I’m no football fan. First, there are the concussions. Then there’s the question of kneeling during the national anthem — will they or won’t they? Very stressful. And the average NFL broadcast features way too many Dodge Ram commercials.
But I am from Philadelphia. So although I had not seen a complete football game in years, I found it absolutely necessary to purchase an antenna Sunday morning to watch that evening’s televised Super Bowl event, in which the Eagles triumphed over the New England Patriots. The score was something-to-something — I don’t remember, because I’m still stuck on the “triumphed” part.
The victory made me sad. In its moment of glory, Philadelphia betrayed its true nature. We are underdogs, through and through. Thus, by winning, we lose.
Though I’ve not lived in Philadelphia for two decades, I think that I’m on safe ground when I say the City of Brotherly Love runs on loathing. We are unfriendly to strangers, and often to friends and family. We talk funny, eat strange foods and start fights just for the hell of it. Every misunderstanding threatens to become an argument; every argument threatens to become a fistfight; every fistfight threatens to become a riot. It’s not the kind of place where you want to cut someone off in traffic.
Reared in this dog-eat-dog environment on Wawa pretzels and “Rocky” films, I watch Philadelphia teams with a heart filled not with love of the game but with pure aggression. The bums we are playing, whoever they are, must be not just be beaten, but destroyed. Remember: We are the city that cheered when Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin, who suffered a career-ending spinal injury at Veterans Stadium in 1999, was carried off on a stretcher.
Philadelphia is out for blood. Yet, historically, we are not the ablest vampires on the gridiron or elsewhere. The Eagles won their first Super Bowl days ago. The Phillies did not win a World Series between 1980 and 2008 and haven’t won a pennant since 2009. The 76ers have not won an NBA championship since 1983. I hear the Flyers are more successful, but somehow, few people seem to care.
Starved of victory so frequently, one builds an identity around famine. Philadelphians became lovable — or not so lovable — losers, and were proud of it. Sometime after the Constitutional Convention, our city, the nation’s sixth largest and once its capital, became just another stop on the I-95 corridor, like Wilmington, Del. More recently, we suffered the indignity of being called New York’s “sixth borough.” Philadelphia wasn’t a place you chose. It was a place you landed. Years ago, I asked my father why people move to Philadelphia. He said he’d never heard of anyone who moved to Philadelphia.
An answer like that shapes a young man’s character. I watched the Super Bowl ready — eager — to be enraged about another loss. I was so prepared to root for the underdog that when Deflategate pretty boy Tom Brady, the emperor of avocado ice cream, somehow became the underdog deep in the fourth quarter on Sunday, I found myself rooting for him.
Now: victory. What does Philadelphia do with it? This is no small inflection point. People have been waiting for this moment for half a century. Most are psyched.
“This is like a whole new life,” Joe Steinhardt, a Philadelphia native who was contemplating spending $500 on a commemorative Eagles Super Bowl guitar, wrote in a text message. “I don’t think I’m cynical anymore about anything. I feel like Scrooge at the end of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”
I couldn’t share his enthusiasm. My preferred literary analogy: Sisyphus. Existentialist Albert Camus thought the mythical king, punished for angering Zeus, could find happiness rolling a rock uphill, again and again, for eternity. But what if, one day, Sisyphus rolled the rock to the top of the hill and the rock disappeared?
Sisyphus might reinvent himself. He could start a handbag line or open a gluten-free bakery. But rolling the rock uphill was his whole brand. As Camus himself might put it, the rock was Sisyphus’s raison d’etre.
Similarly, Philadelphia’s essence is a romantic longing for greatness that never quite appears on the horizon. Now that this greatness has materialized — now that we’ve got the Vince Lombardi trophy and have ripped up some greased light poles — what are we supposed to do? Feel good about ourselves? Embrace positivity?
That’s not really our thing.
Andy Burr, a guy I went to high school with and the former host of an Eagles tailgate show on local cable television, preferred to focus on the bright side of winning the Super Bowl. He criticized media coverage of the post-victory lawlessness. He spoke of the Eagles “family.” But even he recognized the winner’s dilemma.
“It does not mean the feeling of us against everyone will go away,” he wrote in a message. “The city thrives on it.”
At the end of “Rocky,” after all, Rocky loses.