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If Football's a Religion, Why Don't We Have a Prayer?Philadelphia, Its Faithful, and the Eternal Quest for Sports Salvation
By Jere Longman
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Jere Longman
All right reserved.
Friday, December 17, 2004
Twelve and one. How was that for a chest-bumping way to open a season? Twelve victories and one freakin' defeat. A city with more confidence and less experience at heartbreak would have felt invincible, not imperiled. Philadelphia was different. Tranquility was a base on the moon, not some cocoon of serenity in which anyone here nestled. Uproar, dispute, that was Philly's natural state. This was the place where Charles Barkley claimed to be misquoted in his own autobiography. The city where David Lynch, the filmmaker, went to art school and found a haunting, exquisite fear. Apprehension. That's what Philadelphia did best. Eagles fans could sense ruin the way a woolly caterpillar could intuit the harshness of winter. They felt a waver in destiny's forecast like an ache in old bones.
"If it's an airplane, it's always going to crash, it's never going to land," Butch Buchanico, the Eagles' director of security, liked to explain about the local sporting mindset.
On Sunday, against the hated and feeble Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia could run the table for the first time in the National Football Conference's EasternDivision. Home-field advantage could be secured throughout the NFC playoffs. After three consecutive defeats in the NFC championship game, the Super Bowl seemed inevitable. The star receiver Terrell Owens had been acquired in the off-season in a complicated, acrimonious trade involving San Francisco and Baltimore. Owens was audacious and his attitude seemed to bleed over to his teammates with a kind of pleasurable stain, giving the Eagles a relaxed confidence. He appeared to be the final piece of a championship jigsaw, as Pete Rose had been for the Phillies in 1980 and as Moses Malone had been for the 76ers in 1983. Already, Owens had caught fourteen touchdown passes, a club record. One more, and Coach Andy Reid would make good on a promise to squeeze his fleshy physique, sausage-like, into a pair of tights.
But everything had gone too perfectly. Harmony brought boredom, which fostered suspicion. This morning I spoke on the phone with Buzz Bissinger, author of the seminal football book Friday Night Lights. He had lived in Philadelphia for two decades. Bissinger listened inveterately to WIP, the local sports-talk radio station, and rooted for the Eagles, but he knew in this city of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, that the sporting past haunted the present like bad credit.
Buzz said he worried that Philadelphia was setting itself up again for complete misery. He feared something bizarre would happen. It always did. No city with teams in the four major professional sports had gone longer without a championship -- twenty-one years, since the Sixers last won the NBA. The Eagles had not won an NFL title since 1960. Forty-four years. Buzz sensed another strange failure. Maybe Owens would score a touchdown in the upcoming NFC championship game and pull out another Sharpie pen to autograph the ball, only this time his cleats would catch in the grass and he would fall and the Sharpie would puncture his eardrum.
"I swear, I'm just waiting," Bissinger said.
He was a believer that a city's image of itself had an impact on its teams and players. He said he hoped he was wrong.
"Why does it always happen that Philadelphia finds a way to mess it up?" Bissinger asked. "There's a bittersweet fatalism to the place."
Philadelphia was the nation's fifth-largest city, but it seemed to me like the world's biggest small town. It was just like my hometown in Louisiana, but with one and a half million people instead of twelve thousand. Nobody from Philadelphia ever seemed to leave Philadelphia. Of course, they did leave the city for the suburbs, and population drain on the tax base became a chronic problem. But no one ever seemed to want to leave the area. I had never seen another place where people got married and moved in with their parents. My wife, Debby, lived most of her life within a radius of five miles. She always seemed reluctant to visit Louisiana, or anyplace where barbecue was a verb.
One of the things I loved about Philadelphia was its lack of pretense. This was no klieg light hot spot, not a trendy place to be discovered. So insular was it that Pat Croce, then president of the Sixers, declined to give President Bill Clinton a courtside seat during the 2001 NBA Finals. To accommodate the president would have meant displacing a season-ticket holder.
The people here reminded me of the Cajuns I had grown up with. They were more contrary, of course, but you expected that in a rebellious place where the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They were also casually friendly, ribaldly funny and great storytellers, both embracing and suspicious of outsiders. They rooted for the Eagles with a small town's desperate, wonderful fanaticism. They wore the star players' jerseys and flew team flags on their cars and their porches. They wrote shoe polish exhortations on their windshields and bathed houses and buildings in the team colors and knew the words to the fight song and felt the sting of slights that were real or perceived. They both ignored outsiders and cared deeply what outsiders thought of them. They thought they were more passionate and knowledgeable than others and wondered if they measured up.
But just as I was attracted to the small-town embrace of Philadelphia, I was sometimes disappointed by its tepid ambitions. It was a place that too often slumped its shoulders instead of pounding its chest. Philadelphia was the birthplace of the country. The Constitution was drafted and signed here. Philly had been the nation's capital from 1790 to 1800. The nation's first central bank and public library and oldest hospital were located here. The telephone was introduced to the world here at the nation's Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Even the National Football League was based here from 1946 through 1959. But the seat of political power had moved . . .
Excerpted from If Football's a Religion, Why Don't We Have a Prayer? by Jere Longman Copyright © 2006 by Jere Longman. Excerpted by permission.
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