Cardella: Football Sundays in South Philly

Many of us are lamenting the unofficial end of summer. But in South Philly, September means the return of football Sundays. We don’t need autumn leaves or pumpkin spice to mark the change of seasons. Just break out the midnight green. Football is its own season in South Philly. And football means the Eagles.

With all due respect to the area colleges who play football at this time of year, the Eagles own South Philly. And sure, there are seven days in a week, and sometimes the Birds might play on Thursday or Monday nights, but football Sundays in South Philly are a religious experience (forgive me, Lord).

There is nothing like the buzz on a football Sunday. It’s as if all of Philadelphia is electric. And as folks head to the Linc, they discover that the energy source is South Philly, itself. The pilgrimage begins early. The tailgaters. The lifers. The grizzled faces. The families (how the hell do they afford it?). South Philly is transformed into a small college town on game day. The fans — clad in “school” colors — are all loyal grads of the same school — Eagles University.

Even the preposterous idea that some of those lucky enough to own the best seats have to shell out for a personal seat license doesn’t deter these Bird Watchers. Rain or shine, like the legendary postman, they come. No matter the weather. And the pageantry makes even the jaded, greedy National Football League look shiny and new. Season tickets have been passed down through generations. Family heirlooms.

Legalized sports betting aside, the bookies are alive and well in South Philly. Betting on football, for better or worse, is part of the culture. If you walk the streets of South Philadelphia on a football Sunday, you’ll see a guy here or there with a smartphone to his ear and a concerned look on his face. Getting the line. Getting the edge. Pumping artificial excitement into his life for the next 10 hours. He lives life on the edge through three games every football Sunday. And starts the process all over again on Monday night, trying to recoup his Sunday losses. But for many of this area’s football fans — men and women — the game itself is the thing. The Eagles are the excitement. And then there’s the food.

An extraordinary thing about South Philly is that much of life hasn’t changed. Walk along the streets on a football Sunday and you can still smell the red gravy. There has always been a connection between food and football, but in South Philly it’s more than just ordering a bucket of wings. With apologies to the tailgaters whose sophistication has increased over the years to sometimes include the kind of exalted food served in upscale restaurants, South Philly has not abandoned its taste for Sunday gravy. The recipes have been proudly handed down for generations, as has the love for Eagles football.

Follow the buzz toward the Linc. The tailgaters fill the parking lot. Fans fling footballs to one another. Life is a football carnival before an Eagles game. Not every tailgater has tickets to the game. Some will be content to watch the game on televisions positioned on the back of vans — happy to just be part of the atmosphere.

If you’re around the stadium early enough, you might spot the Eagles’ legendary voice, Merrill Reese, walking by. Fans wave and wish him luck. Reese is not only a great broadcaster, imbued with the same spirit as the fans, he is their good luck talisman. He shares their magnificent obsession. Merrill and the fans seem as important to the success of the Eagles on that day as any player on the field.

Once the game begins, a hush falls over South Philly. People vanish from sidewalks and reappear inside their homes, eyes glued to their TVs. Area traffic dwindles. The guys with smartphones are gone from street corners. For the next three hours, the outside world doesn’t exist. Only the Linc exists. Only the game matters. Only an Eagles victory will satisfy. The mental equilibrium of an entire city will seem to depend on the triumph of the Birds. You can call us immature or silly to place so much importance on a football game. If you’re not a fan, we don’t expect you to understand the joy contained in these words — Football Sundays have returned to South Philly.

Note: A special thank you.

My wife had a medical emergency on Aug. 29 on Broad Street near Ritner. She passed out while exiting a taxi on the way to her nearby doctor’s office. A gentleman showed up in the nick of time. I was struggling to lift Fran, who was clinging to a tree. The stranger picked up my wife and carried her into the doctor’s office (heroically, I carried her handbag). We got only the stranger’s first name — John — before he disappeared out the door. Fran thinks John was very handsome. In that respect, I don’t think John helped ease Fran’s palpitations. But much thanks, John.

Thanks also to the staff at Dr. Dayneka’s office, the two rescue workers who cared for Fran on the way to the hospital and to the fine staff at the Methodist ER. Fran is doing well. Being around me instead of handsome John has stopped the palpitations. ••

You can hear Tom Cardella talk Eagles football Mondays from 6 to 7 p.m. on 610 AM or simulcast on Facebook or WBCB (1490 AM).