LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. -- Stop me if you've heard this one before: A sportswriter, a chick from MTV's "Real World" and an Amish chain-smoker go into a bar to watch the Super Bowl ...
Wait, maybe I better back up a bit.
In my week-long quest to find the heart of Philadelphia and Eagles fans, I talked with the Santa Claus who got pelted with snowballs, the folks who make $300 throwback jerseys, the Arena Football players who sacrifice their bodies for $30,000 a year and a 99-pound woman who holds the world record for eating chicken wings. I toured Independence Hall, ate Philly cheesesteak and got hopelessly frustrated trying to drive around city hall. I ran up the steps to the Art Museum while humming the theme from "Rocky."
And to round out my experience, I drove out to Pennsylvania Dutch country on Sunday to watch the Super Bowl among the Amish.
Go ahead. Make up your punch lines. My friend, Rod, did. As soon as I told him I was going to Amish country to watch the Super Bowl, he came up with a list of the Top 10 Questions the Amish Would Ask While Watching the Super Bowl:
10. "Hey, what happened to the Bud Bowl?"
9. "Wouldn't that Jillian Barberie look hot in a modestly cut dress of a solid color fabric, black cape and a prayer bonnet?"
8. "Is it just me, or are the commercials more entertaining than the game?"
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Jim Caple took to the streets of Philadelphia as the Eagles and their fans readied for the Super Bowl:
7. "Paul McCartney ... wasn't he in that band, Wings?"
6. "The Eagles call that a two-minute offense? My buggy goes faster than that!"
5. "Did you see that? Doug Mientkiewicz just ran off with the football!"
4. "It's halftime. That reminds me. Do you think Janet Jackson's brother is guilty?"
3. "Bradshaw -- will you just SHUT THE $#%& UP?!?!"
2. "Why are the Patriots in a 4-3 defense when they usually stay in a 3-4 defense against a passing team?"
1. "What's Disney World?"
So, no, I wasn't exactly sure what I would find, which was sort of the point. Like many of us, my knowledge of the Amish -- a strict Christian faith that bans cars, TVs and electricity -- was pretty much limited to repeated viewings of "Witness" and "Kingpin." In other words, stereotypes.
The stereotypes, however, begin to peel away as soon as I reach the town of Intercourse (no jokes, please -- they've heard them all already) and drive past the local school. There on the playground are nine Amish kids tossing around a green football with an Eagles logo printed on it. They've just finished their Sunday services; and while their parents visit across the street, they're playing a little two-hand touch. Were it not for the traditional Amish garb, it could be a scene anywhere in the country.
Well, that and the fact the kids are polite, helpful and respectful when I stop to talk.
Dave Esh Jr., 15, assures me that the Amish, indeed, are interested in the Super Bowl; and like most everyone else in this part of the state, they are rooting for the Eagles. They won't watch the game on TV, of course, but some might sneak out to listen to it on the radio or get updates from friends.
He looks inside my car and notices the Sunday paper on the passenger seat. "Is that the Philadelphia Inquirer?" he asks. "Can I look at the sports section?"
Sure, no problem. There's a special Super Bowl section, too, if you want to look at that.
The kids huddle together by the window as Dave excitedly leafs through the pages and focuses on the starting lineups. "Hey, Terrell Owens is going to start!"
I tell him to take the section with him, which makes me feel like I just bought a beer for a minor. I mean, there are ads for strip joints and sex lines in that sports section ... and are these kids allowed to read newspapers, anyway?
Yes, they are. Amish can read the paper and keep track of their favorite teams, exactly the same way I did as a kid during those long-ago pre-ESPN days. Dave thanks me for my offer, but politely turns down the newspaper and says goodbye. As enjoyable as it must be to answer a strange reporter's prying and uninformed questions about his faith, he and his friends really would much rather get back to their football game.
Looking to find a store open on a Sunday, I drive down the road, passing the occasional Amish horse and buggy, and pull into a parking lot. More stereotypes fall. Here in the back of the lot, where they are hidden from the road, a dozen or so Amish teenagers dressed in Eagles jerseys are hanging out by their cars, several of them puffing madly away on cigarettes.
Yes, an explanation is probably in order right about now ...
The Amish life is strict; but when youths reach age 16, they can choose to experience aspects of the outside world before they decide whether to make a commitment to the church. This is called the rumspringa, or "running around" period, when they still attend services and live at home, but many choose to dress in conventional clothing, buy and drive cars, listen to Mick Jagger ... basically, all the stuff most teens do. After sowing their oats in this way (the idea is to get it out of their systems), most commit to the church by kneeling for baptism and taking permanent vows.
