It’s rare to remember exactly when you learned the meaning of a word, but that’s the case with me and effigy. It was 1993, and I was 10, going to my first Eagles game. Walking through the parking lots toward Veterans Stadium, we passed by fans burning mannequins dressed in Giants jerseys. It was awesome.
I immediately wished someone would effigy the Eagles coach, Rich Kotite. “No, Jim, effigy is a noun,” my father gently corrected me, “you want Kotite burned in effigy.”
Kotite was still a few months away from losing the entire fan base by defending that year’s .500 record by saying, “Hey, eight and eight is great,” but he had lost me already for benching my favorite player, Randall Cunningham, who was struggling with a nagging injury. When the clock ticked down to zero that day—the Giants won 7-3—I joined the chorus of boos directed at Kotite, a man whose passing resemblance to my father and devastating mediocrity hastened the end of that period of childhood innocence when a young boy thinks his dad is practically a superhero.
This is all a way of saying that I am, at best, a casual Eagles fan.
And so, it is with great trepidation that I write this essay about what an Eagles victory on Sunday might mean for my city. If word gets out that I tempted fate and jinxed this thing, I’m a dead man. And frankly, part of me would understand the impulse to punch me in the face repeatedly. (Another, much larger part of me would prefer to go on living unharmed.)
Anyway, here goes: Philadelphia stands on the precipice of an identity crisis. For more than a half century, Philly has been a city of underdogs. In the 1950s, it was the nation’s third-largest city, with a population of 2 million and the proud nickname “Workshop of the World.” The good times didn’t last. Like so many other American cities, Philadelphia’s factories shuttered and moved, its inner neighborhoods decayed, and white residents with means fled to the suburbs. Philly’s population declined for more than 60 consecutive years.
During this long, sad period, Philadelphia could not get out of its own bumbling way.
There’s no end to the examples of Philly being its own worst enemy, but the city’s bicentennial embarrassment takes the cake. First, showing the kind of self-assurance befitting a prepubescent middle schooler with acne and a funny name, Philadelphia shared top billing for the 200th anniversary of the signing of Declaration of Independence with cities that did not host the Second Continental Congress. Our racist mayor then scared the entire nation away with dire warnings about violent commie riots. Barely anyone came. Among those who did were hundreds of members of the American Legion, who fell ill with a mysterious disease that was soon named after them.
Philadelphia has always bombed on the big stage. This is, after all, the city whose Chamber of Commerce felt the need to adorn the Schuylkill Expressway with billboards reading “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” But then something remarkable happened. Starting in 2006, Philly’s population started to grow again. Jobs started to return too, led by a booming “eds and meds” sector and increasing tourism. And then something unthinkable happened. In 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies, the world’s losingest pro sports team, won the World Series. The city rallied around a Delaware radio caller’s confident rhetorical question, “Why can’t us?”*
Why can’t us, indeed? In the years since, Philadelphia has hosted a papal visit, the NFL Draft, and the Democratic National Convention. The city’s been written up in countless rah-rah listicles—best cities to visit, best places to live—and was named America’s first and only World Heritage City. In its live-action corporate version of The Bachelor, Amazon graced us with a red rose, keeping hopes alive for another round. The city went mad when Villanova won the NCAA basketball championship, and we’re beginning to Trust the Process.
Outsiders like to mock Philadelphia’s pride in Rocky, the fictional down-on-his-luck bruiser who, through pluck and luck, got by and made good. But more and more Philly residents don’t see themselves in Rocky’s story. Philadelphians are, increasingly, middle-class kids who came to the city for college and never left. They’re not resilient survivors. They’re medical researchers, Comcast employees, and a cadre of relatively well-off professionals who moved to Philly because it has three-fourths of what New York has to offer at half the price. They haven’t eked out an existence on the mean streets of West Philly. They’ve restored Italianate manses on the tree-lined streets of University City.
