Good Grief

The poetry in sports is rooted in its symmetry, or so I'm told. For every star there's a role player. For every champion, a chump.

There is a flip side to each situation, and therein lies the beauty, right? There is a reason the thrill of victory has long partnered with the agony of defeat. You have to sprinkle some Clippers and Cardinals among the Lakers and Patriots so that the highs are offset by the lows, because we can't all enjoy the victors' spoils--not enough to go around. I've learned that the hard way.

In Dallas, winning is part of the history, but it's also something for all of you to enjoy. My friends here tell me that the Cowboys' run in the '90s was like nothing they'd ever experienced before or since, and that it was fantastic to see the Stars take home the Cup, too. I can only imagine.

See, I represent your opposite. I am a loser.

Though I've lived in Dallas for some time, I am still very much a supporter of my childhood teams, which probably makes me a fool. I grew up in Philly, and now you understand where all this is going--a column that's equally cathartic and painful, like trying to bandage a deep wound while simultaneously picking at it.

For two weeks before the Super Bowl, I talked with my Dallas friends about how I envy them, about how I wanted to embrace everything that goes along with a championship. I wasn't alone. I hopped a plane to Philly to watch the game with some buddies, all of whom felt the same way. We've been friends for years, some of us since grade school, so we've suffered together for a long time.

At 2 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, we met at my buddy Wax's place, which is like gathering in a long-abandoned home now claimed by a squatter--it's that messy. But that didn't matter. The game was the thing. We waited our whole lives to see a championship, and we were sure--absolutely positive--that it was finally coming in the form of an Eagles Super Bowl win. We even made plans for attending Tuesday's parade.

"A parade in Philadelphia on Fat Tuesday," my friend Chad said, "that's gonna be insane."

For any of us to think about winning took a supreme effort. It's been 22 years since any Philadelphia team has won a title--the longest drought of any city in America with four pro sports franchises. There's a whole generation of people there who aren't old enough to remember what it was like before the entire nation looked at Philadelphia as the model of ineptitude. My friends and I are part of that group--we were about 6 the last time Philly hoisted any hardware. Since then, we'd seen the other three teams (the Phillies, Flyers and Sixers) all make the finals. We also watched them all lose. We'd been teased so many times. As a result, our sense of self-worth took a hit. It's pathetic and irrational, but there it is.

As you can imagine, tensions were running high at Wax's pad. We spent the four-plus hours leading up to kickoff breaking down the game, looking for ways the Eagles could defeat a team that everyone said would dominate them. By 5:35 ET, we couldn't stand it anymore. And when the television pregame showed Pennsylvania Governor (and former Philly mayor) Ed Rendell once again talking about the Eagles' chances--something he does constantly--it set my friend Lohner off.

"What I want to know is, who the hell is governing while that asshole is on TV?" he asked. "He's always on. He never shuts up. Someone needs to hit him with a bat."

When the game was finally under way, each play caused us to have visceral reactions. Headaches, queasy stomachs, sore throats--we were wrecks. By halftime, we were a mess.

You have to understand; this is how it works for people like us--people for whom losing has always been inevitable. Being from Philly means being the whipping boy. Even Rocky, whom most people identify as being the quintessential Philadelphian, lost that first fight to Apollo Creed. It's only because the Hollywood money men didn't understand the ending--what do you mean he lost?--that they made more movies and allowed Rocky to become champ.

If you ask any Philly fan, they'll tell you the first movie got it right.

But it wasn't until the very end, when quarterback Donovan McNabb threw his final interception with just seconds remaining, that we stopped believing. Again, it took a lot for us to wrap our heads around the "they're gonna win" idea. But we did it. The whole city managed the transformation. Classes of schoolchildren sang the team fight song, and everyone you met on the street had a smile on his face as the Super Bowl approached. The national perception is that we delight in defeat, and maybe we did in the past, but not on Sunday. I didn't meet one person who thought the Birds would lose--we were a bunch of Charlie Browns convinced we'd finally kick the football. Everyone had a reason: It was for their husbands, who have been fans forever, or their kids, who never got to see a championship. It was for their brothers or their wives or their friends or their neighbors.

For me, it was for my dad. He was a huge Eagles fan, and one of the nicest, most genuine men I've ever known. He watched every game for the last 20 years. No matter how many times they disappointed, he remained loyal.

He died in June. Before the Super Bowl, my mom and I talked about how he was "up there" watching. We hoped, for him, that the Eagles would win. Everyone had a story like that. It meant that much.

But it's hard for you to be sympathetic, because you don't see Philly fans as lovable. We aren't like Chicago Cubs fans or Boston Red Sox fans in your estimation. We're dyspeptic. We're the guys who throw batteries or pelt Santa with snowballs or boo Michael Irvin while he's injured. And that's true, and that's sad. There was a fan on local television in Philly the night before the Super Bowl. He had a black eye, and the reporter asked him why. He said he got in a fight with a Patriots fan--a little girl. The little girl got one good shot in, he said, before he eventually "kicked her ass." That's Philly.

But for every asshole like that, there are 10 more people who are just like you--good people who want to be happy. A friend of mine from The Dallas Morning News was dispatched to Philly after the NFC championship to write a story about the citizenry. He was amazed to find a city that was upbeat instead of surly. "After going there," he told my girlfriend, "I'm rooting for them. They're nicer than I thought."

But there's always a flip side. For every team you love to root for, there's someone you love to despise. Maybe that's our function. Maybe we exist to be hated. Just once, though, I'd like to defy that agreement and forget about balance and symmetry. Just once, it would be nice if Charlie Brown put foot to football.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez