The New York Jets have Fireman Ed. And in the 1990′s, the Philadelphia Eagles had what I called the Three Stooges — a trio of self appointed ring leaders of the circus, aka the 750 section in the infamous 700 level in Veteran’s Stadium. We had six season tickets, seven steep hard concrete rows from the top, so far from the field that the show in the stands usually turned out to be much more exciting than anything that took place on the field that 6-9-1 season.
On home game days, our area resembled a bar room instead of a professional sporting event: there were constant fights, dozens of alcohol induced injuries, and language you wouldn’t reprint in most places. These were the cheap seats where beer was smuggled in, food was packed into lunch pails, and cheering was a religion. A 13-year-old a row in front of us had one job: to see how many beers he could hide in his clothes, unchecked because of his age and a lack of body scanning technology. He won the prize the day the count totaled 14.
In 1997, I had a front row seat to the game that would become the catalyst for the first ever stadium jail created in the National Football League. On a cool crisp Monday night in late November of that year, the Eagles were gearing up to play the San Francisco 49ers in a nationally televised match up. The team record was a shaky 4-5 and the rabid Philly fans were getting restless. Behavior at night games in the city of Brotherly Love was iffy at best. People had all day to imbibe large quantities of alcohol, while they grew increasingly zealous – not usually a good combination.
Section ‘750’ had its own subculture. Each Sunday we looked forward to our own chants and rituals from our leaders, with unique branded t-shirts and rules. The undisputed leader of the section was ‘Wig man’ who sported a multi-colored spiky haired wig with his Eagles jersey, jeans and construction boots. At the start of each game, flanked by his two trusty sidekicks, he stood on the railing that separated the 700 level from the 600 level and led the fans in the first ‘E-A-G-L-E-S’ chant of the game, while little green and white firecrackers somehow miraculously shot off his outstretched arms at the end of the cheer. Thunderous applause always greeted him; in our section he was a rock star.
The second in command was ‘Speedo’ man, who wore only a bright green speedo and construction boots, rain, shine, or snow. Athletically built, he had the strapping broad chest of a swimmer. His sole job was to stand on right of Wig man during the chants and spell out the word Eagles with his arms. Rounding out the trio was ‘Birdman’. With pasty thin white legs stuffed into fraying brown construction boots, his game uniform consisted of a white jockstrap, a ratty green blazer, an Eagles helmet and a constant crooked drunken smile.
On the night of the Niners game, the crowd was in rare form. The Monday Night Football crew rolled into town to cover the game with announcers Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf. Gifford had been ensnared in some off the field drama of his own that Fall. Married to Kathy Lee Gifford, there were extensive news reports of an extramarital affair.
As we entered our section, Bird Man handed us each an object and told to hold it up when he gave a signal. Looking down, I discovered it was a black and white cut out of the head of Kathy Lee Gifford, her blond curly locks perfectly outlined, super-glued to a Popsicle stick. Not really understanding the significance, my friends and I took the sticks and proceeded to our seats.
When Bird Man held up his popsicle stick at the bottom of the section and wildly waved to the crowd to do the same, we dutifully held up Kathy Lee Gifford’s face in front of our own. The cheers were deafening. During the 90′s, the Monday Night Football television production panned the stadium showing the fans at the start of each game while the iconic “Are you ready for some football” song played. It finally dawned on me as I looked around 750 and saw a massive sea of Kathy Lee faces, swaying in the cool night air, as the stadium reverberated from the noise. Our fearless leaders had purposely meant for the cameras to show 2,000 pictures of Frank Gifford’s wife’s face to the national audience, in hopes of embarrassing him while he called the game. All around me people were hysterically laughing and high-fiving each other, laughing hysterically, pleased to be in on the joke.
Was it cruel? Of course. Was it crazy? Of course. But it was not the most shocking behavior I saw that night. It was recorded that on November 10, 1997, there were six arrests and a whopping 269 ejections, half of which I am certain occurred in section 750. What did shock me was that anyone would spend hours upon hours photocopying, cutting and super gluing a woman’s face to thousands of popsicle sticks. To this day, I am still curious how many hours and people it took to put together.
By the end of that game, the Eagles would decide the 700 level would be lawless no more. In a shocking move, Judge Seamus McCaffrey was hired to preside over an in-stadium jail, handing out $250 to $300 tickets for drunk, rowdy and violent behavior. Beer sales would be suspended and extra security outside the stadium was placed at the ramps to stop people from bringing beer into the facility.
When I moved to New York City for work, I gave up my season tickets. In the Linc, there is no jail. There is no need for one. Gone are the 700 level, the man shivering in a tiny bathing suit trying to remember how to spell Eagles after four hours of tailgating, and the kid who could hide beer in every crevice of his clothing. Also gone are the cheap seats and with them, the unruly passionate fans that made the Vet such an imposing place for visiting teams to play. Fans are just as passionate but rarely do you see the kind of misbehavior that defined the 700 level. I still try to get to one or two home games a year, but somehow it’s just not the same.