When I was a Temple senior, during one of those countless years when no Philadelphia sports team was parade-worthy, I had an English professor who was both an egghead and an Eagles fan.
It seemed so incongruous, no less now than in 1972, that this committed academic, one who wore flowing scarves, smoked a pipe, wrote poetry, railed against the Vietnam War, and marched for peace, could also care so passionately about Ben Hawkins.
Once, having lingered too long over the Daily News sports section at lunch, I arrived late for his class. Noticing my tardiness and knowing I hoped to be a sportswriter, he interrupted some literary discussion to ask me a question:
“Mr. Fitzpatrick,” he began, “how can it be that a team with such gifted receivers as Ben Hawkins, Harold Carmichael, and Harold Jackson is content to have Pete Liske and Rick Arrington throwing them passes?”
As was the case with most of my exam performances, I had no satisfactory answer.
One of the books this avatar of 1960s nonconformity assigned us that year was Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. I recall little of the novel’s plot today, yet a single line has stayed with me:
“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”
Forty-five years later, that wolf is at my door, howling louder and more menacingly than ever. It’s probably why, in the satisfying afterglow of the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII victory Sunday night, Bellow’s quote came to mind.
When Doug Pederson’s appealing team captured its first Lombardi Trophy, ending the franchise’s 58-year title drought, metaphorical doors opened all over the Philadelphia area. And as new memories of a new championship were being forged, the carcass of an old one — the Eagles’ 1960 title — was being hungrily consumed by the wolves of time.
Through all the arid decades when no Eagles team could repeat the feat, that Dec. 26, 1960, NFL Championship triumph over Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers remained a cherished sports touchstone here.
Ever afterward, for those who were there, those who wished they had been there, and those who prayed they would one day get to experience something like it themselves, any reference to 1960 could trigger a familiar litany:
The left-over snow at sturdy Franklin Field … the day-after-Christmas sunshine … Tommy McDonald sliding to a stop in an end-zone corner after a touchdown reception … Chuck Bednarik sitting atop Jim Taylor as the gun sounded.
Now, especially with the impetus of Thursday’s massive downtown parade, recollections of that long-ago Eagles title will at last begin to slide into the background, the first stop on their journey to insignificance.
That’s how sports works. When a home-run record is broken, a championship drought ended, a pole-vault mark surpassed, we psychologically embrace the new and relegate the old to the history books or the nursing homes.
Who needs to recall the 1980 Phillies when the 2008 World Series is so fresh and overwhelming in our heads? Why dwell on Villanova’s NCAA title in 1985 when we can reflect so much more easily and with such a larger audience on the 2016 Wildcats? The Philadelphia A’s? Who the heck were they?
Now that Eagles fans have 2018, it’s time for 1960, and those colorful and coarse characters who wore the Kelly-green uniform, to begin their inevitable fadeout.
Like most of my Philadelphia contemporaries, the championship seasons from my childhood — 1950, 1954, 1960, 1967 — were cherished signposts in a life’s journey. The Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” pennant, La Salle’s NCAA title, championship seasons by the Eagles and Sixers, they all represented both memory and aspiration.
Their mention allowed us not only to reminisce about those years in delicious detail, but to dream of future championships.
And the longer we went without the latter, the more rooted those memories became.
All anyone needed to do around my father, for example, was mention La Salle’s NCAA crown in 1954 and the floodgates would open: “Tom Gola … Frank Blatcher … Ken Loeffler … the Bradley game.”
But after another Big 5 team finally won a title, Villanova in 1985, the wolves of insignificance must have broken down his door and devoured 1954, because he seldom spoke of it again.
Now, with Sunday’s win in Minneapolis, the 2018 Eagles have replaced 1960, the last of my signpost championship years to go.
What happens to these championship seasons we discard?
Well, they get jettisoned, especially by younger fans who may not have personally experienced them and for whom they served mainly as markers of frustration.
Afterward, they tend only to resurface in obituaries or during milestone years, the way the Wilt Chamberlain-led 1966-67 Sixers bobbed briefly again into our consciousness in 2017, the 50th anniversary of their NBA title.
What I now remember best about my Eagles-loving professor was the afternoon he brought a record player into class and put on a Joni Mitchell album, urging us to consider the poetry in the Canadian singer-songwriter’s lyrics.
He particularly liked “For Free”, a song about Mitchell’s encounter with a street musician that he claimed was inspired by a real-life meeting on Philadelphia’s Broad Street.
The professor, I read somewhere, died a few years ago, his cherished 1960 Eagles’ memories unreplaced. He would have savored this team’s triumph, I’m sure, and been at their Broad Street parade.
Perhaps the celebration’s Broad Street route would have reminded him of “For Free” as well as a telling line from another Mitchell song he played that on long-ago day — “Both Sides Now.”
“Something’s lost,” Mitchell sings, “but something’s gained in living every day.”