Two heavy swinging doors guard the entrance, an Eagles logo emblazoned across them from wall to wall. No space is untouched by green and silver. Staffers are stationed at desks on either side, and while they’re all nutritionist or trainers, they seem rather sentry-like in their uniformity and sideways glances: you’re the only one in sight not wearing any Eagles gear. Across the hall, a weight room sprawls across the building, glass windows running ceiling to floor to give onlookers an unimpeded view of where the work gets done. And from here to there, players lumber across the divide, encased in a shield generated by the Beats over their ears, their personalized smoothie dangling from their lips, and their hard-set eyes.
You are standing outside of the Eagles locker room.
Of course, it’s the one in the NovaCare Complex—not Lincoln Financial. It’s not the locker room in into which Jake Elliott was borne on the backs of linebackers as the newest champion of Philadelphia; in which the Eagles celebrated a 9-game winning streak under QB Carson Wentz; in which the NFC Champions celebrated their oncoming Super Bowl after thrashing the Minnesota Vikings. But that doesn’t really matter, because the men inside are the same, and the vision of champions doesn’t’ change between this locker room and the that one.
Philadelphia’s locker room represents a known quantity for people in NFL circles--even if it’s rather cutting-edge. It’s known that Philadelphia’s roster hosts some of the most outspoken and fearless players in the league--Lane Johnson, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long--and didn’t shy from adding voices like Michael Bennett’s into the mix. Eagles players are sought after for their thoughts on other team’s policies and official comments made by public figures. That is irregular, new, and interesting.
To know what you’re getting into—something irregular, new, and interesting—doesn’t necessarily make it less intimidating. Even more so, if it’s a big leap from where you were.
“It’s surreal,” rookie Joe Ostman tells me of his experience meeting the Eagles veterans for the first time. Ostman spent five years in Central Michigan before joining Philadelphia as an undrafted free agent. “There’s so many guys I’ve been watching for so long, and now you’re sitting with them in meetings every day. There’s just kinda a surreal feeling.”
Ostman said he elected to join Philadelphia’s roster because he had great interactions with the scouts and other personnel he met with the organization, and he was told by others it was a good place to be. And it certainly seems that way for the rookies: UDFA Jeremy Reaves gets on-field tutelage from Malcolm Jenkins during pass rush reps; seventh-rounder Jordan Mailata stays late on the field every day to work with a veteran offensive or defensive lineman.
The Australian Mailata is an interesting insert into Philadelphia’s locker room. He doesn’t really have a precedent for it. Sure, there are rugby locker rooms on the other side of the world--but even in their home country, there isn’t nearly the degree of visibility and social stress. “It’s unique--it’s U-NIQUE.” Mailata takes a draw of his smoothie as he looks at me, almost like he’s recharging the shield that ensures I can’t faze him with my badgering on how he’s experienced the team. “You got some pretty big personalities, you know that’s them, and I don’t want no trouble, so…”
Not unlike most NFL locker rooms, rookies feel a bit divested here. They carry trays full of Rita’s water ice into the locker room for the vets (when they aren’t burdened with three helmets and two sets of pads), only to put on a song and dance at the end of the night for their teammates to enjoy. Their on-field job is to shut up, do what they’re told, and learn--but for Philadelphia rookies, that role extends off the field as well.
“There’s a lot going on with the media and social justice, but I kinda just try to focus on football, on myself.” Ostman again. “You know, I’m a rookie--I’m not really here to talk about that too much. I’m just here to compete on the field and earn my respect before I get into that.”
“No, I don’t like to get involved.” Mailata now. “I shouldn’t say I keep to myself, but I have an ear out. Listening to people’s perspectives. It’s kinda interesting what you learn and what you hear.”
I ask Jordan if he can give me an example of anything he’s learned. He tells me what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.
But that isn’t really true for Philadelphia Eagles--not in the liberal sense of the saying, at least. The protests against social injustice were bared in front of millions of onlookers, so boldly that the NFL’s chief objective in legislating on the protests was getting them back into the locker room. Perhaps there they would stay, unceremoniously stuffed into a corner of the vault fixed with wards and codes of conduct. A place where players are players, football is gospel, and the world and its problems are sealed away.
But players aren’t players anymore--not in a time of impossible interconnectedness and digital access. They’re figures of public interest, of colors and shades beyond the muted blacks, blues, and browns of football robots past. They have interests, histories, lofty goals of impact that stir in the hearts of all men--and they have a microphone that lets them get out of that locker room, a platform with which they can shed the dispassionate husk of a helmet with visor, cast off the nameplate and number and two-letter abbreviations that define their identity.
So they use it. Painstakingly these players, regardless of political leaning or creed, have clawed their way out of the anonymity of excellence. They share stories of their mission trips, their guest appearances at the orchestra, and their activism in their communities. Now vibrant colors splash across their canvas, personalizing the individual trees that make up a formidable forest of midnight green.
Some rookies, from premiere programs and of championship pedigree, have already danced with the double-edged sword of this exposure. But perhaps they too have stepped back to square one in their inaugural season, regressing to the uniformed drone they always thought they had to be. The doors that hold the locker room secure; the staffers that guard it; the suffocating etiquette that powered it all along--these barriers are quickly crumbling down. And the rookies will have to learn swiftly how to handle not only their newfound prominence, but also the budding expectation form the public that they gear that prominence into something more.