In a media landscape filled with phonies and carnival barkers who only know what they have just read on a blog, Ray Didinger stands out as the Hall of Fame arbiter on all things Eagles. And today and tomorrow mark his last weekend on WIP as he wraps up his remarkable 53-year career as a journalist. Here’s an article from 2014 that sums him up, and then some!
By Theodore N. Beitchman
Fred Thurston died the other day.
He was 80 and lived a good and rich life as a pro football player.
He was a pulling guard on probably the greatest teams in the history of the NFL — the Green Bay Packers, who won titles in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967.
Think about that.
If any team wins two titles in a row now they would be Internet sensations.
Fuzzy, which is how he was known to millions of fans, was also part of a sensation. He and Jerry Kramer were the pulling guards on Vince Lombardi’s teams that went 9-1 in the postseason.
The one loss occurred almost 54 years ago in Franklin Field, where the Packers lost a 17-13 battle with the Eagles for the NFL title.
There were 67,000 people in the old stadium on that cold day after Christmas in 1960 — temporary stands were erected in the west end zone — and one of them was a wide-eyed 14-year-old kid from Delaware County whose mom and dad imbued in him a love of the game.
The Eagles won their last NFL title that day and Thurston and Kramer would go on to be considered two of the greatest guards in NFL history.
However, neither are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The 14-year-old kid is.
They used to say of John McEnroe that he and whomever he was playing with made up the best doubles team in tennis.
Didinger plays from the baseline, allowing his colleagues to volley from the net.
And he raises everyone else’s game.
In a media landscape dominated by tin-horned pretenders who derive their information from that morning’s USA Today or Daily News ot some wild-assed blog, Didinger is the Gold Standard of Eagles information and perspective.
He is one of only two Philly writers honored by the Pro Football Hall of fame, and his 26 years of beat reporting for the Bulletin and Daily News and his 10 years as a producer for NFL Films and now eight more with CSNPhilly.com have earned him the respect and deference of fans and colleagues.
A good example of his status occurred in 2005, during the goat rope that the Eagles’ season had turned into.
Barkann and company were holding forth on SportsNet after another galling Eagles’ loss, and the time had come to accept e-mail questions for the viewers.
Barkann teed this one up:
“Who is the greatest quarterback in the history of the Eagles?” an e-mailer asked from Havertown.
A pause. Rendell, Barkann and Vaughn Hebron knew enough to defer — and as if on cue, Didinger, responded:
“No question, it is Norm Van Brocklin. He was only here for two seasons but he was the most important player on the 1960 NFL championship team, and if he hadn’t been here the Eagles would never have won the Eastern Division, let alone beaten the Packers, who were probably the better team”
A sigh of relief was heard in living rooms of the 50-and-over set all over Philadelphia.
If Rendell had answered, the former mayor and governor — who moved here from Manhattan in the fall of 1961 to attend Penn and therefore missed Van Brocklin’s local magic by a year — might have said Ron Jaworski, who QB’d the Birds to the Super Bowl in 1981. Hebron, who was a running back with the Eagles for two years when Randall Cunningham was a dazzling presence, might have voted for him.
But Didinger, whose grandfather, a bar owner in southwest Philly, took him to his first Eagles game at Connie Mack Stadium in 1956 — the home opener, and the Eagles beat the Redskins 13-9 in a driving rainstorm on a Saturday night — got it right.
All was right with the world.
Didinger’s world started in Folsom, Delaware County, where he grew up as the only child of Ray and Marie Didinger in a middle class family with rock-solid Catholic values.
Ray loved football and played defensive end in Youth Football for Folsom Boys Club — Vince Papale played for Glenolden, and he beat Didinger on a 99-yard touchdown run. But by the time he entered St. James High in Chester in the fall of 1961 he had his sights on another passion: writing for a newspaper.
“I used to read all the papers when I was a kid,” Didinger says. “The Daily News had Bill Shefski covering the Eagles and the Bulletin had Hugh Brown [the only other local inductee into the writers’ Hall of Fame]. I don’t think Gordon Forbes had come to the Inquirer yet, but he was great, too.
“But my favorite was Sandy Grady, who wrote a column for the Bulletin. He was such a great wordsmith, and he showed that writing could be an art form.”
Didinger graduated from St. James — closed by the Catholic Archdiocese in 1991 because of budget cuts — and headed to Temple, where he was sports editor at the Temple News, the student paper.
