Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Feb 2005

Life-Long Lessons in Losing

By Mike Tanier

My two-year old son C.J. just started to perform the Eagles chant. You know the one: "E-A-G-L-E-S . . . Eagles!" He gets about three random letters into it before shouting "Eagles," so it usually comes off as "E-Ya-3 Eebles." Just before kickoff outside the Linc, many hardcore tailgaters have a similar success rate with the chant. It's easy, but not when you are a toddler, or have been drinking in a parking lot since sunup.

We are doomed to bequeath everything to our children: our virtues and our faults, our follies, foibles, and failures, the strengths that sustain us and the weaknesses that undermine us. By inculcating my son into Eagles fandom, I hope to teach him the merits of perseverance, of loyalty, and of absolute commitment to a cause, even a lost one. In fact, he's inheriting the greatest legacy of frustration in professional sports. I'm taking an innocent tabla rosa of a toddler and creating yet another Philadelphia sports neurotic.

The Legacy of Losing

Humorist Joe Queenan, author of True Believers: the Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans, wrote that "introducing one's children to sports is one of the most delicate rituals in all of parental life, infinitely more subtle and important than sex or drinking, which they already know anyway." Queenan, who was raised in Philadelphia but lives on Long Island, had to face a dilemma with his children: should he raise them to root for the Philly teams and condemn them to a life of suffering, or make a Faustian bargain and allow them to become New York fans?

I face a similar dilemma on the eve of the Super Bowl: if history is any indicator, then C.J. will be 26 years old the next time the Eagles make it to a game involving Roman numerals. In the interim, he'll be among the sports world's not-so-lovable losers: nationally, Philadelphia fans are pitied at best and reviled at worst. Why should I consciously make him a fan? What do the Eagles (and Sixers, and Phillies, and Flyers if hockey is indeed not instinct) have to offer except dashed hopes, unfulfilled expectations, and an almost Tantric abstinence from sports satisfaction?

Inspired by Loss

Philadelphia sports fans don't revel in their fandom; they wrestle with it. Queenan wrote that for him "the Phillies and Eagles are exactly like nicotine: a preposterously noxious semi-hallucinogenic substance capable of giving great pleasure for brief periods of time, but that will ultimately destroy your health."

And he's not the only writer that has found inspiration in sports futility. Award winning playwright Bruce Graham's The Philly Fan played to sold-out audiences in Philadelphia in August and will return to the stage in March. Set on the eve of the Eagles' 2003 NFC championship game loss to Panthers, The Philly Fan finds a typically passionate, typically frustrated Eagles fan sitting on a barstool, reflecting on both his personal failures and the failures of his beloved teams. Barrymore Award winning actor Tom McCarthy, who collaborated on the project, plays the fan, whose personal foibles mirror local sports reversals from the collapse of the 1964 Phillies through the Eagles' string of recent near-misses. The play earned rave reviews at Philadelphia's annual Fringe Festival, attracting a cross-section of avant-garde theatre patrons and guys who felt more at home in the 700 level of the old Vet.

Growing Up With Losing

For Graham, the hardest part of writing the play was getting it down to a tight 70 minutes. With so much sports-related angst available, "I could have written a mini-series," he said in an interview for Football Outsiders. For Graham, like many local fans, sports disappointment led to formative memories: he was seven years old when his mother cursed at the end of a radio broadcast of a Phillies loss late in the 1964 season. It was the first time he ever heard his mother swear.

Graham's experiences were typical. In some cities, fandom is born of glory, but in Philadelphia it grows in adversity. Philadelphia fans, real ones, emerge from a white-hot crucible of snarling hostility and pent frustration, like the orcs in the first Lord of the Rings movie. They are born of great suffering, as per the Lord's command in Genesis 3:16. Young Philadelphia fans "make their bones," like Mafia hit men. They experience something on the field (diamond, court) so heart-rending, so soul-emptying, that it dries up all of the endorphins in the brain. They emerge from the experience steel-eyed and flinty.

