PHILADELPHIA — The Eagles were headed to the Super Bowl for the second time in six seasons Sunday night. Cheering fans clogged the intersections around City Hall and in Northeast Philadelphia. Utility poles were ritually anointed to limit exuberant but perhaps confusing climbing fueled by victory and other spirits.
As the team’s rallying cry goes: It’s a Philly Thing.
A proud city, long accustomed to excruciating defeats for its sports teams, resigned to the idea that success is just a disaster that hasn’t happened yet, finds itself basking in a relatively rare period of promising results.
The Eagles have been the most dominant team in the NFL 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 (although in typically heartbreaking fashion, they lost in a penalty shootout to a Los Angeles goalie who grew up in Philadelphia). The growing 76ers have apparently become contenders in the NBA In the suburbs, Villanova is waving two recent NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship banners of 2016 and 2018.
Of course, sports provide only a momentary distraction in a city with troubling issues of gun violence, the opioid crisis, and yawning income inequality. On Monday, police were investigating several shootings over the weekend, including that of a 17-year-old. Sunday night’s celebration seemed to get carried away when some Eagles fans were shown on video riding into the rear bumper of an ambulance as medics tried to help an unconscious person, according to the Twitter feed of a local TV reporter.
But of all the things that divide a community, sports can be a unifying force, especially in this raging, timeworn place. Sunday’s postgame festivities “exploded like an uncorked bottle of champagne,” noted the Philadelphia Inquirer of the Civic release, ticking off the city’s often inglorious sporting past: The Phillies remain the losing franchise in pro sports with more than 11,000 cumulative losses. . The Sixers haven’t won an NBA title in 40 years. The Flyers were even more delinquent, having last won the Stanley Cup 48 years ago after securing repeat NHL titles in 1974 and 1975.
The recent success of the Philadelphia teams evokes a fleeting golden era more than four decades ago, the 1980-81 sports calendar, when the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers all reached their respective leagues. (Only the Phillies have won.) While the intensity of Philadelphia’s recent sports celebrations may be baffling to outsiders, The Inquirer explained Monday, fans here lately “have been feeling like they just hit the lottery after a lifetime struggling to pay the bills.”
Philadelphia has long perceived itself as a city of blue-collar underdogs, immortalized in 1976 – the nation’s bicentennial – by Academy Award winner “Rocky.” A statue of celluloid boxer Rocky Balboa stands triumphant outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose steps he fictitiously ascended.
“It’s not that we don’t have culture, but we put it in its place,” Philadelphia native and local sportscaster, radio host, and television personality Ray Didinger said with a laugh for more than 50 years. “Only in Philadelphia does Matisse stand in Rocky Balboa’s shadow.”
As the Eagles marched to their first Super Bowl title after the 2017 season, fans and even some players wore dog masks to embrace the city’s underdog ethos, each coming to validate and reflect the other. To all doubters, center Jason Kelce sang at the Eagles’ victory parade while he wore a Mummers costume, “We’re from Philadelphia, nobody likes us, we don’t care.”
The current Eagles team, however, won its first eight games and built a 16-3 record, including two playoff victories, and emerged as an early favorite to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona on February 12. This team has shed its familiar underdog mantle and embraced being the overdog. Jalen Hurts, the quarterback and determined leader, wears a jewel-encrusted necklace after every game that says “Breed of One.”
This raises an existential question about Philadelphia’s ingrained mentality. 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 down through generations through oral tradition, said Joel Fish, director of Philadelphia’s Center for Sport Psychology, who has worked with all of the city’s professional teams.
One, there have been a lot of defeats here, which fosters the mentality that something is sure to go wrong. Two, there’s a chilling attitude to 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 the Eagles green Sunday night in celebration of Philadelphia’s 31-7 victory over San Francisco.)
Three, Philadelphians feel their sporting passion is misunderstood as raucous naughtiness and not celebrated enough for its ardor and dedication. After all, the Santa who was famously pelted with snowballs by Eagles fans in 1968 acknowledged he deserved it for his suit and stubble.
Gradually, Fish said Monday, self-image began to change: first with the Phillies’ World Series title in 2008, the city’s first professional championship in a quarter century, and then with the Phillies’ loss Eagles versus Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. in Superbowl 2018.
Fall and winter here have brought exciting wins in baseball, football, and soccer. But, Fish added, even a second Super Bowl title won’t immediately change the city’s long-held view of itself. Widespread civic reappraisal doesn’t happen, he said, like turning on a light bulb.
“Gradually, more of us are starting to see the cup as half full rather than half empty,” Fish said. “Expectation, belief takes a long time to go from head to heart.”
Many current Philadelphia fans aren’t born yet, don’t live here, or are too young to recall some of the bleakest periods in the city’s sports history: The 1964 Phillies blowing the National League pennant after going six-and-a-half games to lead with 12 to play; the Sixers relinquished a three games to one lead against their archrival Boston Celtics in the 1981 NBA Eastern Conference Finals; the anguished Eagles lost three consecutive NFC championship games in the early 2000s.
Many, though nearly all, of the newer Eagles fans carry little to no baggage of angst. Instead, they are encouraged by the assumption and confidence of victory. Benji Allen, a fan who was stocking up on vegan food on Monday, said he thought the Eagles were the best team in the NFL and that past missed chances didn’t make him nervous about the Super Bowl.
“It wouldn’t be living in the moment,” she said.
Joel Wolfram contributed to the reporting.