The major sports in town in the fall of 1964 were, in order of importance, the Phillies, the Eagles and the 76ers, who had moved from Syracuse the year before to fill the void created when Eddie Gottlieb sold the Warriors to a group who moved them to San Francisco. Jerry Wolman, the Eagles’ owner, wouldn’t create the Flyers for another three years.
That was also the fall when the Phillies blew a six-and-a-half-game lead with 12 games to go and broke the hearts of every kid in town, no matter how old the kids were. Thousands of 1964 World Series tickets are still in scrapbooks as a memento of what might have been.
Football had always been a bigtime sport in Philly — Penn and Temple games were events that drew big crowds in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Penn games at Franklin Field was where the fur- and polo-coat set came to see the game and be seen. Their flasks were hidden in their coats, along with the money used to generously tip the ushers.
The Eagles appealed to harder core, more blue collar fans, who often came to games with flasks of rye (not hidden in their slickers); they rarely tipped someone for wiping dust from the Franklin Field bleachers seats.
And there was no more dedicated Eagles fan than the prototypical Delaware Countian who worked hard, played by the rules and looked at the blue collar Eagles as “one of us.” Plus, you did not have to be legatee to get a great seat at Connie Mack or Franklin Field, where seats went for $3 a game — and no personal seat license.
So it was perhaps natural that Didinger would gravitate toward pro football.
“There is something about football — especially pro football — that appeals to the American psyche,” Didinger says. “It obviously takes a high degree of skill and dexterity. And I would never eliminate the violence as a real attraction, even for women.”
While at Temple, Didinger worked part-time as a clerk in the Bulletin sports department, where the sports editor, Jack Wilson, a great talent-spotter who died in July 2006 at the age of 85, told Didinger, “Come see me after you graduate and we’ll talk.”
The Bulletin was the best paper in town, and it had the cream of the crop of local writers — Grady, Brown, Joe McGinniss, George Kiseda, Bob Vetrone, Jim Heffernan, Frank Brady, Frank Bilovsky — and, sure enough, when Didinger was ready to graduate Wilson called him in and gave him sage advice:
“You’re good but you need some experience. So go find a job at a smaller paper and let’s keep in touch.”
So Didinger hustled over to his local suburban daily, the Delaware County Daily Times, and filled out an application.
“I met with the editor, Arthur Mayhew, who was very nice and told me, ‘Normally, we require a writing test but I have a gut feeling about you, so I’ll waive that requirement,’” Didinger recalls of that meeting 46 years ago.
“I graduated Temple on a Friday and I started at the paper the following Monday … and I was offered the princely sum of $100.25 a week.”
Didinger had a hard time selling that figure to his dad, a vice president at a local steel company.
“I have never lied to my dad, and I never would,” he says with a hint of a grin. “So when I told him over dinner that night, I said I was going to work for ‘a hundred and a quarter.’”
For a year, Didinger covered meetings and municipal events, though he did some extra work covering the high school football games that are the meat and potatoes of suburban papers.
“One day, I offered to do a feature on the best team in our area, Ridley High, and Mayhew said, ‘You’re pretty good but you’re not ready for Ridley yet.’”
After that first year, Wilson, who had followed his progress, called and offered him a job at the Bulletin, covering high school sports.
A year later, Wilson served up the biggest plum in the department — the Eagles‘ beat.
So at the age of 23, Didinger, who two years earlier was not ready to cover Ridley High for a suburban daily, was covering the National Football League for the top paper in town.
By 1970, 10 years had passed since Didinger and 67,000 other Eagles fans had seen the Eagles win their last NFL championship with a 17-13 victory over the Packers at Franklin Field.
That decade of defeat saw as many winning Eagles seasons (two) as new owners, and the latest proprietor — Leonard Tose — would turn out to be as much a curse as a blessing.
The 1970 team, though probably more talented than that year’s Ridley High squad, was dreadful enough to finish 3-10-1. Do the names Rick Arrington, Ernie Calloway, Mel Tom, Norman Snead and Leroy Keyes ring a bell. How about coach Jerry Williams?
“That was a bad team,” Didinger admits in an unusually blunt manner.
Didinger’s writing and judgments are often reflective of his personality and countenance, which are upbeat and benign, so that when he lands a haymaker it has the same effect of a punch that you don’t see coming.
“And I cut that 1970 team no slack,” he points out.
Which undoubtedly did little to endear Didinger to general manager Pete Retzlaff, the tight end on the 1960 title team, and the players who had become used to the tender mercies of Brown, the longtime Bulletin beat writer whom Didinger replaced.
