David Reynolds | Being there
You were there. You were walking through it. Maybe for the last time. It was the portal you always take to get to your seats. And, as always, you made sure you gave your tickets to the same ticket taker. Especially today.
If luck could be a lady today, well then, there may be a tomorrow.
What is so important about today? Because it is cold and it is January. Sure, football is played when it is warm and in other months, but if you are from my part of this great land, and you have been an NFL season-ticket holder for a big chunk of your life there is only one place to be. That is, if the regular-season football gods have look favorably on your team since September.
So I was there. I was there because life is not a spectator sport. Being there meant putting off going on the DL. Fixing that knee joint would have to wait until February. My doctor understands. He also has season tickets. In the club section. Close to the field.
So into the Sunday temple I enter. And climb. Ramp after ramp. One way, then the other. My father used to call old RFK Stadium back in Washington “Mount Kennedy.” What he meant was that it was his Mount Everest. As with Everest, he knew it was worth the climb on those Sundays when the burgundy and gold were at home. But this was not any given Sunday. On Sundays in January he never complained.
Let’s get back to today. The flashbacks will come again. It is the Eagles vs. our Giants in a playoff game. A grudge match in a cold swamp the mapmakers call “The Meadowlands” to make it appear attractive. You come out of the Lincoln Tunnel with the Big Apple behind you and you see mecca. It is called Giants Stadium. The New York Jets also play there; that is why we call it Giants Stadium.
A game between New York and Philadelphia is the NFL’s modern version of a tale of two cities. One will always be in the 90-mile-long shadow cast by the other. Just ask anyone from New York what they think of Billy Penn’s little green team full of birds nesting just south of the center of the universe. No way can they win. Even if somehow they do, we are still the world’s greatest city and World Champs. The late Wellington Mara said so. The team’s founder now has an eternal seat high above Giants Stadium.
Yes, we are World Champs for another reason. Our young quarterback refused to play for San Diego. I better explain. A couple from Mississippi, a Mr. and Mrs. Archie Manning did not want their son Eli play in some small market. For you see the Mannings are different. Most married couples make babies. But the Mannings make quarterbacks. It is in their DNA. So they worked out a swap with the San Diego, gave them a guy named Rivers from the ACC with a good head and good arm, but no big name for a big market. Their boy Eli was better suited to chew on the Big Apple. Peyton, their other son, works in Indiana when he is not traveling.
And if Eli can’t do it, you say to yourself, the Giants counter can. With Jacobs, Bradshaw, Ward and Hedgecock behind our seasoned line what can go wrong? You are convinced that last year was no accident. And this year we are even better.
So you sit there in the cold, the same seat you have warmed for over twenty years. It is Section 520, Row 9, Seat 7. Your guest takes Seat 9 because you are superstitious. But why watch if you know we are going to win? Simple. No one wins on paper. That is why they play the game.
Now more flashbacks are rushing through your old head. There is time to entertain them. Kick off is over an hour away.
Back before executive suites pushed you up into the clouds, back before a single beer cost more than your first NFL ticket, back to a stadium where the stands actually shook, back to when we chanted “Move those chains” with every first down against the Lions and back to when we threw thousands of yellow seat cushions onto the field after sewing up a playoff win over the Falcons, there was the NFL playoffs. Yes, it all goes back to every beautiful though you ever had in your clear but cold head and a heart pounding under a parka. These are some of the dreams of which the playoffs are made. You just want to live it again. One more time.
And what is so special about the NFL playoffs? That’s easy. They are not Super Bowls. I’ve been to a couple of Super Bowls. But far more playoff games. Screaming fans, real fans, go to playoff games. Quiet fat cats on an expense account attend the big bash. The players know this. And they care about only one thing: No win today; no life tomorrow.
One other point about the Super Bowl: If it is the ultimate game, why do they play it every year?
I was asked this question: Why not sit home and watch it on Fox with a cold drink in your hand in a warm room? And not the other way around. Let me try to explain the facts of life one more time. I still have a memory bank. My doctor told me. He told me that my old brain can hold a few more thoughts, but only if they are pleasant ones. He cited some medical reason I don’t understand. Maybe that is why I visit Penn State occasionally, say to see a football game, when flunking out of the place doesn’t seem to register anywhere.
There is another reason why I did not sit home and listen to Troy Aikman and Joe Buck. The last time I saw Troy he was being hit so hard by Lavar Arrington of my old Skins that he was bounced right up to the broadcaster’s booth. As far as Joe is concerned, my memory has tapes of Joe’s father. Joe, you are a good play-by-play man, but you are no Jack Buck.
