Philadelphia is not a place for people who believe in happy endings. There are times this season, like when the Eagles won six in a row — five without their starting quarterback — that we mouthed the words of true believers, but reality was always right around the corner. In the latest case, reality was our usually reliable field-goal kicker missing a game-winner and the team going down to a tough loss in the last game of the season. We were back as regular patrons of Heartbreak Hotel.
There is one exception to the case, one lonely voice crying out in the Philadelphia wilderness of defeatism, one soul who has never had a doubt that each of our teams would win the championship. He calls himself Sports Jerry and he toils in vain, calling every sports talk show within a 90-mile radius of his home to preach the gospel of optimism. Jerry would have made Dr. Norman Vincent Peale look like a cheap cynic.
I have been doing sports talk shows for a long time and whether it be WYSP after an Eagles game or WBCB in Levittown on a Monday night, Jerry has been a dependable caller. I have tuned to WFAN in New York and should a host badmouth a Philadelphia sports team, you can book it that Jerry’s call will be the next you will hear. Jerry’s unbridled optimism has gotten him banned on WIP, a place where his ability to accentuate the positive would be a welcome antidote to the tired skepticism you hear from most of the hosts.
During the lean years, Jerry took a lot of abuse from talk-show hosts, this one included. His insistence that Rich Kotite would right the sinking ship or that Ray Rhodes would win a Super Bowl in his final year, even after Ray had long stopped believing in himself, made Jerry an easy target. But as each losing season faded into oblivion, Jerry would call and offer the sincere belief that the Eagles would surely win it all next year. If Jerry had been a passenger on the Titanic, he would have been booking return passage even as the ship sank swiftly to the bottom of the ocean. With Jerry, there is a rainbow after every storm and there’s always a pot of gold at the end of it.
This season Jerry has been joined by a lot of late arrivals on the bandwagon. This ragtag army with green and silver faces seems to be everywhere, spelling out "E-A-G-L-E-S … EAGLES!!!" They jam our tent before every pre-game show, they stand in line by the hundreds at the mall where we appear on Monday nights waiting for an autograph from an Eagles player — any Eagle, whether he is a starter or a guy who plays only in a dire emergency — and they camped out for three nights in the bitter cold of December to get playoff tickets. These are people whose weekends from August through January revolve around the games, their moods rising and falling with the fate of their team. It is a scene played out in just about every NFL city, but none more passionately than here. Some of them are raucous and rowdy, and people you probably would not invite as dinner guests, but they, not the ones in the corporate suites, are the true lifeblood of any sports franchise.
For weeks now, the faithful have believed that this Eagles team will be different than the others that disappointed us every season. The older fans still remember December 1960 at Franklin Field when the Eagles defeated Vince Lombardi’s mighty Packers and won their last championship. They can describe to you the final tackle by Chuck Bednarik on Jim Taylor as the clock wound down the seconds to victory. But that was before there was a Super Bowl and millionaire players and all the modern trappings, both good and bad, of today’s game. In the 42 years since that moment, the Eagles have gotten close only once and those memories not only haunt the fans, but the players as well.
Bill Bergey, the marvelous middle linebacker on that team, still can’t erase the pain of coming so close and losing when he recalls the game. He replays everything in his mind leading up to the game and the ultimate disappointment. The hurt grows worse every year as the realization sinks in that you will never again have that chance.
The gut-wrenching loss to the Giants in the final game of this regular season has brought back all the doubts. The fans will crowd into our tent this weekend in restless excitement. Has all of the magic of this season only been a prelude to another disappointment? Only one thing is certain, after the game — win or lose — Sports Jerry will be on the line, unbowed in defeat or, in the event of victory, even more certain than ever that this year has finally arrived.
Faith is a wonderful thing.
Tom Cardella can be heard before and after the Eagles playoff game this weekend.