MINNEAPOLIS — The clock struck zero and the full realization of what they had accomplished exploded like a secret they could no longer bear to keep.
Amid it all, amid the smiles, amid the tears, amid the arms raised to the heavens, amid the jubilant roars of tens of thousands who traveled west across the country to make a neutral field their home, there was this realization:
Maybe this is how it always had to be. Maybe it had to happen this way. Maybe the thing that this city waited 57 years for was a team like this, a team whose cosmetic imperfections and do-your-job ethic seemed like a 53-man recreation of the local population.
That is what you thought when the quarterback hit the ground and the ball wasn’t with him and suddenly you saw it in the arms of a guy with a green jersey. Everyone saw it, and they reacted at once, the visitors’ sideline erupting the only way you can in moments like this, with arms raised and faces shocked and semi-circular sprints that needed no destination.
The clock had spent the fourth quarter ticking so loud you could almost hear it, the seconds falling like lead footsteps on the palpitating hearts of an entire city. You could never tell whose favor it was in, but by the time 2:16 rolled around, the greatest postseason quarterback of all time had the ball in his hands and a five-point deficit to overcome.
And then it happened, and it happened as it should have, with a longtime Eagle once written off as a bust bull-rushing his way to Tom Brady and knocking the doubt loose. Brandon Graham got the sack, Derek Barnett got the fumble recovery, and an Eagles defense that had spent most of the night absorbing blows got the only number it needed:
Eagles 41, Patriots 33.
What goes through your mind when you win the Super Bowl? To hear the Eagles tell it, the rough order is shock, then euphoria, then joy, then a complicated mixture of emotions that accompanies reflection.
Corey Clement thought back to draft day, when he heard the names of 30 running backs called, and none was his.
Jay Ajayi thought back to the day he was traded in the middle of the season, shipped out of the only locker room he’d ever called home, cashed in for a draft pick that looked like peanuts when compared to the production he’d given.
Alshon Jeffery thought back over a whirlwind couple of years: a four-game suspension, a free-agent market that didn’t seem interested, a one-year deal that looked nothing like the contract he’d envisioned.
All of them played their part: Ajayi breaking loose for 26 yards, Clement getting a step on his man and hauling in a ridiculous back-of-the-end-zone touchdown, Jeffery catching a 34-yard touchdown and several other huge receptions.
“None of that matters now,” he said. “None of that matters.”
The underdog thing was always more than a feel-good gimmick with this team: more than a betting line, more than a rallying cry, more than a mail-order dog mask. There was something deeper there, an internalization of sorts, something that penetrated to a personal level. In that sense, Sunday’s 60-minute thrill ride was a culmination, one final detonation of the energy that has burned inside the Eagles’ locker room throughout this season.
After it was over — the trophy awarded, the commemorative hats and shirts distributed — center Jason Kelce sat behind a microphone and tried to put into words what it all meant. Before kickoff, the seven-year veteran did as he has done before every game this season, cueing up a scene in the movie Rocky where the fighter has a heart-to-heart conversation with his son.
“I’ve loved it ever since the movie came out,” Kelce said, and then his voice rose a few decibels as he launched into a recitation.
“It ain’t about how hard you can hit, but about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, about how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”
He yelled that last sentence, causing a visible jump in several reporters who had crowded around his podium in the postgame interview room.
Kelce is the kind of player who epitomizes the spirit of this team, more so even than the quarterback who went from NFL castoff to Super Bowl MVP. As the postgame pandemonium erupted and some semblance of realization set in, Kelce thought back to when he was a high school senior with no scholarship offers, his mind settling on a quote about perseverance that his grandfather gave him, and his parents’ refusal to let him give up his dream.
“And now,” Kelce said, “I’ve officially accomplished the best thing in this sport with a group of guys who mean the world to me.”
It would take more than one newspaper to tell each of their stories. Doug Pederson, the coach nobody wanted. Zach Ertz, the tight end everybody said was too soft for this stage. Chris Long, whose career many assumed had come to an end.
“It’s one of those things where our team embodies our city,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “There is a lot of adversity, a lot of hardship, but when we stepped on the field, that was our time to be together, our time to have fun and enjoy each other.”
With a parade on deck, the fun is only just beginning.