Philadelphia is not a city accustomed to joy. As in most American cities, politics divides us and sports unites us. Lately, there has been much of the former, little of the latter. Or at least, little positive to be found of the latter. Philadelphia is a great sports town, but it has never been a good sports town.
Football is the king of sports here, and it is in that sport that the losses have been felt most keenly. For the fans who bleed green, the Eagles’ lack of success at the highest level has not dimmed our affection for the Birds, but it has taken a toll on our sporting souls. In the shadow of New York and Washington, Philadelphia has been derided as a second-class city. Unlike Boston and Chicago, cities with sporting victories and strong senses of self, we take the criticism to heart. We own it. We even start to like it.
When division rivals flash three, four, and five Super Bowl rings each, old-timers in Philadelphia speak of 1960, when the Eagles won the NFL championship. But no one outside the city recalls the Eagles’ antique championships, any more than they remember those of the Canton Bulldogs or the Providence Steam Roller. The NFL is a forward-looking league. January 15, 1967, was the start of a new era in football. Super Bowl I is where the game’s modern history begins.
The Good Times of a Forgotten Past
For Philadelphians, banishing good times to a forgotten past aligns perfectly with our vision of our hometown. In 1950, the Eagles had just won two consecutive NFL championships and the city’s population broke two million. Philadelphia was the nation’s third-largest city, a manufacturing and financial hub, and about to embark on a political revolution that would banish the antiquated political machine that had kept the metropolis corrupt and contented since the Civil War. The city was moving forward, and so were the Eagles.
The decades that followed were characterized by decline. Jobs fled south and abroad, and the new good-government liberals were replaced by the same old hacks, with only the party designation changed. The Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and Sixers followed their hometown into habitual mediocrity. A burst of sports success in the late 1970s and early ‘80s coincided with a temporary revival of civic feeling during the nation’s bicentennial, but that too soon faded. The city and its sports teams mirrored each other like old dogs and their owners, and no one could say which was reality and which was the reflection.
To call this history of failure a chip on the shoulder is understatement. Philadelphians wore this negativity like armor. The ideal of a tough, blue-collar fan base twisted into one of pettiness and cruelty. Fights at the stadium became the stuff of legend. Where other cities might deny their vulgarity, Philly embraced it. National broadcasters cursed us with decades-old stories of snowballs and batteries; we drank in their taunts and called it ambrosia. They kicked us, and we bit their feet.
The Times Are A-Changin’
Things are changing in Philadelphia. The city government is still riddled with corruption, but some politicos go to jail for it now: a small improvement. The textile mills will not return, but pharmaceuticals and media companies employ tens of thousands alongside world-class universities. People are moving in again—the city’s population rose in the 2010 census for the first time since 1950. Even Amazon is giving Philly a look.
Sports are following (or leading) the trend. The Phillies broke the quarter-century four-sport championship drought in 2008. The Sixers are rebuilding, and people are starting to believe. But no revival of sports fortunes could be complete in this football town without the Birds winning it all. Now they have done the impossible, and joy is greening up in the city like the crocuses bursting through the snow.
Media wags prophesied that, win or lose, the city would burn, but they were wrong. They could be forgiven, considering our history. The crowds that flooded the streets Sunday night were suffused with joy, not rage. There were, it must be said, some minor acts of destruction, some ill-considered acrobatics, and some eccentric eating habits. But on the whole, peace and goodwill prevailed.
That is not to say the celebration was restrained. Philadelphians don’t do restraint. We climbed lightpoles, jumped off awnings, and lit a few bonfires, shouting, singing, and laughing all the while. We poured into the streets as one and marched on City Hall, not for justice, not in outrage, but in pure, unadulterated euphoria. We even brought refreshments. It was spontaneous, unifying, and a sight to behold.
The jubilation may be too much for a people long inured to the darkness. Like lottery winners, some fans cannot handle success. Some will go wild, others mad. Some will strip naked and run off into the woods, never to be seen again. Some will disappear, sublimating into beings of pure glee, drifting off into the ether. All will be forever changed.
The parade down Broad Street this week will be the beautiful wedding that the franchise and its fans have long awaited. But the thing was consummated on Sunday night. Is this the dawning of a new Philadelphia? Of a city who sees itself as a winner? It is, of course, too early to say. But the Eagles and their fans are feeling good, maybe for the first time ever. They should savor that feeling for as long as they can.