I've made my bones a dozen times, maybe more: when punter-turned-kicker Mike Michel (don't ask) missed the extra point and the chip shot in 1978, when Kenny King out-jumped Herm Edwards in Super Bowl XV, when the Dick Vermeil Eagles collapsed, in the Fog Bowl against the Bears, when Mitch Williams faced Joe Carter, and so on. Character building experiences? Perhaps, but my wife will affirm that the character they built can be hard to live with sometimes.

Louts and Loudmouths

Maybe that's why Philadelphia fans have an outsized reputation as drunkards, hooligans, and ruffians. This is, after all, the city that booed Santa Claus back in 1968. Graham said that "the Santa Claus incident is so infamous that it comes up everywhere you go," and he had Santa himself, 56-year old Frank Olivo, in the audience for the premiere of The Philly Fan. Olivio replaced the scheduled Santa for that fateful December halftime show over three decades ago, and the freezing fans vented their frustrations at the skinny kid who couldn't quite fill out the big red suit, tossing snowballs onto the field. After the game, fans took aim at a more deserving target: coach Joe Kuharich, who led the team to a 2-12 record that year.

The Santa incident was just one of many that gets dredged up whenever Philadelphia fans are mentioned. We booed Donovan McNabb when he was drafted. We cheered Michael Irvin when he was injured. Kobe Bryant. Jimmie Johnson. J.D. Drew. Broncos fans get to be "loyal and passionate," even though they threw snowballs onto the field after a slow start in 2000, just after winning two Super Bowls. Beer bottles were used as projectiles in Cleveland a few years ago, but the Dawg Pound is filled with lovable eccentrics, not an angry mob. But the Philadelphia sports fan is portrayed nationally as the guy who's ready to snap.

Not that the reputation is totally undeserved. Graham, who has traveled extensively in support of his plays and film work, acknowledges that there's a difference between Philadelphia fans and sports enthusiasts in other regions. As you might expect, the most rabid fans are in the Northeast, but New York fans are gorged on titles and Boston fans have been mellowed by some recent success. Elsewhere, even in Chicago, Graham has found that the locals are "big fans, but not frothing at the mouth."

Graham even took in an Eagles-Packers game at Lambeau Field, where he discovered a civility that would shock a Delaware Valley native. He wore road team colors without incident. When the Eagles won, Graham was congratulated by those around him. "They're saying 'hey, great game.' Me, I'm looking over my shoulder waiting for someone to sucker punch me."

Losers We Love

Those fans in football's crown jewel at least have a worthy pantheon of sports heroes to worship: Lambeau and Lombardi, Starr and Favre, Nitchke and Adderly and many others. And Green Bay only has one sport. Take away the Connie Mack and Greasy Neale-era guys that no one remembers, and Philadelphia is left with Julius Erving, Bobby Clarke, Mike Schmidt, and Chuck Bednarik. And we hate all of them.

Okay, that's not true. But we are blind to greatness in Philly. In every other city in America, Schmidt would be the consensus choice for the greatest third baseman ever. But go into any dingy taproom in Philadelphia, and you'll find plenty of old timers who will swear that Schmidt -- who brought the city it's only World Series -- never had a clutch hit in his career. Clarke, beloved in his Flyers heyday, has been vilified (with some justification) as a general manager. In Philadelphia, we run Charles Barkley out of town, Scott Rolen out of town, for faults that sane fans would forgive. Only Bednarik (who scares us) and Erving are exempt from this strange treatment.

No, Philly fans like their sports stars to be above average but fatally flawed. We enjoy the predictability of failure: when we lose, we'll know exactly what went wrong. The true Philly sports icon has a major problem or two that makes them tragically doomed. Some examples: Eric Lindros (couldn't stay healthy), Randall Cunningham (dumb as a brick), Allen Iverson (short, enjoys firearms), John Kruk (fat, lazy), Mitch Williams (no control), Pete Rose (general lowlife), Ron Jaworski (hit in the head too often), Buddy Ryan (blowhard), Larry Bowa (total sociopath). McNabb's inaccuracy was supposed to be his Achilles heel, and there's still time for him to join this illustrious list with just one or two Super Bowl overthrows.

