Long ago I gave up trying to separate the columnist from the fan, the mental act of writing from the emotional experiences. I knew that sports, specifically football, specifically the Philadelphia Eagles, meant too much for me to ever cleanly create a wall between my passion and my prose.
Maybe it was last year when I got the logo tattooed on my shoulder, maybe it was the year before when I paid over a months rent to go to the NFC championship game. Maybe it goes back further, to games at the Vet sitting with my dad, screaming my little lungs out to beat the Cowboys. One of my first memories is still fourth and one against Barry Switzer and the field goal that would follow.
My Religion and Politics teacher would be the first to analyze this as an unhealthy love. It is possessive and clingy, my happiness from week to week is indivisible from whether the Eagles win or not. It is a sickness with no solace. My player worship is a weakness, and I lean on my sports knowledge as a crutch to prevent myself from collapsing under criticism of the players, which I take as a personal attack.
This season, however, is the first where I have gone into games expecting pain, and even in victory finding pleasure brief and fleeting. The Terrell Owens saga and the injury to McNabb, a player I have stood by as if he were a relative or I owned stock in Chunky Soup, wore me down during the offseason. The quick realization that this was not the same team that went to four straight NFC championships (three of which I attended) and one Super Bowl (which I saved up 1,500 to try to go to. You try doing that as a busboy) came upon me when I attended my first game of the season on Monday.
Though I had seen them stumble to a 4-4 start, I still felt that a win against the Cowboys, and I could not have picked a more appropriate foe to hang the season on, would restore my confidence and inexhaustible support. Yet, I watched the whole game with a knot in my stomach that a 20-7 fourth quarter lead could not unravel. As Roy Williams skipped into the end-zone and McNabb limped to the sidelines I felt the knot liquefy and spread up into my chest, leaving me with an empty stomach and a heavy heart.
Don’t misunderstand this, I have not given up on my team. No matter which Mick starts on Sunday, McNabb, McMahon or McDonald’s, I will keep my covenant to root for the Eagles until my death. I just had not felt this kind of despair since the Tampa Bay game. A million girls can dump me and I’ll mope and than move on, but an Eagles loss of this proportion left me lying in bed until 2:00 pm the next day. I was too depressed to move, even for my classes at 10 and one. I wasn’t sleeping, or watching TV, just staring at the ceiling, hoping it was Monday again and the game had never happened.
I may have never left that position had the Sixers not been playing the Raptors at home, forcing me to arise for my final class of the day and to get ready to work at the restaurant on the club level of the Wachovia center. As I drove I found the familiar mile markers along 95, mourners and the broken white lines a funeral procession for my dead team spirit. Pulling into the complex at Broad and Pattison used to bring a smile goosebumps, as I parked with the old stadium on my left and Lincoln Financial on my right. Today it only brought back the ghost of the pain from the night before; I felt like I had escaped a noose, but every deep breath I drew reminded me how tender my throat still was.
A friend of mine had taped the game and planned on watching it after the Trey Anastasio concert he was attending. I wanted to call him and beg him not to watch. Seeing the score the next day would not be nearly as bad as watching the last four minutes of the game unfold like a Greek tragedy, with the tragic flaw being a coach’s hubris, a player’s injury and misstep and resultant deflation of a rowdy and bordering on violent crowd. At the beginning of the game, I thought that the city should put some extra police on for the end, regardless of the results, but the climax was enough to weaken the spirit-fueled fervor to the point that a grammar school crossing guard could have controlled the stunned evacuees.
I have survived 3-13 seasons and crushing losses at the end of 13-3 campaigns, but this is enough that I will no longer go off on my fiery diatribes defending the team. Say McNabb’s inaccurate, a choke, and that he’ll never win the big game. Not a peep from me. Say the needed TO and they are nothing without him. I’ll nod silently, and look away. Wear your Cowboys/Giants/Bucs/Falcons jerseys around me and point a finger in my face when one of these teams yet again captures a Super Bowl before my beloved green and black. I’ll just walk away.
Because I know on Sunday I’ll dig my jersey back up from wherever I threw it when I got home and I’ll watch the game in my bedroom by myself and I will care again. Spectators and crowds are made during wins, fans are baptized in the fire of crushing defeats. Scars remind us of the wounds we survive, but time can’t heal.