A Lasting Sense of Doom, and Lately Excitement: It’s a Philly Thing
PHILADELPHIA — The Eagles were headed to the Super Bowl for the second time in six seasons on Sunday night. Celebrating fans clogged intersections around City Hall and in northeast Philadelphia. Utility poles were ritually greased to restrict exuberant but perhaps addled climbing fueled by victory and other spirits.
As the team battle cry says: It’s a Philly Thing.
A proud city long accustomed to excruciating defeat for its sports teams, resigned to the notion that success is only disaster that hasn’t happened yet, finds itself basking in a relatively rare period of hopeful achievement.
The Eagles have been the N.F.L.’s most dominant team this season. The surprising Phillies reached the World Series for the third time since 2008. The Union reached the championship game of Major League Soccer (though in typical heartbreaking fashion, it lost on penalty kicks to a Los Angeles goalkeeper who grew up in Philly). The surging 76ers have seemingly become contenders in the N.B.A. In the suburbs, Villanova flies two recent N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship banners from 2016 and 2018.
Of course, sports provide only momentary distraction in a city with worrisome problems of gun violence, an opioid crisis and yawning income inequality. On Monday, police were investigating multiple shootings over the weekend, including that of a 17-year-old. Sunday night’s celebration appeared to get carried away when some Eagles fans were shown on video riding the back bumper of an ambulance as medics sought to aid an unconscious person, according to the Twitter feed of a local television reporter.
But amid all the things that divide a community, sports can be a unifying force, especially in this rabid and consumed place. Sunday’s postgame celebrations “exploded like an uncorked bottle of champagne,” The Philadelphia Inquirer noted of the civic release, ticking off the city’s often-inglorious sporting past: The Phillies remain the losingest franchise in professional sports with more than 11,000 cumulative defeats. The Sixers haven’t won an N.B.A. title in 40 years. The Flyers have been even more delinquent, having last won the Stanley Cup 48 years ago after securing repeat N.H.L. titles in 1974 and 1975.
The recent success of Philadelphia’s teams summons a fleeting golden era of four-plus decades ago, the 1980-81 sporting calendar, when the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers all reached their respective championships. (Only the Phillies won.) While the intensity of Philadelphia’s recent sporting celebrations may be bewildering to outsiders, The Inquirer explained on Monday, fans here have lately “been feeling like they’ve just hit the lottery after a lifetime of struggling to pay the bills.”
Philadelphia has long perceived itself as a blue-collar city of underdogs, immortalized in 1976 — the nation’s bicentennial — by the Oscar-winning “Rocky.” A statue of the celluloid boxer Rocky Balboa stands triumphantly outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose steps he fictively climbed.
“It’s not that we don’t have culture, but we put it in its place,” Ray Didinger, a Philadelphia native and a local sportswriter, radio host and television personality for more than 50 years, said with a laugh on Monday. “Only in Philly does Matisse stand in the shadow of Rocky Balboa.”
As the Eagles marched toward their first Super Bowl title after the 2017 season, fans and even some players wore dog masks in embrace of the city’s underdog, long-shot ethos, each coming to validate and reflect the other. To all the doubters, center Jason Kelce chanted at the Eagles victory parade while wearing a Mummers costume, “We’re from Philly, no one likes us, we don’t care.”
The current Eagles team, though, won its first eight games and built a record of 16-3, including two playoff wins, and has emerged as an early favorite to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 12. This team has cast off its familiar underdog mantle and embraced being the overdog. Jalen Hurts, the quarterback and determined leader, wears a jewel-encrusted necklace after each game that says, “Breed of One.”
This raises an existential question about Philadelphia’s rooting mind-set. If the Eagles win another Super Bowl, will a city of underdogs now consider itself a city of champions?
The city’s self image is rooted in three factors, passed through the generations via oral tradition, said Joel Fish, the director of Philadelphia’s Center for Sport Psychology, who has worked with all of the city’s pro teams.
One, there has been an awful lot of losing here, which fosters the mentality that something will surely go wrong. Two, there is a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude in a city that was once the nation’s political, financial and cultural capital before ceding its primacy to New York and Washington. (Although much to the dismay of Giants fans, the Empire State Building lit up in Eagles green Sunday night to celebrate Philadelphia’s 31-7 victory over San Francisco.)
Three, Philadelphians feel their sporting passion is misunderstood as rowdy nastiness and not celebrated enough for its ardor and dedication. After all, the Santa Claus who was infamously pelted with snowballs by Eagles’ fans in 1968 has acknowledged that he deserved it for his scraggly suit and beard.
Gradually, Fish said Monday, that self-image has begun changing — first with the Phillies’ World Series title in 2008, the city’s first pro championship in a quarter century, and then with the Eagles’ defeat of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the 2018 Super Bowl.
The fall and winter here have brought rousing victory in baseball, soccer and football. But, Fish added, even a second Super Bowl title will not immediately change the city’s long-held view of itself. Widespread civic re-evaluation doesn’t happen, he said, like the flicking on of a light bulb.
“Little by little, more of us are starting to see the cup half full here rather than half empty,” Fish said. “Expectation, belief take a long time to go from the head to the heart.”
Many current Philadelphia fans were not yet born, not living here, or are too young to recall some of the gloomier periods in the city’s sporting history: The 1964 Phillies blowing the National League pennant after holding a six-and-a-half-game lead with 12 to play; the Sixers surrendering a three-games-to-one lead against their archrival Boston Celtics in the N.B.A.’s 1981 Eastern Conference finals; the anguished Eagles losing three straight N.F.C. championship games in the early 2000s.
Many, though hardly all, of the most newly minted Eagles fans carry little or no baggage of distress. Instead, they are emboldened by the assumption and confidence of victory. Benji Allen, a fan who was stocking up on vegan food Monday, said he thought the Eagles were the N.F.L.’s best team and that the blown chances of yesteryear did not make him nervous about the Super Bowl.
“That would not be living in the moment,” he said.
Joel Wolfram contributed reporting.