“That first year was a real learning experience,” Didinger says. “In the first place I was probably the youngest beat man in the NFL, which especially then was a very tight-knit club. And I had replaced Hughie, who was ‘one of the boys,’ so to speak. So the team naturally was suspicious of me. Nobody would talk to me on the team’s charter flights — which was another lesson: I probably shouldn’t have been flying with the team because the players get a sense that the writers are therefore part of the team.”
Then, on a flight back from yet another loss, tight end Gary Ballman sat down across the aisle from Didinger and actually engaged him in conversation.
“What do you really know about pro football?” Ballman, an eight-year veteran who was probably speaking for the team, asked.
“I know a losing team when I see one,” Didinger shot back.
Here endeth the lesson.
The Eagles’ record in the next five years was 24-43-3, so Didinger saw lots of losing, but when Wilson offered him a column — the top of the pyramid for a newspaper sportswriter — “I was torn because I loved covering the team so much,” he says.
Didinger’s five years as a Bulletin columnist coincided neatly with the Dick Vermeil years, when the Eagles became a playoff team and then a challenger for the Super Bowl. In July 1980 Didinger accepted an offer from the Daily News — which had become the best sports section in town — to write a column, and he spent the next 16 years writing three essays a week in what is arguably the best sports town in the country.
“I am so lucky,” he says. “I have always been at the right place at the right time.”
Funny how luck always seems to follow successful people around.
Such as the day in 1996 when Steve Sabol of NFL Films asked Didinger if he would like to help research a film project that would ultimately be made into the film “Football America.”
“Steve asked me if I could come up with 10 or 12 ideas in a month,” he remembers, “and I came up with 120. Then he asked me if I would like to help produce the film, and I jumped at the chance but it was going to take a year so I needed to take a leave of absence from the Daily News to do it. And Mike Rathet, who hired me and was a great boss, said no.
“So for the first time in my life, I had to take a total leap into the abyss, and I quit the Daily News just at the time when Knight Ridder was offering generous buyouts.”
“Football America” took Didinger to Penn Trafford, Pa. in Westmoreland County for a segment on Tony Zimmerman, and to Guthrie, Texas, for a piece on six-man football in a high school with 14 students.
“As much as I love writing — and I still do — the opportunity to expand my horizons a bit was a great thing for me.”
And for NFL Films. “Football America” resulted in one of four Emmy Awards Didinger racked up, and his documentary on Dick Vermeil — “A Coach for All Seasons” — was awarded best biography in 2000.
Along the way, Didinger made his mark on radio, starting with WIP in 1986, just after the station became an all-sports talk outpost.
It is hard to quantify how effective advertising ever is, but Dennis Slack, the founder of Slack’s Hoagies, can:
“We started our business in 1988, and we started advertising on WIP the next year because it is the perfect way to reach males 18 years of age and up. And this is the fourth year we have been hosting the Saturday show.
“I have always loved Ray and Glen [Macnow]. Ray is the class of the station.”
The hour is growing late but Didinger is having fun but agrees to a lightning round on various topics:
I am always amazed by how much the governor knows about the game. One day a few years ago, we were watching the Eagles on TV in the studio and across the bottom the crawl reported that Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks has been hurt, and Ed said, ‘That means that so-and-so is going to get a chance to play.’ I still can’t remember the name of that backup, but Ed knew.
FAVORITE EAGLE TEAM
Hands down, the 1960 championship team. We had seven $3 tickets for that game in the lower east stands at Franklin Field.
Tommy McDonald. My dad would take me to Hershey during training camp and I immediately loved him. He was so small — 5-8, maybe 170 — but he had the guts of a giant, running slant routes. No question he could play today, and one of the thrills of my life occurred in 1998 when he asked me to introduce him for induction into the Hall of Fame.
BEST NFL QB
Before they changed the rules in 1978, to prevent contact after the receiver ran five yards downfield, it would be John Unitas. After 1978, Joe Montana.
Lawrence Taylor, but Chuck Bednarik is in the elite class.
Vince Lombardi, with Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs a close second. The best Eagles coach was Greasey Neale, who won two NFL titles in the late 1940s. He was way ahead of his time in terms of strategy. Then I would say Vermeil.
TALK RADIO’S INFLUENCE
Fans are a lot different than it was when I was growing up, but the passion you hear on the radio has always been there. I remember going to a game with my parents when I was still at Temple, when Joe Kuharich was coaching, and my mother bought a “Joe Must Go” button to wear during the game. My father said, “You’re not going to wear that!” and my mom said, “Oh, yes, I am.” That’s passion.