The Philadelphia Eagles Fired My Dad

Going on five decades later, I’m just starting to get over it.

A black-and-white photo of the author as a toddler, holding a football, on the knee of his father inside a football stadium.
The author and his father, Jerry Williams, at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium in the early 1970s. Tyler Williams

Ten years after my father, Jerry Williams, was fired as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, we watched his former team play in the Super Bowl. It was just me, Mom, and Dad, circled around the television at home. We rooted for the Raiders.

At 11 years old, I didn’t know exactly why we were cheering for Oakland, a team to which we had no particular allegiance, I just knew that we were against the Eagles. Years later, but perhaps starting on that day, I would understand that our hatred was directed primarily at the Eagles’ owner, Leonard Tose, the man who’d fired Dad.

By 1980, when Philadelphia met Oakland in Super Bowl XV, I’m sure my father knew his chance at coaching glory had passed, having drifted away in a tide of untimely injuries and too little talent. And that glory not achieved still stung. What a strange mix of emotions must’ve surfaced in him that day, as he watched the franchise he’d led take the spotlight in the big game he’d never be a part of. Surely he wished his former colleagues success. Problem was, they were all owned by Tose, and in our house, I was starting to learn, Tose was public enemy No. 1.

Tose and my father had been on a collision course. A flashy trucking magnate, a heavy drinker, and a gambling addict, Tose was a lifelong Eagles fan who’d long dreamed of owning the team, just as dad had wanted to coach it. It wouldn’t be quite right to say Philadelphia was Dad’s dream job, but since he’d played there and been an assistant coach for the Eagles, that’s where his opportunity lay.

“Opportunity” might be a bit of an exaggeration. Dad took over the Eagles in 1969, when they were coming off a 2–12 season. Philadelphia had had just one winning season since 1961. Nevertheless, our family packed up and left behind our quaint existence in the foothills of the Rockies, where dad had a successful run coaching the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, to inherit a losing team in gritty Philadelphia. From a football standpoint, that might have been a questionable choice. But as I’ve come to know myself better in middle age, I’ve come to understand my father better, too. It wasn’t really a choice at all. He had to take his shot.

The first year was promising—the Eagles won four games instead of two. His second season was a total disaster, brightened only by the fact that two of Dad’s three wins came against Hall of Fame coaches Don Shula and Chuck Noll. By 1971, dad had to know his days were numbered. I was just an infant then, so I don’t know what my dad was thinking. But I’ve come to understand that the moment Tose fired him was his darkest hour. Whether he saw it coming or not, the sense of failure was overwhelming. Perhaps his expectations were unrealistic. Perhaps his judgment was clouded by desire. Certainly, he was a coach, and this is what coaches do; they win, they lose, they get fired. It’s not a tranquil life.

He was out of coaching, temporarily, when we got together to watch Super Bowl XV in January 1981. I was blissfully unaware of the tension in our TV room that day, although I did find it odd that it was just the three of us there—no party, no friends over to watch the game at the football hero’s house. No, this was a private viewing. And one thing was for certain: The Eagles better damn not win.

I remember the signature play of that game, a pass from the Raiders’ Jim Plunkett to Kenny King, who streaked 80 yards for a touchdown—the longest play in Super Bowl history at the time. The three of us erupted. Too bad for Dad’s friend Marion Campbell, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. Too bad for Dick Vermeil, who I suppose dad felt some empathy for as the new head coach with the same old boss. But whatever empathy Dad had for Vermeil was probably tempered by a deep competitiveness: If I can’t win, neither shall you. Well, they didn’t. Raiders 27–Eagles 10.

It would be decades before I could begin to understand the complexities of adult achievements and failures and the random circumstances that shape our lives. The next time the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, in 2005, Dad was gone, along with all the answers to questions I never asked.

I’m now the same age Dad was—48—when he coached his last NFL game. If our lives run in parallel, which they sometimes strangely seem to do, my greatest professional successes are behind me. That’s sobering. Dad’s greatest accomplishments came as an assistant coach at an earlier age, when he created the nickel defense, later coined by opposing coach George Allen. I’m continually inspired by Dad’s creativity. Whether I’ll glean wisdom from his failures is uncertain. And I’m still trying to learn forgiveness.

Until now, I’ve carried my Eagles hatred like a cross. I even married a lifelong Giants fan who shared backyard barbecues with their coach, Alex Webster, as a child. She was as vehement in her anti-Eagles sentiment as I was. We were a perfect match.

But while my wife, Lisa, maintains her Evil Eagle resolve, mine is starting to soften. Leonard Tose is dead. Nick Foles seems like a nice guy who got the second chance my dad never did. And really, who can root for the Patriots these days?

When the Eagles take the field on Sunday, I’ll be cheering for them for the first time in my life. Times change. Life goes on. The Eagles of today are not the same as the Eagles I jeered 38 years ago, and neither am I.