Luke DeCock

From the archives: ‘Philly fans starving for elusive title’

Rafael Zayas-Ali participates in an Eagles pep rally in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 16, 2004. The Philadelphia Eagles lost to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game in Philadelphia Sunday, Jan. 18.
Rafael Zayas-Ali participates in an Eagles pep rally in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 16, 2004. The Philadelphia Eagles lost to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game in Philadelphia Sunday, Jan. 18. AP

Originally published Jan. 18, 2004

Bobby Taylor has played in Philadelphia for nine seasons, longer than any of his teammates, which one might think would be enough to win over even the most discerning of Eagles fans.

Not 26-year-old John Hergert, who harbors no love for the Pro Bowl cornerback.

A graduate student who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, Hergert has spent the past week scrounging, hunting and begging for a ticket to tonight's NFC championship game against the Carolina Panthers.

Without last-minute luck this morning, he will put on his No. 5 Donovan McNabb jersey, sit down in front of his television and live and die with the Eagles, too nervous to go out in public.

If McNabb throws three interceptions, Hergert will tear off his jersey. And if Taylor has three interceptions of his own?

"Well, then he's God," Hergert said. "I'll forgive him."

Love. Hate. There is no middle ground in Philadelphia when it comes to the Eagles.

If the Eagles win today, they will be crowned the greatest thing to happen to Philadelphia since Ben Franklin. When they started 0-2, they were nearly crowned with bricks.

"Things were ugly," Eagles running back Duce Staley said.

It doesn't take much success to win Eagles fans back, and with nine wins in a row they did it in style. Now, they're in the conference title game for the third straight time, hosting it for the second year in a row, still looking for their first win.

Veterans Stadium, which closed after last season's NFC title game loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, still sits across the parking lot. Eagles fans made it legendary as a tough place to play.

Lincoln Financial Field isn't quite as loud, but it's just as intimidating. With this, a night conference championship game, it will be as loud and rowdy as the Vet ever was.

"I love coming into hostile environments, playing it up with the crowd, talking to the crowd," Panthers safety Mike Minter said. "But I haven't faced a crowd like this, I don't think."

Said Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad: "I expect they'll welcome us with open arms."

Muhammad chuckled. Nervously.

A blue-collar town

You can't throw a pretzel in Center City without hitting someone in an Eagles jersey.

If Eagles jerseys were black suits, you'd think they were making another Matrix sequel here. In a sports bar Friday, there were five Bryant Westbrook jerseys at a lunch table of 12.

Eagles fans will be there this morning, hunkered around grills in icy parking lots, chanting "E! A! G! L! E! S!" until hoarse, setting up elaborate spreads among the pillars supporting I-95, wind chill be damned.

Dawn Barrett won't be tailgating, but she wouldn't miss the game. Along with her father Lee, she'll take the subway from suburban Lansdale and sit in the southeast corner of the lower bowl.

The season tickets have been in her family for 34 years, but she has had her hands on them for only four. She was there when the Bucs beat the Eagles last year, lost her voice last weekend when the Eagles converted a fourth-and-26 -- already Philly legend -- to beat the Packers.

"It's been torture not getting there and going that final step," she said. "Very disappointing."

Disappointment is part of being a Philadelphia sports fan. So is envy. And anger.

The degree to which the city's sports teams -- the Eagles in particular -- are entwined with its spirit and pride is staggering.

Philadelphia has geography to thank for that. It is no coincidence that two of the most hated teams in Philadelphia are the Washington Redskins and New York Giants.

Stuck between the enormity of New York and the gentlemanly elitism and self-importance of Washington, Philadelphia is the blue-collar conscience of the Eastern seaboard.

But that self-image carries with it a certain inferiority complex that gives Philadelphia sports their unique flavor.

Losing teams reinforce that little-sibling relationship with Philly's neighbors to the north and south. Winning teams, though, like the Eagles, become the standard-bearers of civic pride, symbols of everything right. This is, after all, the city that gave us Rocky Balboa.

This dynamic is reinforced by WIP, an AM radio station that is considered required listening in the city. It describes itself as sports radio, but it sounds more like psychotherapy for a city. Even after wins, callers nitpick the tiniest details of coaching decisions and busted plays. Hard work is valued above all else, befitting the blue-collar ethos.

After losses, the hate just flows.

Beware, beware

Pity the poor Panthers fan who wears his teal into the Linc today. He knows not what he does.

He will be booed and harassed through the parking lot, get a sideways look from the ticket-taker, ignored by vendors and greeted rudely by the people in his section, who have sat together for decades, know each other's children and hate the intruder on sight.

Should the Panthers fan be so unfortunate as to see his team win, he will be lucky to make it out alive, albeit soaked in beer.

Two years ago, before a playoff game against the Buccaneers, Hergert was one of a long line of fans who heckled a young boy wearing a Warren Sapp jersey.

"We just saw the Sapp jersey," Hergert said. "Then when he was going by, we saw he hadn't even hit puberty yet."

The boy's father walked behind his son. Fifteen feet behind him.

Scott Detar grew up in nearby Pottstown and returned to Philadelphia after graduating from UNC in 2001. He compares the passion of Philadelphia fans to that of ACC fans -- but the similarities end there.

"When Carolina plays Duke or State comes over to Carolina, they're going to let the other fans have it a little bit, but there's still a mutual respect, respect toward other ACC members," Detar said. "If Carolina didn't make the tournament, and I'm not saying I'd feel this way toward Duke, I'd be first one rooting for Maryland."

Detar paused.

"I don't think there's any team Philly fans respect," he said.

Partly out of jealousy. The Redskins and Giants have combined to go 5-2 in Super Bowls since the Eagles last won the NFC in 1981. The Raiders rolled over the Eagles in Super Bowl XV that year.

Ninety-nine percent of the world remembers Joe Carter's home run off Mitch Williams in the 1993 World Series as one of baseball's great moments; in Philadelphia, more than 10 years later, it is not mentioned in polite conversation. Flyers, 76ers? Nothing. Only Villanova in 1985 comes close.

God forbid the Eagles lose the NFC championship game for a third straight time.

"They want to hang your head here," Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent said. "The city has been just starving for some success, starving for a championship team."

In the city stuck in the middle, there is no middle ground.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, @Luke DeCock

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