January 23-29, 2003
A Fan's Diary
8 a.m., Jan. 19, 2003, Mt. Laurel, N.J. : It's Sunday morning ... Eagles Game Day. But this is no ordinary day. This is no ordinary Eagles game. This game I've been waiting for for 22 years. This game will be the last football game ever played at the Vet. And today will probably be the last time I set foot in Veterans Stadium. I've been going to the Vet and sitting in the same seat every fall for at least 25 years (maybe more). I grew up there. I remember sitting there as a little kid with my dad, freezing and wondering, "What the hell are all these people going crazy about?" Now I 'm sure there's a little kid in the stands somewhere saying the same thing about me. My dad doesn't go to the games anymore (he passed away 13 years ago), my wife and two friends now go with me instead. But my dad's longtime friend, Carmen, still does, and he still sits in the same seat, right next to mine, where Carmen has sat since the day the Vet opened in 1971.Changing stadiums is nothing to him. He and my dad already did it once from Franklin Field to the Vet. The Vet is one of the last places I can still go to and remember being there with my dad. So I turn on the TV to watch the news as I prepare for the game and there mysteriously are no shootings overnight, no robberies, no car crashes. No, today's newscast revolves around one thing and one thing only. What is going to happen between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the corner of Broad and Pattison.
9 a.m.: The first call of the morning is from my wife's friend, whose husband is going to the game. "Are you guys ready?" she asks. "My husband is all wound up on Dunkin' Donuts and he's running around the house with the kids, in his long johns screaming E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!!"
The anticipation for this game grows.
"It kind of feels like my wedding day," she says. "Only I'm not so sure how this one is going to turn out."
10:15 a.m.: Second call of the morning. This one from one of my buddies. "Whaaaassssuuup!!!" I hear when I pick up the phone.
"Hey, where are you at?" I ask.
"On Route 309. We are meeting at Fern Rock at 11."
At this point I can't wait to get out of the house.
Noon, Nick's Bar, Second & Chestnut: As we gather for a couple of pre-game drinks, Eagles' fans slowly filter in to the bar to get a good seat for the game. Our group of six, which includes two guys from up in the 700 level, order beers and lunch. There is some reminiscing of last week's adventures during the playoff win against the Falcons. But mostly the talk is of Super Bowl parties and Super Bowl plans. Who saw the best deal for airfare to San Diego and will you really go if -- no, when -- the Eagles win. The consensus here is that the Eagles will win this game. It's all good. We watch the waitress hang green and white streamers around the bar as we get ready to leave and she wishes us well.
2 p.m., Broad Street Subway: Fans jam onto the subway deck cheering for the home team. One guy stands out -- he's got a big thermometer hanging around his neck. He poses for some pictures and enters the subway car to a round of cheers. The thermometer says it's in the 30s as he enters the packed train. By the time we get out of the crammed car at Pattison, the thermometer is showing a temperature in the mid 50s.
2:50 p.m., Vet Stadium ramp: We get off the subway at 2:20, but it takes a half hour to make it through security on the entrance ramp. Security guards, who are normally a joke, who usually could care less, have decided to all but strip search every person walking up the ramp. In the freezing cold we are ordered to unzip our jackets and open up everything we are carrying. They check everything, from hoods to socks.
3 p.m. Inside the Vet: We finally make our way into the stadium and to our seats. I high-five the two girls who sit next to us as well as the guys in front of us. Total strangers at the beginning of the season, they are all now part of a big family with one goal in mind: distract, annoy and intimidate the Bucs until they can't hear themselves think anymore. I peek over to my left to look at the banner hanging at the 50 yard line between the 200 and 300 levels. The guy known as "Sign Man" has hung a gigantic banner there for as long as I can remember. His last offering reads "Vet Curtain Call, Be Proud, Be Loud". It is another great sign, which describes what every person's duty is in this stadium for the next three hours. As Jessica Simpson winds up the national anthem, four fighter jets roar overhead. That roar is replaced by that of 65,000 towel-waving, crazed fans. The theme from Rocky plays over the loudspeakers in anticipation of the opening kickoff, which the Eagles will receive. This is the loudest I have ever heard this place. As I look around, it becomes obvious -- this is the very definition of home field advantage.
