I still remember the feeling of invincibility as I strolled through the Vet parking lot on a blisteringly cold January early afternoon, the smell of deep-fried turkey and Italian sausage in the air as we imagined what it was going to feel like when the Eagles, a few short hours from then, would be on their way to Super Bowl XXXVII. I dreamed of how we would celebrate in those same parking lots, warmed by the elation of victory, spirits, and the fellowship of Birds fans gathered, en masse, basking in the glow of reaching a place only one other Eagles team ever had.
Then Ronde Barber happened.
The silence leaving the stadium that night was frightening. Usually after brutal Eagles losses like their 27-10 defeat to Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game, language would be as blue as the weather. Fathers would hurry their young sons past, worried the fury and vitriol would be overwhelming for their innocent ears.
Not on this night. This night, all were too stunned to speak.
And while the crushing disappointment is what I remember most from that awful game, I also remember the unbridled optimism and community from the tailgate that morning, when fans came together for impromptu touch football games in between the parked cars on the cold, hard blacktop – Veterans Stadium looming in the background, waiting to welcome us into their cold, blue seats.
As a kid, I never could afford Eagles tickets on my own, so I was usually a guest of my good friend Jeff, whose generous father would often invite me, and his other friends, for a game or two every year. That year, I was one of the chosen ones to witness what we thought was going to be every football fan’s dream… reaching the Super Bowl.
Every tailgater has a routine. Some arrive early in the morning, spending far more time in the cold than is usually recommended for the sane and rationally minded. You can tell who the regulars are – the ones with the special Eagles buses painted green with homemade signs, elaborate grills, and a cornucopia of lawn chairs. Some grill the normal BBQ fare of hot dogs and burgers, others bring takeout (usually meatballs, sausages, something Italian), while others make sure to hit their favorite hoagie or cheesesteak spot and load up an incredibly large number of calories.
Our routine was a simple one. For a 1 p.m. game, we were out the door no later than 10 a.m., where we would hit the Wawa to load up on hoagies, chips, sodas, and several salt-laced items. Then it was off to the Vet and, later, Lincoln Financial Field, to meet up with my friend’s relatives, other experienced tailgaters. But one of the great things about tailgating is the new people you stumble across.
You see, a tailgate is essentially one giant block party, only it involves 60,000 people from in and around the city in which you live. It is a place where people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, religions, and creeds come together in fellowship to enjoy being together.
Make no mistake, in Philadelphia, tailgating is not for the young ones. It can be crude. It can be foul-mouthed. People can be in various states of inebriation, and it can be a lot. But for the most part, it is one thing above all.
At a Philadelphia tailgate, everyone is welcome, if you’re wearing Eagles green. I’ve seen the poor folks who try to make it through the parking lot wearing Giants blue, or Washington burgundy and gold or, worst of all, that awful Dallas star somewhere on their persons.
Are these people brave, or foolish? Hard to say, and we should probably examine people like this on a case-by-case basis but, whatever is going on with them, they’re putting themselves in for a very uncomfortable afternoon.
Thankfully, at tailgates, most of the abuse is verbal. And while it would certainly be kinder to allow misguided fans of other teams live their lives in peace, it is a standard practice of Eagles tailgaters to let fans of opposing teams know, in no uncertain terms, that they are rooting for the wrong team.
Still, my experience has been that, if the Commanders/Cowboys/Giants fan can take it, and if they’re willing to bring something to the party, they’re eventually welcomed with open arms, if not foul mouths. Because, you see, Eagles fans at their hearts just want to hang out and be together, and love nothing more than to see people stick up for themselves and take the jabs they know they should be receiving.
Does it get ugly? Sometimes. You roll the dice and you take your chances.
Above all, tailgating is a time of hope. When the Eagles are good, the general feeling is they’re going to win every game. When they’re losing, the feeling is a resigned sense of defeat, with the hope that maybe, on this particular Sunday, it’ll be different.
On that cold, late January Sunday afternoon in 2002 before the Eagles lost to the Bucs in the NFC Championship Game, we knew the Eagles were going to beat that team. They were the elite of the conference the entire season and had reached the title game the year before and were playing a Bucs team they had beaten each of the last two years in the Wild Card round.
It was a fait accompli, and we walked around the Vet Stadium parking lot with the confidence of people who knew they couldn’t lose. We imagined what it would be like to watch them haul the NFC Championship trophy over their heads and then enjoy two weeks of Super Bowl previews for the first time in 21 years.
I’ll never forget that feeling of invincibility. With fried turkey on a plate in my left hand and a hoagie in my right, I walked around like I owned the place. It was a party before the party.
And while that feeling didn’t last, I’ll never forget the camaraderie that all of us felt in the lot that day. For a few hours, we were one people, all-in on the same goal. And really, that’s the way it is every Sunday when fans come together to tailgate in Philly.
As long as you’re not wearing enemy colors.