|Thursday, December 12
Updated: December 13, 3:49 PM ET
Eagles preparing to leave Veterans Stadium
By Sal Paolantonio
PHILADELPHIA -- To understand how the concrete beast known as Veterans Stadium has seeped deep into the culture of this city, you must know this story:
In 1989, Jimmy Johnson brought his fledgling Dallas Cowboys' team into the Vet for a game in December against Buddy Ryan's Eagles, a game played two days after one of the worst ice and snow storms in recent Philadelphia history.
The city workers had done their usual bang-up job clearing the white stuff and by the fourth quarter of a lopsided game, the only thing keeping fans amused were snowballs.
Up in the 700 level, a very prominent attorney was taking bets that nobody could throw a snowball and hit the Cowboys bench from that distance. By the fourth quarter, the police were involved, and after the game Jimmy Johnson needed an escort through a hail of white projectiles.
Of course, the snowball throwing contest became bigger news than the game itself. And, the next day, that famous attorney's name was revealed in the Philadelphia Inquirer. His name is Edward G. Rendell. Two years later, he was elected mayor of Philadelphia.
Next season, the Eagles will move across the street into brand spanking new Lincoln Financial Field, a project that Rendell helped develop with team owner Jeffrey Lurie. The Vet will eventually be imploded, making way for a parking lot. And there is no shortage of NFL players, including some very prominent former Eagles, who would love to push the plunger.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid, whose new office in the team's NovaCare practice complex looks out at the Vet from across Broad Street, often jokes that on the day the old beast is to be put to rest, he'll have the best seat in the house. "I could sell tickets," he says.
The horrid turf, the rats running through the team's weight room, the dank, cramped locker room, the drunken brawls in the stands, the seats with obstructed views, the bathrooms that were simply bad news -- whatever you want to say about Veterans Stadium, it aroused vile passions almost from the day it opened -- Aug. 16, 1971, when the Eagles played the first pre-season game there.
From the beginning, the Vet was viewed as an unflattering "cookie-cutter" stadium, a multi-purpose concrete bowl, devoid of any kind of architectural charm. The early 70's were a time when the municipal policies of fiscal restraint and urban renewal often resulted in a compromise which served neither purpose. And that's what happened here -- and in Cincinnati with Riverfront Stadium and Pittsburgh with Three Rivers, the sister stadiums to the Vet.
But unlike Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, where the stadiums graced downtown river vistas, Veterans Stadium was exiled to a neighborhood of warehouses and abandoned lots and had all the charm of a forgotten concrete outpost far from the historic center of Philadelphia.
And the Vet quickly adopted the unforgiving and hard-bitten personality of its location and, perhaps more important, its frustrated football fans. While in the 70's the Steelers were winning four Super Bowls in Pittsburgh, across the state in Philadelphia the Eagles were mired in mediocrity.
Then Dick Vermeil came to town in 1976, the year Philadelphia hosted the Bicentennial Celebration. The word vermeil means "gilded silver," and in the next four seasons Veterans Stadiums would finally get its brief moment to shine.
By 1980, the Eagles won the NFC East and on January 11, 1981, Veterans Stadium hosted its first, and thus far only, NFC Championship game. With only two healthy wide receivers and a passing game that was hindered by frigid weather, the Eagles were carried that day by running back Wilbert Montgomery, who had 194 yards rushing, including a 42-yard touchdown romp that nearly brought down the house.
"When Wilbert broke that run against Dallas," said former Eagles wide receiver Harold Carmichael, "the stadium rocked. It was unbelievable. Such a cold day and all those Eagles fans in the stands, some without shirts on and it was so loud. The emotion the fans rocked the whole city."
The Eagles beat Dallas 20-7. They lost the Super Bowl to the Oakland Raiders. Years of decline followed and that Veterans Stadium passion was rarely put to good use, until Buddy Ryan was hired as head coach in 1986.
Ryan brought a brutal defensive scheme perfectly suited for the city's raucous fans and the cement hard artificial turf, which was quickly getting the reputation around the league for its crevices, cracks and dead zones. With Reggie White, the late Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner and Wes Hopkins, the Eagles defense didn't just defeat teams, it demoralized them - and the Vet played an important role in that culture of intimidation.
On November 12, 1990, a Monday night at the Vet, the Eagles crushed the Washington Redskins, 28-14, with the defense scoring three of the team's four touchdowns. It was known as "The Body Bag Game," because the Eagles knocked out the starting and back-up quarterbacks. (Ironically, current Eagles running back Brian Mitchell was forced to play quarterback for the 'Skins that night.)
Year in, year out, an NFL Players Association survey found that the Vet's artificial turf was the worst playing surface in the league. Players hated it. Legendary Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski used to say it was like playing "on concrete with a green bed sheet over it."
In 1993, Chicago Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis, running down field untouched, suddenly collapsed like he had been shot. Davis had blown both his knees -- his career, he later alleged, swallowed by the Vet turf.
Throughout the 90's, as other teams prepared to move into new stadiums or threatened to leave their city if they didn't get one, the Eagles could not get out of their lease at the Vet and struggled to get financing for a new place. And the Vet fell into disrepair.
On Dec. 5, 1998, at the Army-Navy game, 10 West Point cadets plunged 15 feet to the Vet turf after a railing gave way. One cadet, Kevin Galligan of Alabama, broke his neck and sprained his wrist. His dream of fighting for his country as an Army Ranger was ended that day. He's now an investment banker.
Despite that incident, the atmosphere at the Vet and the turf problem got worse.
The rowdy fan behavior became so violent -- the 700 level of the Vet makes Raider Nation look like a tea party -- that the city was forced to permanently assign a Common Pleas Court judge to the Vet on game day. Judge Seamus McCaffery handed out fines and jail time -- while the game was going on! -- in a make-shift courtroom in the basement of the Vet, the only stadium in league history with a judge on the premises to process the criminal element in the stands.
Don't forget, the Eagles fan recently voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a guy named Torch Man. He got that name by lighting his arm on fire during the game to insight near-riotous fan passion for the home team. For obvious reasons, Torch Man is not allowed to light himself on fire anymore. Nevertheless, he is representing Eagles fans in Canton.
Two years later, the turf was back in the news. In August 2001, the NFL cancelled a preseason game between the Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens after head coach Brian Billick and several veteran players from both teams complained that the new NextTurf surface was improperly installed by the city.
"The surface underneath the turf was not smoothed properly, so that when you lay the turf on it you've got, not a ripple, but ruts to the point where it was unsafe," said Eagles president Joe Banner. "You could twist an ankle or a knee too easily." It was the only time in NFL history that a game was called off due to bad turf.
"It's a bad environment," said Eagles head coach Andy Reid. "No one," said Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent, "wants to play here."
Indeed, as they make a run for their second NFC East title in team history, the Eagles are using the Vet to play mind games with the opposition. The nasty turf, the nasty fans -- it's all part of a psychological edge the Vet provides. Just ask the Tampa Bay Bucs. The last three visits to Veterans Stadium -- twice in the playoffs -- the Bucs failed to score a single offensive touchdown.
On a recent visit to the Vet, one veteran NFL player told me: "This place is like a knife fight in a dark alley. Sometimes you look around and you're not sure you're going to make it out of here in one piece."
Now, that's home field advantage.
And if the Eagles win their remaining three games, they will finish the season 13-3, and own home field throughout the NFC playoffs. Which means the Vet will get one more starring role as the Temple of Doom in the NFC Championship Game.
Sal Paolantonio, who covers the NFL for ESPN, was a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1985-95.