Jay Wright thought he had his dream trip laid out perfectly. The Villanova head basketball coach would lead his top-ranked Wildcats into a home game against Seton Hall at noon ET next Sunday, just as multitudes of Philadelphia Eagles fans swarmed the streets of downtown Minneapolis in anticipation of Super Bowl LII. After the contest, Wright would address his team as usual, hold his post-game press conference and then dash to the local airport. If all things went according to plan, the private plane he'd arranged would arrive in the Twin Cities roughly two and a half hours after departure.
It all sounded great until Wright began to think more critically about the tight timetable. For all the elation he felt in securing a couple Super Bowl tickets -- he had one of the first cracks at those as an Eagles season-ticket holder -- he realized he might be cutting it too close with such an ambitious itinerary. The last thing Wright wanted was to miss even a second of what is quickly becoming the most coveted opportunity in the history of Philadelphia sports. As one of the many long-suffering Eagles fans, he knew full well how a win on football's biggest stage would impact his hometown.
"I had to give [the tickets] back because we're playing at noon," Wright said. "But I'm definitely going to be down on Broad Street with the rest of the Eagles fans when this is over. I don't want to miss that celebration when they win."
On the surface, it sounds like this is merely a highly regarded college basketball coach trying his best to support another local team. That's before you realize Wright is like every other Philadelphia fan who's been longing to see this team win a Super Bowl. They all know the numbers -- it's been nearly six decades since Chuck Bednarik and Norm Van Brocklin led the Eagles to the 1960 NFL championship by giving Green Bay's Vince Lombardi the lone loss of his playoff career. Everything since that point has been a mixture of frustration, agony and, often, outright bitterness.
A win against the New England Patriotsin Super Bowl LII would change all that. The people of Philadelphia have witnessed their fair share of championships in the past 45 years -- including two World Series victories by the Phillies (1980 and 2008), an NBA title by the Sixers (1983) and back-to-back Stanley Cups by the Flyers (1974 and '75). What they haven't seen is their favorite team, the franchise that is beloved more than any other in that city, hoist a Lombardi Trophy. That is the ultimate dream, and if it's realized against one of the most dominant franchises in the history of the NFL, then that will make it that much sweeter.
"I was at Game 5 when the Phillies won the World Series (in 2008), and that was the first championship that I saw in this town in my lifetime," said Chris Kunda, whose family has been long-time season-ticket holders. "But the way this town views the Eagles is at a different level. This is really a football town, first and foremost, so I can't even imagine what it would be like if they pulled this off."
"We are the only city in the Northeast Corridor that hasn't won a championship," added Ike Reese, who played linebacker for the Eagles from 1998 to 2004 and now hosts a show on Sportsradio 94WIP in Philadelphia. "But that's only part of why winning this is so important. It's also because we want to be recognized as a major sports city. The fans here love their Eagles more than anything in the Delaware Valley. That's not to take anything away from other teams. But what happens on Sundays determines what kind of mood you're in on Mondays."
There have been plenty of good Mondays in Philadelphia so far this season. That's largely because this Eagles team has an excellent chance of being the most beloved in the history of that franchise. Some of that has to do with the opportunity coming inside U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4. More of it comes down to the manner in which the Eagles reached this Super Bowl.
Most preseason projections saw the Eagles finishing last in the NFC East. Once the season was in full swing, the Eagles suffered through a spate of injuries that would cripple most playoff contenders. The list of players lost to season-ending injuries includes their most versatile running back (Darren Sproles), a Pro Bowl left tackle (Jason Peters), a talented young linebacker (Jordan Hicks) and a special teams standout (safety Chris Maragos). Of course, the most deflating setback came when second-year quarterback Carson Wentz tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee during a 43-35 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 10.
Angelo Cataldi, the anchor for the 94WIP morning show since 1989, was part of a group of 200 fans that flew to California to attend that game at the L.A. Coliseum. Nobody was talking about the Eagles having improved to 11-2 on that flight home, or the fact that the team had pushed even closer to securing the top seed in the NFC playoff race. Instead, Cataldi said it felt like he was traveling "in a hearse" because everybody felt like a magical season had imploded. All the Eagles have done since that point is lose one game -- a meaningless Week 17 defeat to Dallas -- while relying on backup quarterback Nick Foles to fill Wentz's shoes.
In a city where a statue of the fictitious underdog boxer Rocky resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this is the kind of story that plays huge. As Cataldi said, "This is a city that is always in the shadow of New York City and always in the shadow of Washington, D.C. We're always the other city. The people here love the idea of this team coming out of nowhere to win it all. This team resonates because of that underdog mentality."
The Eagles have played into that underdog personality as well. When they beat the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round, right tackle Lane Johnson famously strolled off the field wearing a dog mask. Defensive end Chris Long and other teammates joined in the fun, as well. In fact, the masks became so popular that Johnson partnered with a company and sold them to the public (along with T-shirts), with 65 percent of the proceeds going to local Philadelphia schools.
It's those types of efforts that have endeared this team to the public. Long has donated his entire 2017 salary to charity. Safety Malcolm Jenkins has been heavily involved in working with the NFL to create real solutions for social change in the wake of several player protests throughout the season. There's been constant talk about how close this team is, how much the players believe in each other. That connection also extends to a city that has longed to see this franchise win the league's biggest prize.
