971. He knew what the Eagles meant to Philadelphia. Former Philly mayor Ed Rendell once said that if the Eagles were in the playoffs, you could raise taxes and no one would notice. Rendell was two days away from being sworn in as Schweiker’s successor, so this game was pretty well Schweiker’s last public act.

Did he think that something would be lost when the Eagles headed to the new stadium—”the Linc,” fans are calling it already—next door next year? “This place,” Schweiker said, scanning the crowd with steely eyes, “the fans here know the 12th-man quality of this place. And you don’t wanna give up something that helps you win.”

It was well into the second quarter, and the Eagles were not comforting their believers. The fans roused the Eagles with steady chants, and did their best to confuse Tampa Bay with a general roar, but the Eagles just couldn’t find their footing. The crowd didn’t grow impatient, exactly, but there was a feeling of uneasiness venting from the seats as halftime came with Philly down seven. Here was the initial thought: Have we put our hearts on the line, only to have them broken again and finally?

The fans booed the halftime show of Ja Rule. Finally, thankfully, somebody was willing to stand up to the glam strongarm of Fox and the NFL. Dog Philly fans all you want for their propensity to boo, but don’t ever say they can’t smell a rat.

The game began to slip away from the Birds in the third quarter. Donovan McNabb and coach Andy Reid couldn’t manufacture any momentum. When it looked as though they had done so, penalties reversed it all. Darkness fell when we weren’t looking. Everyone could feel it. The Eagles had lost heart. But the fans hadn’t.

I jumped on the elevator going up. The doors opened onto the 700 Level, and it was as if onto the edge of the Earth. The first thing that hit me was the wind, which whipped along the unprotected concourse. It felt like a centrifuge. Off in the darkness of Southwest Philly, refineries and power plants kicked out huge plumes of vapor and mist. Lights blinked from distant smokestacks, and a full moon hung behind a few stripes of cloud. “No Bucs fans served here,” read a sign on a beer stand.

A groan swept through the seats on the other side of the concrete slab behind me, then came a shower of boos. When my head cleared the threshold, there I was: in the Nest of Death. The 700 Level has played host to some gruesome moments in its history. And for Eagles fans, it’s a proud, if largely undocumented, set of incidents. All the way up here, it feels like watching a film reel of the game, and it all seems to play out in slow motion. The temperature feels 10 degrees colder.

Cops in face warmers pounded their feet on the ground to spur some circulation. A woman wearing full facepaint threw up while sitting in her seat, and her friend in a neon green wig waited an entire Eagles possession before taking her out and cleaning her up. The exhaust from a blunt gave an entire section a contact high. From this frozen vantage point, it was of particular pain when McNabb overthrew a wide open receiver down the middle of the field. The boos rained down on the quarterback from the Chunky soup ads, and a huge shirtless guy in mittens booted a wheelchair down a set of stairs and into a cop’s icicle shin.

Everybody was in agony, especially at the thought of what was slipping away — a trip to sunny California. “Take his neck off,” came a woman’s scream on the ensuing punt return.

Downstairs, the Governor hopped up and down to keep warm. His hood was up now covering his reddened ears. The players on the sidelines wore long overcoats. When the Eagles regained the ball, the fans in the lower sections pounded their feet on the metal flooring, trying to inject pulse and feeling into a frozen and fading situation.

And then came the end, an interception that the Bucs returned the length of the field for a score. The Vet was so quiet, you could hear the hum of the generators beneath the stands. There were still three minutes left, but the concrete bowl emptied almost entirely of its human contents. “Well, see you at the new stadium,” said a man wearing a Flyers hat as he shook hands with the Governor.

In the end, a day that was to be one of loud triumph was defined by quiet moments, by gnashing anguish, and by a giant Eagle egg laid in a game the city had to have. The two-minute warning came with the Bucs hamming it up for the phalanx of cameras that converged on their bench.

The tunnel at the other end of the stadium opened up. Years ago, the maintenance crew used to open the tunnel door whenever the opponent lined up for a field goal, sending an unpredictable wind whipping along the turf. But now all it expelled was a bunch of cops on motorcycles. They rolled out solemnly with red and blue lights flashing, as in a funeral procession. A few people in the far end zone threw confetti they had been saving all game. The wind carried the paper across the field as the Eagles misfired on their final fourth down.

I left Pastor Steve for a tour of the locker rooms. Reporters clogged the makeshift press conference rooms, where the coaches gritted their way through all the questions. I roamed the halls, which were strewn with wasted and out-of-date debris. A 20-year-old workout machine. A golf cart with four flat tires. Wires hung from the ceiling, clumped together with plastic handcuffs. Entire sections of concrete walls had come undone a long time ago. A security guard asked me to steal Keyshawn Johnson’s gloves for him from the locker room. I said I’d try.

A TV blared from somewhere. James Brown, the lockjaw Fox host, was saying that John Gruden had “steered the pirate ship into uncharted waters.” May the Lord have mercy on our souls for ingesting this. My kingdom for an acceptable turn of phrase. Or a rotting old barn that still has a soul. I can’t say that I won’t develop some level of affection for the Linc. But I wouldn’t bet that it won’t be hijacked in some form by the same types who employ James Brown.

I walked into the Eagles locker room. What a sad place. It was all mumbles and hums. Keith Byars was there, Jaworski too. Jeffrey Lurie walked in and stopped short inside the entranceway. His eyes were shocked wide open, and his mouth was unable to close itself. But no one was talking to him, least of all Donovan McNabb, who stood a few feet away, dressing with his back turned to the world. This locker room was no maze of amenities. But it was the last time the Eagles would see the inside of it, and that had to mean something. This was the place where Jerome Brown used to roam — laughing and yelling and making everyone swell. If only Warren Sapp knew how far off the mark his whole act really was.

I took one final trip out to the stands. A couple of cops leaned against the railing, staring out at the field, where the clean-up crew had begun its chores. There was nothing going on, nothing for them to do, and yet they remained, looking at a world that was already gone. Finally, one of them opened his mouth. “F—ing Donovan’s not going to Disneyworld.”

Cop helicopters patrolled the sky overhead, their propellers clipping the air. In the parking lots, people did what came naturally. They burned stuff, whatever they could find tossed into rusted old drums. There’s a quick scene in Rocky where a bunch of guys huddle around a barrel fire on the street, and I’d be a jerk for not mentioning it. One drum in the Vet parking lot had “Go Eagles” poked through it in perforated letters. Fire flickered through the holes, sparks tossed high into the air, and somewhere the tinkle of broken glass rang out like a dinner bell.

Turns out Eric found his own way into the stadium, paying 50 bucks for a ticket. He sat up in the 700 level with a broken cell phone that couldn’t pick up my calls, drinking in the last of the place. As well he should have. He followed his people back to the Holiday Inn bar for the final rounds. Then he spent the following day laid up in bed with some kind of Eagles sickness that prevented him from speaking.

I found Pastor Steve parked beneath an overpass on Broad St. I knew it was him because there was only one hazard light blinking on the whole broken car. He was dropping me at 30th St. Station for a train back home. We rolled through the stoplights on Broad St., heading into the heart of Center City. Every store window held an Eagles sign. The street was dark and lonely. The candles had been snuffed out. The wind gushed stray trash across traffic. “I guess that’s the bitter end,” said Pastor Steve, downshifting into a red light. The engine groaned. I could see the yellow orb of the City Hall clock looming up ahead. William Penn stood atop it all, and as I remembered, his foot extended into a stride. The guy must have been freezing up there. I couldn’t imagine it being any other way.