He’d seen a lot since the greatest afternoon of his career: stints with the Vikings and the Redskins, a couple of coaching jobs in a couple of different leagues, a career as a home builder before the market tanked. But in the 57 years that had passed since he helped bring an NFL title home to Philadelphia, Billy Ray Barnes hadn’t seen the one thing he’d been waiting to see.
“I’m damn tired of hearing about 1960,” Barnes said with a deep raspy laugh. “That gets old. It gets very old.”
Did they watch? Damn right, they watched. Eddie Khayat was down at his place in Nashville, Pete Retzlaff on the Gilbertsville farm he still owns. Riley Gunnels was over in New Jersey, Maxie Baughan in Maryland, Barnes in the same North Carolina house where he was born.
“You had to be rolling on the floor laughing when you saw the trick play down there on the goal line,” said Khayat, who at 82 years old is no longer among the most recent players to start at defensive tackle for an Eagles championship team. “Done to perfection, wasn’t it? They had to practice that over and over to get that timing right.”
Heck yeah, they watched.
“I’m an Eagles fan like everybody else,” said Gunnels, who was a rookie out of Georgia back in 1960. “My wife’s from Philadelphia. I’m happy for them, for the city. I thought they did a terrific job, especially the offense. They were great.”
At times, the thing can look like a different game. A spectacle, not a sport, with the lights and the cameras and the concert midway. Yet as they watched Nick Foles and Doug Pederson orchestrate one of the most dramatic and improbable victories in the history of their sport, a lot of what they saw looked a lot of ways familiar.
Down on the corner of 62nd and Walnut, there was a restaurant where they used to gather. Donahue’s, it was called, home of the $3.75 Thanksgiving buffet. Each Monday, Bert Donahue would open the doors to his bar and the boys would mosey on down from the Walnut Plaza Hotel where many of them stayed. All afternoon, for three, four hours, they would sit and drink beer and talk their way through the previous day’s game.
“The point is, we were together,” said Barnes, who carried the ball 13 times for 42 yards in the Eagles’ 17-13 win over the Packers in the NFL championship game. “We stuck together, and we played together. Whether we were the best, I don’t know, but for two years, nobody beat us.”
They saw it in Foles’ MVP performance, in Pederson’s “Philly special” trick play down on the goal line.
Impressed with Nick
“This kid, Foles, he goes [27-2], and then he gets traded?” Barnes said. “That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And then, what, he got cut from two other teams? Well, I’m going to tell you one thing, the last two games I saw, he’s not gonna be getting cut by anybody. I understand he’s gonna be a preacher. I hope he waits a little bit before he starts preachin’ about the good Lord, because he’s got a lot of football left in him.”
They saw it in the egalitarian distribution of the football: first Alshon Jeffery, then Jay Ajayi, then Corey Clement. They saw it in the vain grimaces of an opposing coach whose name has become synonymous with Lombardi.
“It was a long time coming, but I’ll tell you what, they put on a great show,” Khayat said. “They were just outstanding in every way.”
On Sunday, they watched commercials that cost $5 million for a 30-second spot. Back in 1960, the whole game grossed $747,876, tickets and TV and radio rights combined.
Khayat still remembers the site of the digits on the front of the winners’ revenue-share checks.
Five thousand, one hundred, sixteen dollars.
And forty-eight cents.
“Put it in the bank, paid the income tax,” he said. “You talk to a lot of old-timers, they’ll tell you, ‘We loved the game so much we would’ve played it for free.’ And then they’ll hesitate and say, ‘And we almost did.’”
What happened afterward?
There was no parade, as far as anybody can remember. There was a night on the town that turned into a morning, and, later that week, a celebratory dinner. But by the end of the week the champions had scattered.
“The game was over, and it seemed like everybody went back to work,” Pete Retzlaff, the team’s star tight end, said. “It’s changed a lot since we were there.”
What hasn’t changed is the legacy they now hand off to a new crop of legends. You listen to them talk, and you realize that some things don’t change. That success, in its ultimate form, is an eternal thread.
“Any time I would step out on the streets, somebody would want me to buy me a drink,” Khayat said. “I’d have to go back in the hotel. It was a victory, just as this one is this time: It was a victory for everybody in Philadelphia. As players, we would say, ‘we won,’ but as fans, they would say, ‘we won.’ Which, they did. So, we all won.”
“Unless you were actually a part of it, there’s no way to describe the feeling. To find out that we were the best that the world had to offer? That was a great feeling.”
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