Eagles-Giants! The playoffs, the NFL’s slow-death version of sudden-death overtime.
First Quarter. Eagles kick off. We run it back 65 yards! You’re sky high. It’s July in January. Fourth and two. We make it. No wimpy field goals for us today. This is a playoff game. Eli throws for nine to Johnson. Jacobs into the line. Nothing. Jacobs again. Again nothing. Third and 8. A five-yard completion. Go for the three this time. It’s good!
Eagles receive. Third and 16. Incomplete. Great pass coverage. We get the ball back — but not for long. Eli gets picked off. Throw gets away from him – and reality sets in with you. You realize for the first time that it is possible to lose this game. McNabb goes in from the one for the touch. 7-3 Eagles. Temperature drops. It’s now below thirty. But you don’t notice except during time outs.
Our ball again. Nothing. Three and out.
Eagles do nothing on their next possession. A constant din is in the cold air.
Second Quarter. Third and long. Eli overthrows. Punt. Down on the Eagles five. The noise grows, if that is possible. McNabb goes back to pass in his end zone. Safety! We are up by two. Big mo is now on our side! Now so is the wind. It is at our backs.
Eagles punt to our 30. Three straight first downs. But Eli overthrows again. Third and ten. Our man dumps it. Field goal try. Wide right. Ugh.
Eagles take over. The man from Syracuse looks cold. Is this a sign that he will get hot later? But his helmet is not working! Can’t hear plays called. Did you know that NFL QBs have backup helmets? The league thinks of everything. Wow.
By now you have no idea that there is a world outside the stadium’s gates. Financial crisis across the river? What are you talking about? Don’t bother me.
Back to all that matters, back to the game. We get the ball back. Jacobs finally breaks one. For 24. Eli then finds Boss open for 25.
The two-minute warning. You rest your lungs.
Two more incompletions. What’s wrong with Eli? He’s no Peyton today. Third and five. We make four. Story of the day. FG time again. Perfect from 35 yards. Up by a point.
Eagles receive on their 35. The birds start flying then land on our 15. Akers in. Good. Now down by two, 10-8.
Third Quarter. You have rested your lungs for 15 minutes. You are no longer a spectator. You and 67,000 other nuts are the 12th man. One of our 11, OT Fred Robbins, gets his big claws on one of McNabb’s tosses. Jacobs goes plowing into Birdfield. Third and five on the 18. Incomplete. Field goal. Up by one. Fourth lead change! Is this a football or a basketball game?
Eagles start from their 25. We pressure McNabb. But our secondary falls asleep. Man wide open. Birds are again flying. But not all the way. Akers in. Fifth lead change. Eagles by two.
We get the ball back. Will Jacobs make up for Manning’s misses? Our great counter play is MIA. Two long plays. But that’s it. Carney in. Misses from 47 yards. Wide left.
Eagles take over. Third and five. You wave your white towel. But to no avail. Eight-yard completion. The wheels start coming off the Giant bandwagon. Pierce does a face mask job on a bird. Pass to the 14. Westbrook to the 5. Then to the 1. You’re getting cold.
Fourth Quarter. McNabb and Company finish their work. End zone pass. Now down by 9. Then the three killing plays. Its third and three on your 40. Ward carries. A bad spot? Coughlin challenges. We lose. Inches short. Now forth down. Try again. QB sneak by Eli. Short again. Manning fails to get low. Manning fails at physics. He doesn’t understand leverage. There is 12:39 to go, but the season is really over. The fair-weather fans leave. I stay.
At 6:28, again inches short. At 3:15 an interception. Aisles are jammed. New Yorkers become New Yorkers. Then the last nail in Coughlin’s coffin. Our man Smith forgets to hang on to the ball at 0:58. Fumble .
The game is over, Eagles 23, Giants 11. Stands are empty. I am sure you saw it all on television. You saw the replays, the stats on the screen, the silly sideline reports and interviews. I have bored you enough. Let ESPN do the rest.
But did you experience anything?
Or did you just see a game on TV? Or maybe for you life is a spectator sport. If so, I am sorry. Please check your pulse. Where should I send the flowers? I would rather feel the agony of defeat than the numbness of death. In fact, I just did.
What kind of day was it? A day like all cold January days in the National Football League. And I was there. Incidentally, in only 37 days pitchers and catchers will report for Spring Training. I feel better already. Play ball.
– Column by David Reynolds