Confession. Perhaps my first love was Buddy Ryan. In fact the “46” in my twitter handle @jblevins46 is for the vaunted 46 defense that Buddy created for the Chicago Bears and brought to Philadelphia. The aggression, relentless pursuit of the quarterback, and the structurally unsound gambling nature of it all delighted me as a kid. It was dangerous, it was brutal, and it was flawed. For me personally, it was those very flaws that attracted me. The high-wire act of all out blitzes and utter commitment to intimidation was something to behold. The best way I can describe the way the Eagles’ defense carried itself and played in that era was an 11 man Mike Tyson.
And then you had Randall Cunningham who, for a time, was the most popular athlete in sports. If the Eagles’ defense was Mike Tyson, Randall was Michael Jackson. He was an elusive and mercurial star. Randall had a huge smile and was great on TV and magazine covers, but you never quite sensed you knew who he was.
But in July… You could actually go see these mythical creatures up close. I mean high school football field level close. You could hear Seth Joyner hit someone and mean it. You would watch the offensive line get frustrated and begin to fight with Jerome Brown. You would hear F bombs… It felt dangerous. It felt real.
My first real purchase, after I bought an old car for myself, was season tickets at Veterans Stadium in 1989. I worked from age 13 and saved up. Season tickets for the 700 level were $300, and my friend and I drove up on Sundays and sat among the insane fans that Philadelphia has become famous for. In many ways, those memories of the 700 level were less about what happened on the field than it was the experience of being among our fellow lunatics. And of course, it was both exhilarating and exhausting to be surrounded by 60,000 other people just as invested as we were.
Training Camps Past
Eagles training camp has long been a pretty big deal. For the past 5 seasons, the Eagles have appropriately held their training camps at the Novacare complex with occasional open practices at the Linc. Between 1996 and 2012, the team and a significant portion of fans would make the trek to Lehigh each July to hold camp north of the city. Going further back still, some may remember the Buddy Ryan Era training camps at West Chester University, where practices were all open all the time and very intimate.
Most everyone has a story about the long traffic jams trying to get to Lehigh in past years, but once you got there and were on the grass, you could feel and hear the coaches yell. You could see the players faces – and even the sweat. There is something about seeing and hearing the sounds of 300 lb men launch themselves into each other up close in a non-stadium setting that is hard to describe.
Honestly, I’ve never felt more connected than on those summer days sitting on the side of a grass hill overlooking the field at West Chester University seeing Buddy Ryan waddle around yelling at his defense. West Chester was just a 20 minute drive from my house, so we could go quite often in summer. Let me give some perspective about West Chester’s field at that time. There was a small grassy area between the bleachers and the actual field. We would play tackle football as kids on that strip of grass literally feet from the Eagles themselves practicing in pads. There are plays I distinctly remember making as a kid and thinking, “I wonder if Andre Waters saw that tackle” or “Did Fred Barnett see that catch?” We would make a day of it. You would see who showed up early to work individually, who stayed after to get some more individual work, and who were the guys who “dogged it” and took shortcuts. Attachments were formed to players on those fields even moreso than on Sundays.
Philadelphia loves effort, we want to know that our players live and die with this team like we do. We want to feel the commitment from them. It’s one thing to see a charismatic player on the podium give nice, controlled, and well-articulated answers during a press conference. It is something entirely different to feel them give everything they have to earn a roster spot in 95 degree heat.
And that really is the magic of training camps past. While the Novacare complex is undoubtedly a better facility for the team, it doesn’t give fans the same level of intimacy and connection that past camps were able to provide.
This really isn’t an indictment of anything about the World Champion Philadelphia Eagles. These players will always be special to the city.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve ever been inside the Novacare complex, you know it is impressive and state of the art. This far exceeds the experience and amenities that a player or coach could get on a small college campus. Besides being equipped with a top flight dining facility with a chef and nutrition team, the weight room is cutting edge with tailored and computer tracked training systems.
In addition to the physical side of the advantages, the team rooms and film rooms are just worlds apart from what they used to have access to. This room below is where the video editors prepare game film for the different coaches and position groups to review in their respective conference rooms. In all, the complex is a technical marvel when it comes to focus and intensity of coaching and development.
But having said that, there is a huge difference between the very controlled but fairly distant fan experience at the Linc and what “Iggles” fans of previous eras were able to get. And it makes me sad sometimes to think that experience is hard to replicate in 2018. Sure, you can get a field pass for pregame and stand on the ground and see the players warm up. But it’s not the same.
There is a reason the championship parade will remain an indelible memory for millions of Philadelphians, it was the closest thing since Lehigh that we’ve had to that true human connection to our team. Jason Kelce’s speech will go down in history as a nexus point of connection for all fans of the team. A shared human experience where a player opened his heart, uncensored, and poured his soul into the city. Watching his speech in real time was surreal. He brought back those feelings of connectedness that makes this fanbase and team so special.
So Long Live West Chester! Long Live Lehigh! And Long Live Iggles fans!