"I can't underestimate our fan base," said Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie after his team's 38-7 win over Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game. "It's just unbelievable. This is the most passionate fan base in the NFL, if not in sports. They care so much, they're our partners, and we just want to win so badly for them. So when you win a conference championship, it's for all of us and it's for them. If we win a Super Bowl, it's for them. It's very special, it means a lot, and it will mean even more if we accomplish our major goal."
The relationship between the Eagles and their fans is fairly simple to understand. Football is the city's most popular sport because Philadelphia is a blue-collar town and, as Kunda said, "When you have 53 guys working together for a common goal, it means that much more."
That city also is a place where fans expect the players to grind as hard as the regular folk. "The fans hold the players and the team accountable," Reese said. "They don't just love you because of your stats. They want to know if you're blue-collar, too."
"Football is the ultimate team sport, and I think the people here appreciate that more than individuals," Wright said. "They like feeling like they're part of the team. Philadelphia loved (former Sixers) Dr. J and Allen Iverson, and there's not an Eagles player who is as beloved as those guys. But the team (concept) is more important to these people."
Wright, who grew up in Newtown, Bucks County, understands that love as much as anybody. His father attended that 1960 championship and then spent decades telling his boy that the Eagles were going to win the Super Bowl every time a new season began. Wright recalls Sundays in his youth as being very basic -- "You went to church and then you watched the Eagles" -- and he eventually became as diehard as his dad. He spent plenty of afternoons in Franklin Field and Veterans Stadium, long believing that icons like Roman Gabriel would deliver his team a title.
Kunda was no different, even though he came of age 20 years later. His family obtained their first season tickets in 1961, and Eagles games have been a weekly ritual in the fall ever since. Kunda still can see the fear in his mother's eyes when, at the age of 7, he strolled out the door with his father to have his first experience at Veterans Stadium. As much as the young kid enjoyed watching the Eagles tangle with the Arizona Cardinals, it was equally surreal to feel the insane noise and energy surging inside that stadium.
What both Kunda and Wright eventually learned is something that has become a necessity for all Eagles fans, both young and old: You better have a lot of patience to root for this team. The Eagles enjoyed only one winning season from 1962 through 1977. They reached the Super Bowl in 1980 under head coach Dick Vermeil -- who led the franchise to four straight playoff appearances between 1978 and 1981 -- but then he quit coaching after the 1982 campaign because of burnout. Even the promise that tough leaders like Buddy Ryan and Ray Rhodes inspired was numbed by the frustration created by the inept coaching of Marion Campbell.
It reached a point where, as time went by, the Eagles fans gained more prominence than the team itself. They were the crazed people who threw snow balls at Santa Claus decades ago, the bunch that became so rowdy during games that the city had to create a jail inside Veterans Stadium.
"They've gotten a lot of attention over the years," Wright said, "and I honestly think they've enjoyed it."
The last time the Eagles were this close to a championship was during the 2004 season. Head coach Andy Reid suffered a 24-21 loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX, but what's interesting is that game isn't what sticks in the minds of some Philadelphia fans. Reese said losing three straight NFC title games before that year had a more profound impact on his psyche. He actually cried after the Eagles' NFC title game loss to Carolina during the 2003 season, while that Super Bowl defeat didn't illicit any tears at all. But Cataldi added that the Eagles' playoff loss a year earlier, against Tampa Bay, was just as difficult.
"You have to understand how beloved Veterans Stadium was," Cataldi said. "They created a 700-level experience that embraced the lunatic fringe of this fan base. The last game there was the NFC title game in 2002, and the Eagles had the best team in football. Everybody had the ending written for that game and we were playing a Tampa Bay team that had never won a game when the temperature was below 40 degrees. That (27-10) loss was so devastating. I don't think there's a day that goes by where I don't have somebody call in to say they want to avenge that defeat. A win in this game would do that."
There's a strong feeling that this year's Eagles have a different vibe about them than the previous Super Bowl teams. When Vermeil led his team to this stage in 1980 -- where they lost 27-10 to the Oakland Raiders -- the collective belief was that there would be more opportunities. The same could be said of the 2004 squad, one led by quarterback Donovan McNabb and wide receiver Terrell Owens. The Patriots were on their way to their third Super Bowl win in four years, so anybody could be forgiven for falling to a legitimate dynasty.
The magic is definitely with the Eagles this time. They've fought through too many setbacks, relied on so many people and thrived regardless of the circumstances.
"The thing about this team is (with) all the adversity and negativity and everything that surrounds the team, these guys don't listen to that," said Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. "I don't listen to that. They come to work and practice hard every day, and they love being around each other."
The city loves these Eagles for the exact same reason. After years of frustration, Philadelphia has a chance to experience something that hasn't come around in 57 years. Just as Wright remembers from his younger years, there will be ample prayers uttered on Super Bowl Sunday, and even more anticipation building as kickoff nears. If the Eagles pull this off, then the championship parade for the Phillies in 2008 -- an event that drew an estimated 2 million people -- will pale in comparison to the Eagles' celebration.
Said Cataldi: "That will be the party to end all parties."
"Any championship team is loved in this town," Wright said. "The Phillies are loved for their championships. The Flyers are loved for theirs. But nothing compares to the Eagles. Nothing ever will."