A fan’s game day setup at a Philadelphia Eagles tailgate on Oct. 11 in Williamstown, NJ. [Credit: Anna Wesche]
PHILADELPHIA ー In late August, the Philadelphia Eagles announced that fans would be barred from attending home games until further notice.
For many in the City of Brotherly Love, this was a bigger blow than the weddings and vacations put on hold by the pandemic lockdowns — especially since no football meant an end to one of the game’s most-loved traditions: the infamous tailgating parties that define Eagles fandom.
“[Tailgating] is the common thread that always brings Philadelphia fans together,” said Rocco Galleli, a native Philadelphian and owner of Rhythm and Reels, a New Jersey drive-in and performance venue.
The drive-in has become a tailgating destination for Eagles fans during the ongoing pandemic… and it’s where I, a curious Philadelphian transplant and football fan, found myself in the middle of October as a means of understanding my new city’s avid fandom.
Everyone I approached at the tailgate seemed excited to be there and eager to talk to me in between rounds of grilled food and beer pong (there was a lot of beer pong). One man offered to make me a taco.
Most fans gave the same answer when asked how long they’ve been Eagles supporters: “forever.” I wondered how this sports-obsessed town was coping with the disappearance of the sporting traditions they loved. My conversations showed me that Philly doesn’t give up.
WELCOME TO BIRD LAND
South Philadelphia was unusually quiet. It was the morning of the first home game of the season, played against the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 20. The lots surrounding the stadium were empty, apart from a few weeds that had sprung up through cracks in the asphalt.
The Eagles’ notoriously unruly fans had complied with the city’s lockdown rules, leading to a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer that posed the question: “Is this still Philly?”
But on Oct. 13, what is affectionately known as “Eagles nation” felt a spark of life when the city announced it would allow up to 7,500 people at games held in Lincoln Financial Field, the home stadium that locals call “the Linc.”
Within minutes of the announcement, people on Bleeding Green Nation, a community for fans of the team hosted on the SB Nation sports site, began debating which upcoming games were worth the ticket prices.
However, in true 2020 fashion, the re-welcoming of fans didn’t last long.
On Nov. 16, Philadelphia toughened lockdown restrictions in response to both a national and local surge in coronavirus cases. After only three home games, the Eagles community was once again banned from their South Philly sanctuary.
This might not have been the end of the world for cities like Los Angeles and New York. But for Philadelphia, which bases so much of its identity on its sports teams, the ban was pure misery. I know because I got to see it firsthand.
TAILGATING IN A PANDEMIC
I moved to Philadelphia from Baltimore, MD, in June 2018 to start my first job after graduating college. But I grew up in rural Ohio, where I was inducted into Ohio State football fandom at an early age. In the two and a half years I’ve lived here, I’ve never attended an Eagles tailgate or game. I always thought there would be an opportunity to go, so I never prioritized it.
COVID-19 proved me wrong. So in October, eight months into the pandemic, a restless Google search brought me to Rocco Galleli’s Eagles tailgating party, a breezy 19 miles south of the Linc.
I decided to stop by for the Eagles vs. Steelers game on Sunday, Oct. 11.
When I drove up to the tailgate, I thought I was in the wrong place. There was no parking lot or screen, just a squat brown building with a white gazebo centered on the front lawn.
But off to the side, a man waved me forward. He scanned my ticket, marked my rental car’s windshield with bright orange window paint, and sent me on my way with a print-out of the rules.
I parked my car and sat for a few minutes. I hadn’t been around this many people since the pandemic began in March. Armed with a mask and two travel-sized bottles of hand sanitizer, I hopped out wearing an Eagles T-shirt I had bought the day before.
If I was going to hang out with Eagles fans all afternoon, I wanted to look the part.
A 40-foot screen played the FOX Sports pregame show a few rows in front of me. Cars, tents, and bag chairs pointed at it as though toward a magnet.
Jessica Bergbauer arrived with a group when the lot opened at 9 am. She and her companions work in the service industry, and they’d made a point of requesting that Sunday off to attend the tailgate. All of them claimed to have been Eagles fans since birth.
Their setup included a tent, a circle of bag chairs, and two folding tables: one for beer pong and one for food. She donned her mask when I walked up to her with a wave.
