Starting at halfback for the Birds... Judge Dave Ryan! BOOOOOOOO!
There are a handful of Great Sports Cities in America, and one of them is Billy Penn's little burgh on the Delaware River—Philadelphia. And in Philly, there's one team that stands tall as the city's favorite by far—the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. (Or, if you want to pronounce it correctly, the "Iggles.") One of the oldest franchises in the league (created in 1933 when new owner Bert Bell renamed the former Frankfurt Yellow Jackets after the feathered symbol of FDR's National Recovery Administration), the Eagles have, since their birth, always been an echo of their home city: hard-working, blue-collar, irrepressible, and chock-full of history.
Eagles fans are notoriously loyal, notoriously passionate—and notoriously hostile. During one particularly low stretch in the team's history, Eagles fans actually booed Santa Claus. Booed him right off the field. At Christmas. That's rough. After the game, the fans usually trundle off to go boo the Flyers or the Sixers, and spend their summers booing the Phillies. Booing is just a way of life in Philadelphia. Don't get me wrong, though—the fans do cheer. Especially when opposing players get hurt.
But here's the flip side: in most towns (say, New York), if you ask a booing fan to explain why they're booing, they'll usually attempt to stammer "because they suck!" before vomiting on you. Not in Philly. Ask an Iggles fan why they're booing, and you're more likely to get a reply like "because that moron didn't pick up the zone blitz and break off his route to the outside, so McNabb could hit him with a slant." If you're in the upper deck, they will probably then attempt to punch you. But it will be a punch of love; a punch of respect.
NFL Films, the film-and-television-archive wing of the league, has recently begun a large-scale effort to leverage the miles and miles of film stock contained in their vaults, including the umpteen number of documentary pieces they've assembled over the years. What? You've never seen an NFL Films-produced documentary? Well, right now NFL Films is the best maker of documentary films not named "Burns." Steve Sabol (son of NFL Films founder Ed) and his crew could film your trip to the supermarket to pick up milk and eggs, and have it come out more dramatic than Hoosiers. From 1965, when Philadelphia native John Facenda's rumbling voice first narrated slow-motion clips of action from the "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" and the like, right through until today, NFL Films pieces have always been the gold standard of sports documentaries.
So it should come as no surprise that when NFL Films began to compile "complete history" collections for individual teams, one of the first teams selected was the Iggles. (The other, also unsurprisingly, is the festering clot of Satanic minions who play out in Oakland. Enough said about them.) The resulting disc is astounding in its quality and content—this history is truly "complete," covering everything from Bell's purchase of the team to the recent demolition of Veteran's Stadium. It even manages to capture a little of what makes Philadelphia—the city—one of the great towns in this country.
Spread over two discs, the set focuses on two long-form documentaries. The first covers the history of the team itself; the second is more of a commentary on the city and its fans, as viewed through the lens of the implosion of the old Vet. Both are executed with the traditional goosebump-inducing NFL Films flair, although the second disc's piece tends to repeat itself quite a bit. All the major players in Eagles history are present and accounted for: halfback Steve van Buren, an outstanding runner who led the team to its first NFL championships in 1948 and 1949 (and who just looks like the ideal image of an early-era football player); Bethlehem, PA's "Concrete" Chuck Bednarik, who manned a waist gun in a bomber in World War 2, making him more than tough enough to play "both ways" (offense and defense) even late in his career; lanky wideout Harold Carmichael and quiet running back Wilbert Montgomery, who helped revive the team in the late 1970s; and recent superstars like Reggie White, Randall "The Ultimate Weapon" Cunningham, and Donovan McNabb.
Specific sub-documentaries, some of which date back to the 1980s, are provided for several of these all-time Eagles as part of the extra features. To be honest, I'm not sure whether they should be considered "extras" at all—I think it's more appropriate to view the whole package as one big collection of historical essays. In any event, the sheer volume of these "extra" featurettes is astonishing. There are literally hours of material here.
Two things really stand out from this collection, though: the extended pieces on the late former Eagle owner Leonard Tose, and former Eagle head coach Dick Vermeil. These two men, who couldn't be more different from each other, but whose fates became intertwined thanks to this team, are fascinating subjects. Their biographical features are as good as anything you'd see on A&E. Tose—who could have served as the model for The Sopranos's Uncle Junior—made his money in the trucking business before buying the Eagles. The consummate man-about-town, he wound up losing millions and millions of dollars to a gambling habit (he was forced to sell the team in the process), and died virtually penniless—but unrepentant. Vermeil, the first coach Tose hired, is the dashing son of a mechanic from Calistoga, CA, in the Napa wine country, who came to the Eagles after coaching UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory. At first, people didn't know quite what to make of this guy, who seemed more emotional than a pregnant woman who just ran out of pickles. Was this all an act? Did he really just cry? As time went on, two things emerged about Vermeil: he was a damn fine football coach, and that passion and emotion was absolutely no act. Vermeil was an honest, direct guy who wore his heart proudly on his sleeve for all to see—and the city of Philadelphia adored him for it. (It didn't hurt that he took the Eagles from "pathetic joke" to "Super Bowl participant" in about five years, either.)
All you really need to know about Vermeil is this: When Tose was living hand-to-mouth in a Philadelphia hotel late in his life, his fortune dissipated, his "friends" off to the next cash cow, there was one guy who kept slipping him some checks when he needed them (without letting him ask for them), so he'd always have a roof over his head and food to eat. The guy to whom he gave a job way back in 1976. Dick Vermeil.
I feel obliged to say at least one thing bad about this set, so here goes: Why no special documentary on Ron Jaworski? I grew up (in suburban Bucks County) watching the Polish Rifle lead the Eagles to…well, to mediocrity, actually. Then I moved to New England (where former Eagles player Bucko Kilroy and Upton Bell, son of Bert, were helping to run the local team, which was almost as bad as the Eagles were), and they go to the Super Bowl. Where they lost to Satan's minions. Grumble grumble grumble…What was my point again? Oh yeah. Jaworski. Okay, Jaws is on TV all the time now, doing analysis for ESPN's football coverage, so it's not like I haven't seen him in, oh, half an hour. And he is interviewed extensively as a part of the many features on this disc. But he's my guy. Wilbert got his own documentary—and he never talked to anyone! (Turns out he wasn't aloof, he was just terrified of saying something wrong to the press…) We want Jaworski! BOOOOOOO!
Picture and sound are great, and the packaging (a foldout inner case with an outer sleeve) even has a useful timeline included.
Admittedly, this disc has a somewhat limited potential market. If you don't have some affinity for the Eagles, you're probably not going to have much interest in this set. Unless you really love football history, of course. But if you are an Eagles fan—hoo boy, has your ship come in. This stellar disc set should absolutely be a part of your collection, no questions asked.
Hey! Hey Ryan, you bum! How can you write about the Iggles without mentioning Vince "The Real Rocky" Papile, the season ticket holder who actually tried out for, and made, the team? Or poor Jerome Brown, who died in a car crash just when he reached the pinnacle of his talent? Or how Bucko Kilroy's own teammates called him "the dirtiest player I ever played with"? You're a hack! You stink, you hick bum!
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