When local radio hosts Glenn Macnow and Anthony Gargano wrote The Great Philadelphia Fan Book in 2003, only a few chapters were devoted to Schmitty, the Doc, and the Broad Street Bullies. The bulk of the book dealt with Lindros, Cunningham, and Iverson, the guys who really occupy our gray matter. I'm told that New York sports fans argue about Mickie Mantle vs. Joe DiMaggio, about Phil Simms and Frank Gifford, about Willis Reed and Patrick Ewing. In Philadelphia, we perform endless paleontology, digging up Mike Mamula and Bobby Hoying, Izell Jenkins and Ron Solt, Bruce Ruffin, Andy Ashby, Charles Shackleford, Shawn Bradley, Simon Gagne, and Jeff Ruland. They were the teases, the would-be saviors, the false prophets, but we refuse to let history bury them.

Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell are poised to join this ignoble group, high draft picks who never turned the corner on their careers but were counted upon in critical situations. Pinky, FredEx, and Pat Burrell occupy about 75% waking thoughts of the typical Philly sports fan on the eve of the Super Bowl, at a time when we should be harkening back to Bednarik or Bernie Parent.

At a Loss to Continue

The rabid fan in Graham's play watches the Eagles lose to the Panthers, then sighs "wait 'till next year." Queenan wrote that "rooting for teams like the Phillies was the Vale of Tears, the Stations of the Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Bataan Death March, and the Babylonian Captivity all rolled into one."

Think that's taking it too far? Fans in other cities, particularly our current rivals in New England, may tell us to get over ourselves after a week of pre-Super Bowl self-flagellation. Right, guys: we never tired of hearing about that Bambino Curse. But Boston fans made the 86-year fate of the Red Sox into something charming, in the same way that Ireland turned centuries of poverty and bloodshed into an opportunity for nostalgic tourism. Despite the best efforts of writers like Graham, Queenan, and myself, there's little poetry in Philadelphia sports history.

But what of my son and his newly-learned cheer? Perhaps, in just a few days, the cycle of frustration will end, and C.J. will taste victory before his palate is acclimated to the bitter tang of unending defeat. Maybe he's the vanguard of a new generation of Philly fans, one that hasn't rationalized disappointment for so long that we almost prefer it to actual championships. Maybe my son will live in an era when Super Bowls and World Series and Stanley Cups (if they aren't extinct) come to Philly semi-regularly, allowing him to grow accustomed to success. Maybe I'll resent him for it, chastising him that "in my day, we rooted for Rich Kotite, and it was good enough for us."

Most likely, though, the Patriots will win Sunday, and the 2004 Eagles season will become just another scab to pick at.

Dr. Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University, was interviewed by the Delaware News Journal in 2003 as the Eagles were preparing to lose their second straight NFC title game. "Being hugely identified with a team does have its dark side," Wann said, "which is where you get your violence and where you get your postgame depression. But research shows that a high level of identification with a local sports team is generally related to lower levels of depression, higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of loneliness and stress. It's clearly associated with physical health."

Wann's encouraging prognosis aside, I can't shake the feeling that my love for the Eagles will leave my son and I in the clutches of some Darth Vader/Emperor Palpatine strength Dark Side. For now, I go about my business with guarded optimism, dreaming of a parade, writing about football, and teaching my son "Fly, Eagles, Fly" while bracing for a letdown that is sure to ruin February and half of March.

Graham, meanwhile, is preparing a play about long-suffering fans who may not be suffering by the time the curtain opens. But when the choice comes down to the success of the play or the success of the team, Graham doesn't hedge. When asked if a win on Sunday may turn his play into a nostalgia piece, Graham was clear. "Hurt my box office," he said. "I want the Lombardi Trophy."

(The Philly Fan will be produced by Theatre Exile from March 31st to April 17th on the Arcadia stage at the Arden Theatre Co. in Philadelphia, PA.)

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 01 Feb 2005

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