3:15 p.m.: Brian Mitchell takes the opening kickoff at our 3 yard line and returns it 72 yards to the other team's 25. The place erupts! The sound is deafening. This is awesome!! You couldn't ask for a better start! Two plays later, to a chorus of "Duuuuuuce," Duce Staley slices through the Bucs defense like it was butter, for one of the easiest touchdowns I've ever seen and the place goes absolutely wild! Strangers are hugging strangers. Everyone is just grabbing and high-fiving and hugging anyone they can get their hands on. And we have still not sat down yet. As the extra point goes through the uprights 65,000 fans sing, in unison, the loudest rendition of the Eagles fight song I've ever heard. A feeling comes over me at that point, that yes, the Eagles are going to win this game. The Bucs have just run into their worst nightmare and this game is going to be one big party. Unfortunately, the fun stops right about at that point. Many latecomers to the game, including my dad's friend Carmen, get tied up waiting to be frisked at security and miss all the excitement. They express their disapproval as they sit down. We don't know it at that point but they might as well have just gone home then. All the fun and excitement has already been had.
4:35 p.m., halftime, Eagles down 17-10: I make my way through the concourse to the men's restroom. The line to get in fills the whole width of the concourse and is four to five people wide. As I make my way into the room I notice there is an unusually large amount of liquid on the floor this week. Must have been a lot of people who just couldn't wait today. The room is eerily quiet this halftime. As I get closer to my turn in line a father yells sarcastically to his adolescent son.
"Son, this is a day you'll remember for the rest of your life. You're at the NFC Championship game, it's the last Eagles game at the Vet, and you're standing in a puddle of urine waiting to go to the bathroom"
The comment breaks the tension and brings out a chuckle from most of the guys in the room. Seconds later the entire bathroom of crazed drunks breaks into a frenzied Eagles cheer! We're back, I say to myself. The second half will be better. It was one of those classic Vet moments that I guess you can only appreciate if you are a season ticket holder. I make my way back to my seat and the halftime entertainment of Ja Rule and Ashanti are leaving the field, being booed something unbelievable. I'm not sure why they are being booed but at this point anything short of an Eagles player reaching the end zone will be greeted with a chorus of boos.
Third quarter, Eagles down, 20-10: Tampa's kicker boots through a field goal to put the Bucs up by two scores. The feeling around the stadium is that we better prepare ourselves for an Eagles' loss. It's starting to not look good. My wife asks Carmen if he's surprised how badly the Eagles are playing. "Absolutely not!" he says emphatically. "I've been watching this team for too long. You know what would have surprised me? If they would have actually played good today."
Fourth quarter, Eagles still down 20-10: The Eagles try to mount some sort of a comeback early in the quarter, but have no luck. They keep shooting themselves in the foot with either penalties or dropped balls. The crowd is quiet and completely frustrated at this point. Finally with a little less than four minutes left McNabb scrambles and finds a receiver at the Bucs' 10 yard line. And the stadium magically comes back to life -- hanging on to a thread, hoping that this magician of a quarterback can pull something out of a hat. It is totally possible; there is plenty of time left. So with the crowd once again on its feet, McNabb drops back to pass and, to the total disbelief of the hometown fans, the Bucs intercept the ball. You could hear a pin drop, it is so quiet; 65,000 people watch in shock as the Bucs defender returns the ball 92 yards for a touchdown. The girls sitting next to my wife are practically in tears at this point. Carmen gets ready to leave.
"They broke our hearts once again, John," he says to me as we shake hands goodbye. "They've been doing it to me for 37 years now, why would I expect anything different today?"
Spoken like a true Eagles' fan.
We've left this building disappointed so many times. It's only fitting that the last time we leave is after one of the biggest disappointments in Eagles history.
6:30 p.m., leaving the Vet: So as we leave the stadium, unfortunately, I can't help but think good riddance to this place. This cold and dark place. Maybe the Eagles will have better luck in their new stadium -- I don't know. The one thing I do know is that it doesn't matter where the Eagles play. Call us crazy, or just call us loyal, but we will still come out to see them play wherever it may be. And maybe someday the Eagles will get back to this point, where they are hosting an NFC Championship game. I just hope I don't have to wait another 22 years.
John Gambetta is City Paper's controller.