Fran Mulherin — a.k.a. Franta Claus, a white-bearded Santa impersonator from Williamstown who was raising money for the Ronald McDonald House while tailgating outside Lincoln Financial Field on Monday afternoon — had a couple of reasons to be jolly.
First, he was optimistic about the Eagles’ future as they head into the playoffs, even considering quarterback Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury this month. “It’s looking really good,” Franta Claus said. “I think [backup quarterback Nick] Foles will do fine. Last week was an indication: What’d he throw, 237 yards for four touchdowns? I just hope the defense holds up.”
He also gave a more pragmatic consideration, noting the brutally cold but sunny day: “There’s no snow today, so I don’t have to worry about the fans throwing snowballs at Santa Claus.”
It was practically a consensus among fans enjoying the Eagles’ winningest season since 2004: The Oakland Raiders would need something like a Christmas miracle to derail the team, which was guaranteed a playoff spot. There was no miracle, and Monday night’s win secured for the Eagles home-field advantage in the postseason.
The atmosphere at the Christmas tailgate was nearly jubilant, as crowds broke into the Eagles fight song or shouted “Welcome to Wentzylvania!” to passersby.
“Tailgate Charlie” Nelson of Deptford distractedly pinned an Eagles brooch into his dyed-green beard, completing his head-to-toe team paraphernalia.
“I think we can beat any of these teams,” he said. “We got a lot more weapons than we did in ’04. We’ve got one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league.”
“Foles can get us there,” agreed Karen Mauer, 52, of East Greenville. “There’s no other backup I’d rather have. The defense just has to step up today.”
Mauer was one of many fans who adjusted Christmas celebrations to accommodate hours of tailgating ahead of the game.
“I was amazed how many RVs pulled in with trees strapped to the roof,” said Mauer, standing in the parking lot near her own tree and a cooler full of her preferred beer: Weyerbacher Dallas Sucks pale ale.
“This is the first time in I don’t know how many years that there is not a Christmas dinner being served in my home,” she said. “So I have the ham and potatoes and the pineapple stuffing. It’s all here.”
After all, Eagles football is more or less a religion.
Lou Vogel hasn’t missed a game since 2005. His crew, mostly from Haddon Heights, always sets up in Lot 2, Section 2; P2 is even embroidered on the back of his Eagles hat and emblazoned on the wristbands he hands out. (Once, he arrived to find a car parked in his spot. His crew, often 100-strong, simply lifted it up and carried it to another space a few yards away.)
Vogel said he expected the Eagles to beat the Raiders, and he intend
s to be there in P2 right through the postseason.
The same for John Rodio of Hammonton, N.J., an Eagles fan “since birth.” (That’s 53 years.) Rodio — wearing an Eagles-logo blazer and an Eagles-green Santa hat, and manning a grill on a custom-built trailer decked out with twinkle lights and tinsel — said Wentz’s injury was a setback, but not a fatal one.
“All year long, they made up for a lot of injuries,” he said. “This team is genuine. They really believe in themselves, believe in each other. Everyone expects us to go to the Super Bowl. We’re making preparations to go to Minnesota.”
In fact, the only note of regret anyone could come up with was a wistful comment from Theresa Worrell, 32, of Mount Laurel, that Wentz won’t get to be a part of the playoffs.
“It just stinks that he led us here and he can’t be there.” (Worrell, on the other hand, will be. “I pretty much schedule my life around football,” she said.)
It is, some admit, a swift mental adjustment from a few weeks ago, when fans feared that the Eagles were headed for a meltdown without Wentz. “Initially, I thought it was the end of the world,” said Mike McColgan, 42, of Audubon, Camden County. “But, for a backup, we’re in the best position we could be in.”
McColgan and Scott Broadhurst, also 42, of Audubon, wore matching Eagles-logo suits and ties for the occasion, which to them was starting to feel like the culmination of a season-long arc toward victory.
So, spending the holiday in a freezing-cold South Philadelphia parking lot felt entirely worth it.
“Just Christmas with our kids,” McColgan said. “That’s all we missed.”