“We all took off [work] a couple of weeks in advance,” Bergbauer said. “We just said that we have to do something even if it’s the only thing we do all season.”
While crouching a reasonable distance from Bergbauer’s bag chair, I noticed her group grew in size. She said she didn’t know everyone who was at her beer-pong table or the few by the grill eating her food.
“After a couple of beers, everyone’s just back in Eagles country,” she said.
Doug Lacy lives only a few miles from the drive-in, but this was his first time attending a tailgate there. He and his companion, Andrew Baus, said they normally spend home games in K Lot, one of the stadium’s infamous tailgating parking lots.
“No one wants to do this alone,” Lacy said. “We’re really just trying to pack as much fun into the day as we can.”
They arrived three hours before the game began and were still waiting for a few more friends to join their group.
“I’d much rather be there [at the Linc], but this isn’t bad,” Lacy added. Having never been to a tailgate at the stadium, I didn’t know how this experience compared to the real thing.
“It’s a way smaller atmosphere, but it has the same feel,” said Sam Mitcho, a regular tailgater at the Linc. Mitcho grew up in South Jersey and lives in a suburb outside of Philadelphia. He came with the same people he would have been with at the Linc.
“We’re happy to be here. This is our first time to do this again, so we’re excited.”
Even the lone Steelers car on the right-hand side of the lot was welcomed.
“I haven’t fought anyone,” Lacy’s companion Andrew Baus said. “Yet.”
Philadelphia is obsessed with its football team, for better or for worse.
During this season’s first home game, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was booed despite the lack of spectators. An audio engineer added the sound effect to the stadium’s crowd noise after Wentz threw two interceptions.
But despite their hard-to-please natures, Eagles fans are unquestionably loyal.
Back in April, I could hear chants of “E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!” while walking through the city’s downtown. And this was just during football’s off season.
Things tend to get out of hand during the actual season. After the team won the NFC Championship in 2018, Philadelphia police slathered streetlight poles with Crisco to prevent fans from climbing them in celebration (it didn’t work).
Earlier that same month, a fan who authorities said was forced to leave the stadium for being intoxicated punched a police horse in retaliation.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said that if you’re playing for the opposing team, you’ll find that the Eagles have the “worst fans in the world.” Fans threw a cheesesteak at Washington Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker after he was ejected from a game for an illegal hit to Eagles quarterback Nick Foles in 2014.
“It’s Philadelphia,” Baker said. “You’ve got to expect it.”
Eagles fans wear those stories like badges of honor. It’s not Eagles players versus the NFL — it’s Eagles nation versus everyone else.
Two men in midnight-green jerseys raced to shotgun a pair of Bud Lights as I continued my walk around the parking lot. Fans sat in groups of bag chairs and passed around bowls of chips. Nearly every car had an accompanying beer-pong table and an audience to watch.
The parking lot had energy. It was refreshing to be somewhere that felt normal. I was in the midst of an experience that hadn’t been completely changed by COVID-19.
The cheering, the booing, the screaming, the honking — it all happened beneath a greasy grill haze that hovered over the cars. I felt like I was in a pre-pandemic bubble. Fans climbed on top of their truck beds, waved their team flags, and sang the team’s fight song, “Fly, Eagles, Fly.” A van sounded its (very loud) horn in short spurts after every touchdown.
Stacy Harris and his group weren’t sure what to expect at the drive-in. Now they want to come every Sunday. His friends, who tailgate with him at the Linc, found the event on Facebook and brought him as a birthday surprise.
“Minus the stadium noise, you’d never know you weren’t there,” Harris said.
Tailgates with Eagles nation are a party even when the team loses more often than it wins. Currently, Philadelphia is ranked third in “the NFL’s worst division.”
But a losing record has never deterred fans. It took 57 years for the team to win its first Super Bowl in 2018. On the day of the Steelers game, they entered the field with a losing record and left with one, too.
From what I could see, fans were just happy to be there.
“Sundays, for that short window, for those couple hours with the people cheering, you feel like you’re back to normal,” Galleli told me.
Eagles fans are simple. They don’t need to win the game as much as they need the game itself.
Because of the pandemic, they couldn’t slap each other’s backs or high-five strangers after every Philly touchdown. Their voices and horns were enough.