L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 305, February 6, 2005
"An Unhealthy Obsession"
The Psychology of Eagles Fans
Special to TLE
Regular readers (hi mom, hi dad!) know I have been pretty relentless in my attacks on Pennsylvanians since moving to southeastern Pennsylvania last summer. Mostly, it's been in self-defense. I'm a defensive driver. And Pennsylvanians can't drive. But it occurs to me now, with the Super Bowl-bound Philadelphia Eagles in the national spotlight, that I've rarely, if ever, had anything nice to say about my new neighbors. This just isn't fair. I mean, sure, they drive slow, fail to signal, and show a general disregard for the fact that, usually, if I'm on the road, it means I need to get somewhere. But this doesn't make them bad people. And even if it does, there are still many nice things to say about them. Take Eagles football, for instance. Philly's a town that does football right.
Now, any discussion on Philadelphia sports must, of course, start with the passion of the fans. So let me tell you upfront: Eagles fans aren't just passionate; they are out of their goddam minds. This is not a casual observation (though, rest assured, I've seen it myself several times), but rather an accepted fact of life in the greater Philadelphia area. Moreover, it's a badge of honor. Eagles fans know they're out of their goddam minds. And they know that you know it. They wouldn't have it any other way.
Eagles fever goes beyond mere fandom. It's a medical condition. It belongs in the DSM-IV. To say that folks take the Birds seriously is a serious understatement. You're not allowed to root for other teams around here. You're not even allowed to not like football. But as overwhelming as this may seem, it isn't off-putting. It's hard not to get swept up in the spirit of things.
In December, makeshift merchandise stores began popping up in local parking lots, selling everything from Eagles Santa hats to Eagles beer sleeves. The guys who run these stores are like mailmen. Nothing can stop them. Not rain. Not snow. Not even Eagles games. In this way, they're actually more hardcore than mailmen. They work on Sundays. You know, so people can buy stuff during halftime. That's how nuts it gets around here.
When I say "people," by the way, I mean people of all kinds. Not just men ages 18 to 45. Eagles fandom is an equal opportunity employer. Everyone's the same color inside, and that color is Eagles green. News stations flash pictures of babies and puppy dogs in full team garb every morning. Women wear pink Eagles hats. Pizzerias sell sweatshirts. Local veterinarians dress in jerseys on game day. Pastors do the Eagles cheer (E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!) from the pulpit. Even cars get in on the action; dual flags flap proudly from their windows as I quickly pass them by. You can't drive two miles around here without seeing at least one Eagles logo. It's impossible. No such two-mile-stretch exists.
Recently, ESPN's Brian Murphy called Eagles fans "the most neurotic, insane, comedic group of fans you will ever see outside of a 'Cops' episode"which I believe he meant as a compliment. Warrick Dunn, of the Atlanta Falcons (who the Eagles beat on January 23rd to advance to the Super Bowl), concurred: "No disrespect to our fans," he said, "but the fans in Philly are a little bit different."
Of course, all this passion isn't always a good thing. Sometimes it gets out of hand. Dunn says the fans are "rude as hell," and calls Philly "one of the most hostile environments... a player can play in." Indeed, when the Eagles beat the Vikings a week before the Falcons, Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper complained that the locals spit and shouted at him. Last year, Carolina Panthers fans were scared to come watch their team beat the Eagles for the NFC Championship. And on draft day in 1999, Eagles fans booed Donovan McNabb... for having the nerve to be drafted by their team.
(This would be the same McNabb who led the Eagles to this year's Super Bowl. But what's he done for them lately, you know?)
You may wonder why Philadelphians are so proud of this reputation. But the truth is, they don't want this reputation so much as a reputationthis just happens to be the one they got their hands on. After all, being loud and rambunctious is a good way to remind people that you exist. Philadelphia is a marvelous city, you see, but it suffers from middle-child syndrome and an identity crisis. To the south, it's a short trip to the capital of America (Washington); to the north, the capital of the world (New York). Some say this gives Philadelphians an inferiority complex. I think that's partially true. Philadelphia's just as good if not better than other major cities. Two hundred years ago, no one would've doubted it. But now? Now they're sort of ignored. So they project this onto the football field, where their fair city can battle with others and, God willing, get noticed.
Self-doubt, however, is a big part of being an Eagles fanthat's the tragic flaw. A single loss is enough to push some people straight off the edge. The fact that they've never won a Super Bowl doesn't help, either. Remember Boston's Curse of the Bambino? Well, in Philly, it isn't a curse. It's a conspiracy. Everyone's out to get themincluding themselves. When WR Terrell Owens went down with an injury in December, fans wondered if the Cowboys' Roy Williams took him out on purpose. Likewise, fans claim the national media roots against their city and team. The week before the Falcons game was especially jittery: This match-up would be for the NFC title, and the Eagles had lost NFC title games in each of the last three years. "They're trying to find something that will go wrong," radio host Howard Eskin said. "By Saturday night, these people won't be able to sleep." He was probably right. But you know what? That didn't stop Eagles fans from trudging through snow to get to the Linc at eight o'clock Sunday morning. Nor did it stop the Eagles from winning 27 to 10. That says something.
It's no coincidence that the fictional figure most closely associated with Philly is Rocky Balboa. In his finest moment (i.e., the original "Rocky"), Rocky lost. But he stood toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed and took the best that the champ had to offer. Rocky made Apollo look ordinary... or Apollo made Rocky look world-class. It depends on your perspective. But, either way, Rocky proved he wasn't a bum. He proved he belonged there. And this, in itself, was a victory. Now, I won't sit here and tell you Philadelphians are happy just to have their team in the Super Bowl; they're certainly happy about it, but they want like hell to win. In a way, though, just being there proves they can bang with the best of 'emBoston, New York, wherever. This means the world to them. And that's why the NFC title carries such significance.
You know, growing up in North Jersey, you didn't hear a whole lot about the Eagles. There, you've got the Giants and the Jets. I tried to get into those teams but never could. They play in Jersey, yet call themselves "New York"for me, that always seemed disingenuous. Eagles fandom really is "a little bit different," though. It's a phenomenonan animate, electric force.
I watched the Vikings game at one of the local sports bars a few weeks ago. In the second quarter, Freddie Mitchell caught a fumble while standing in the end zonescoring a touchdown. Eagles fans erupted. "This never happens for us," one patron cheered. I saw that guy again a week later, when the Eagles beat the Falcons. We high-fived and I said, "We finally did it, man." For me, it wasn't the culmination of 24 years of waiting for an Eagles Super Bowl. But it was the culmination of one year of buying green pajamas, listening to 610 WIP, and staying home on Sundays to watch the Iggles fly. I made a conscious decision to get into this team when I moved to Pa. last summer. If you ever find yourself in a new city with all the requisite new city challengesnothing to do; nowhere to goI suggest you do the same. Everything I know about southeastern Pennsylvania, I know through the prism of Eagles football. That's how I know it isn't so bad here.
So, true, some Eagles fans go overboard. And, true, those that do may reflect poorly on their city. Any hobbybe it sports, the lottery, even sewingcan become an unhealthy obsession. But a little fever every now and then won't kill you. And sometimes it's fun to be out of your goddam mind. Living near Philly, this is something I've come to know.
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