By David F. Cohen
And many of them are of an age that they do not remember let alone revere the old stadium at 33rd and Spruce.
Chuck Bednarik remembers, and he was one of many Eagles alumni recognized at the open practice at Franklin Field Sunday.
The Eagles’ trip back to Franklin Field for practice showed what a long way professional football has come since the Birds called West Philadelphia home.
The University of Pennsylvania’s dowager of a stadium, the site of Quaker football since 1895 (with the current stands dating to the 1920s), and the Eagles’ nest from 1958-1970, could no more be an NFL stadium now than a Model T could race in NASCAR.
The cramped corridors, the largely bleacher seats, the eight-lane track, the lack of parking, the tiny locker rooms, the quaint video scoreboard that might have been OK 10 years ago; sometimes Franklin Field seems slightly inadequate for Penn football, much less the NFL.
But it’s a perfectly adequate place for an NFL practice, even with its artificial turf, and 28,000 fans came out on a lovely Sunday for the Eagles’ first appearance there since a 30-20 defeat of Pittsburgh on Dec. 20, 1970.
The fans saw a typical Chip Kelly practice, in shells with the raucous soundtrack, but that wasn’t, really, why they came.
They came because Franklin Field is the last place the Eagles walked off any field anywhere as league champions, the site of the 17-13 win over Green Bay on the day after Christmas in 1960, almost 54 years ago.
That’s 54 years of nostalgia for the last time the Birds took the brass ring, behind men like the indestructible Chuck Bednarik, the incomparable Tommy McDonald, the indomitable Norm Van Brocklin.
The Eagles knew their audience and honored their alumni Sunday, including Bednarik, now sadly confined to a walker but still unquestionably the franchise’s core star, the favorite of the fans; fellow ’60 teammate Pete Retzlaff; folk hero Vince Papale, whose family had season tickets at Franklin Field, and more.
Current Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who seems to represent the opposite of nostalgia, said paying homage to the past was important.
“I think we always talk about the tradition and what the Philadelphia Eagles are all about,” he said, “Obviously, the turnout you have here is awesome and to get a chance to get out with all the fans. To play in a special place like this, it’s neat for them to understand the history of the team.”
That history, especially from the Franklin Field era, is getting a little fuzzy around now. People who remember the championship team are getting rather thin on the ground, and to younger fans the ancient shell of Franklin Field is, if anything, more like an archaeological dig than an athletic stadium, and names such as Van Brocklin and Bednarik as distant as the mummies across Spruce Street from Franklin Field at the University Museum.
And the fans who do remember the Franklin Field era may well wish they had forgotten it. After 1960, the Birds suffered eight losing seasons in 10 and only qualified for two consolation “Playoff Bowls” in that period, a stretch of 20 years without a division championships. The team traded Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen for the Not-Fame quarterback Norm Snead. The head coach for much of that ’60’s stretch, Joe Kuharich, has gone in Philadelphia sports history as an exquisite example of mediocrity.
Franklin Field also saw the perhaps the defining moment of Philadelphia sports fandom in 1968 when a hapless Santa Claus was booed and pelted with snowballs, snowballs some Eagles fans say were meant for Kuharich.
So Sunday’s blast from the past nostalgia trip should really remind Eagles fans how good the current times are, with a young Van Brocklin-esque QB, the best running back in the NFL already and a coach who collects accolades not catcalls and snowballs.
And the last time the Eagles played in the snow, last December against Detroit at the Linc, it produced a glorious, all-timer of a triumph that fans will remember forever, not an ugly incident that other fans will remember forever.
Franklin Field has seen a lot of football over its decades. After Sunday, it could well never see the Eagles again, and that would be OK, because the Eagles have moved far beyond the ancient pile of bricks.
But on that one day of glory in 1960, the Birds left enough magic memories behind that Franklin Field, even amid the Penn Relays and Ivy League football and Ultimate Frisbee events, will still always feel just a bit like an NFL stadium, just a bit a place where a championship was won and legends walked the field, as they did again Sunday.