There is no set age by which they must decide, but many do so in their early 20s, though others might not choose until much later. Obviously, it's a very serious decision. If they make their baptismal pledge and then find they cannot keep these vows, they will be shunned.
The kids are not impolite, but they don't rush to answer my questions at length. (And why should they? Did they come up to me and ask whether Catholics really believe they're eating the actual body and blood of Christ?) I ask a couple of the teens what they might do. Do they want to go to college? Will they stay in town? Will they stay in the church? What do they want to do?
They say they don't know, which is the answer teens usually give when a stranger asks about their life plans.
I ask whether they'll be watching the game, and they say yes, they're going over to a friend's house where there's a TV. Meanwhile, I still have to find a place to watch it. I get back in the car and drive along farm-lined roads and pass more buggies before eventually reaching the Doughboy Lounge in nearby Leola. The bar is holding a Super Bowl party of sorts; and sitting up front are four 21-year-old Amish men, three of them clad in Eagles jerseys, all of them drinking beer and smoking. They graciously allow me to sit and pepper them with personal questions while they watch the game (though they prefer that I use only their first names).
Yes, they are in the running-around period. Yes, they regularly attend services. Yes, they'll probably choose to kneel for baptism.
And perhaps more importantly -- yes, they think the NHL lockout and Phillies management both suck ("We could have used Curt Schilling this season"). But the Eagles, they're a different story. They love the Eagles. "From day one," Kleon says.
The game begins and they roar with approval when Terrell Owens runs onto the field for the Eagles. "T.O.'s out there!" Kleon shouts. "Whoooo!!!!!" And as they cheer their Eagles, heckle the bar's lone Patriots fan and rule thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the Super Bowl commercials, I realize it's like watching the game with anyone else.
Eenmar further puts that point across by telling me that he read one of my recent columns on his cell phone.
I ask whether they'll continue to root for their teams after they become baptized and can no longer wear the replica jerseys or watch them play on TV. Of course, they say. They'll keep track of them in the papers and from their friends. Why wouldn't they? They're fans, just like fans everywhere. "They know what happens," Kleon says of Amish fans. "My dad has five brothers, and he gives them a hard time about their teams just to stir things up."
More than ever, sports seems like our true national religion.
When the first half ends, I get up, thank them for their time and say goodbye.
"You should go down to the Ritz," Kleon says. "There'll be some Amish there and it will be pretty happening there tonight. The crew from the 'Real World' is filming there."
Yes, it's true. Bizarre as it seems, MTV's "Real World" is also in Amish country -- or, to be more precise, National Lampoon's Reality Bar Crawl with "Real World" veteran Trishelle Canatella and "Road Rules" vet Katie Doyle. They've come to the 5,000-something town of New Holland to film an episode at the Ritz club. The bar is in a 100-year-old converted theater, and the place is packed with Eagles fans watching the game on several large screens.
The crew's producer, Jennifer Cox, kindly invites me to join them at their table, and I tell them what I'm up to. Canatella says she struck up a conversation with two Amish men at the bar earlier in the evening, and offers to introduce me. Soon, she's lightly flirting with a guy named John ("Did you see that woman take off her top?" "Yeah -- we saw her boobies.") and I'm talking sports with him.
Baseball, hockey and volleyball are very popular with the Amish. Football is growing in popularity as well, though it's not played in an organized way (Amish schools only go through the eighth grade). John says he likes football a little bit, but that he's really into is NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is his favorite driver.
John is 27, and he still hasn't decided whether he's going to be baptized or not. "I don't know what I'll do, honestly, I don't know," he says as he reaches for his cigarette lighter. "I like my freedom."
He returns his attention to the game, where the Eagles' final drive is falling far short, silencing the entire bar. It could be a long night for the Reality Bar Crawl.
As for me, it's time to get back to Philadelphia; and as I drive east along I-76, I think about the decision the Amish men I met have to make.
It must be an agonizing decision, at least for some. To leave behind your people, or to leave behind a world? To reject everything we take for granted -- cars, computers, movies and TiVo -- for a world where so much we love and enjoy is banned? Which life is better? A life of choices, or a life of limits? A life of progress, or a life rooted in the past? A life where I can drive the 70 miles back to Philadelphia in little more than an hour, or a life where a horse and buggy provide most transportation needs?
Which is the true Real World? A life where we know the ins and outs of Brad and Jen's breakup but don't know our neighbors' names, or a life where you can't have wall-to-wall carpeting but your neighbors will help you rebuild your barn?
I think about these things, and then I think about Fox's promos for the upcoming episodes of "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy" and "The Simple Life." And ... well, maybe the choice isn't as difficult for them as we would like to think.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.