Signs of the city’s newfound confidence can also be found in its response to lingering social crises. Last year, Philly began to take back control of its public schools from a state commission created in 2001, in the depths of our collective ineptitude and desperation for education funding. And just weeks ago, city officials announced plans to become the first U.S. city to try to reduce the hundreds of overdose deaths by experimenting with safe-injection sites. Philadelphia no longer feels like a city defined by its problems. It’s a place that has the resources and collective will to fix them.
Add a Birds’ Super Bowl victory to that heady mix? Philadelphia won’t just explode in a paroxysm of riotous joy. A first-ever Super Bowl title for the Eagles will blow up the city’s long-standing inferiority complex, too. A city defined by self-loathing is now, in the words of Philadelphia magazine, “walking with a certain swagger.” The city’s confident Amazon bid, too, led local business leaders to say we’re Negadelphia no more. A Super Bowl win would be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back—a camel that’s been spitting in the city’s eye for decades.
It may strike some as odd to suggest an Eagles championship would usher in an era of assured civic pride. After all, Eagles fans are notorious for, let’s just say, their Dionysian impulses in both victory and defeat. How would the ensuing apotheosis of awfulness, the widespread spasm of tipped-cars, drunken lawlessness, and literal dumpster fires sure to sweep the city, prove that we have arrived?
First, one must consider how central the Eagles are to the city’s identity. The Flyers didn’t exist until 1967. While the Broad Street Bullies captured the city’s imagination during the 1970s, the team’s roots were never all that deep; when the Flyers inevitably reverted to mediocrity, Philadelphians returned to ignoring the fly guys. The Phillies have almost always been god awful. They were also the last National League team to integrate, which kept the city’s large black population from embracing the franchise. The Sixers were an instant hit when they debuted in the 1960s, thanks to teams led by Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and Moses Malone. But no American city with other options has ever invested itself entirely in its basketball team—not Chicago at the height of Jordan’s Bulls, not Boston during Red Auerbach’s long reign, and not Philly with the Sixers.
For much of Philadelphia’s sad, slow decline, the Eagles mirrored their hometown. The franchise’s last championship came in 1960, before the AFL-NFL merger in 1966 and the creation of the Super Bowl. During most of the ’60s and ’70s, the Eagles were mediocre, a state Philadelphians could certainly relate to. While baseball may be the national pastime, football has long been America’s favorite game, and in that regard Philadelphia’s no different than the nation it birthed. Add in Philly’s penchant for gladiatorial violence—did I mention how much we like Rocky?—and it’s no wonder the city bleeds green. That may be why you are liable to hear an “E-A-G-L-E-S—Eagles!” chant at any sporting event in town. Or at a rock concert. Or at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 161st annual white-tie ball. Or a pro wrestling show. Or a wedding. Or jury duty.
And so, as the city toys with the idea of finally knocking the chip off its shoulder, it’s only natural that these Eagles, embracing their underdog status by donning dog masks, would deliver that final blow.
Compare Philly to any other major U.S. city, and we can hold our own. San Francisco? We’re not infested with tech bros. D.C.? Our subway works. Chicago? Our summers last longer than a week. Boston? George Clooney in a nipple suit was a better Batman than Ben Affleck.
But Super Bowl rings? Blanked. Zero. Queue the “scoreboard” chant. We can’t compete.
At least, not yet.
What will this future Philadelphia look like if we win and finally get this middle linebacker of a monkey off our backs? If we’re no longer losers, are we still lovable? Can Philadelphians be self-assured and proud without turning into obnoxious jerks like everyone from New York and Boston?
I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.
After the Eagles won the NFC championship, I took to the streets along with thousands of other fans to bask in our communal joy. Soon a chant rose from the crowd, a profane chorus aimed at the Patriots’ Tom Brady. It wasn’t quite the effigy of my youth, but I hope to hear it again this Sunday night. If I do, it’ll be just as memorable, maybe more so, as that cold Sunday 20 years ago: the moment an entire city came to understand, and truly believe, just how fucking great we are.
Correction, Feb. 2, 2018: This piece originally misstated that Philadelphia Phillies fans rallied around manager Charlie Manuel’s rhetorical question, “Why not us?” The rhetorical question was “Why can’t us?” and it was inspired by a Delaware sports radio caller.