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Eagles' Good Guy Rides the Bench : Spagnola Favored by Fans and Media, but Not Buddy Ryan

September 24, 1986|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — John Spagnola knows how the dinosaurs felt.

"I think anybody here with more than five years' experience has a bull's-eye on his back," he said.

Spagnola, 29, plays tight end for the Eagles, but not as often as he used to. He is one of only six players left from the Eagles' Super Bowl team of 1980, and he thinks he is being phased out as new Coach Buddy Ryan rebuilds from bare bones.

Ryan has dumped eight former starters, saying: "We're trying to build a football team, and you don't do it with older players."

Said Spagnola: "It's understandable. He's got a five-year contract, and I'm not going to be here five years from now. With that in mind, he's going to look for guys who are going to be around at the end of his contract.

"On the other hand, you have to have a transition stage. You just can't cut out everybody. He's made some pretty severe cuts, and a lot of people have been phased out and phased in rather abruptly."

Spagnola was a first alternate for the NFC Pro Bowl squad the last two seasons but this year lost his starting position to David Little, 26, during a summer contract holdout. The Eagles' press guide describes Spagnola as "one of the top tight ends in the NFL," with 129 receptions over the last two seasons. Clearly, Ryan was not impressed.

"Unfortunately, history here begins in January of 1986," Spagnola said, indicating when Ryan was hired. "Anything before that doesn't count."

Ryan has a policy about holdouts: They have to earn their spots back, just like any other new team members. A lot of coaches say that, but Ryan has shown that he means it. In the exhibition season he even benched Spagnola's best buddy, quarterback Ron Jaworski, who had been the starter for 10 years.

Fair enough, Spagnola said at the time.

"I was trying to be diplomatic," Spagnola says now, "and I still am trying to be diplomatic. But I've seen other guys that were in my situation starting now."

Besides Jaworski, wide receiver Kenny Jackson, running back Michael Haddix and defensive tackle Ken Clarke have regained their starting spots, while other veterans were traded or cut.

"It's been stated to me that my competition is a little stiffer than theirs, so I'll have to wait my turn," Spagnola said.

Little is a bit faster, those close to the Eagles say. But in last Sunday's 33-7 loss to Denver, after Little started and dropped a pass, the fans chanted: "We wants Spags! We want Spags!"

Soon, they got him. Spagnola played more than he had in the first two games combined and caught four passes. The fans cheered every time he went in.

"I'm more confused than ever," he said afterward. "Dave was a little hurt today. That may have had something to do with it. But I still don't know (where I stand). I'd almost rather have it cut and dried than go on like this."

It's especially difficult for Spagnola to start over after having started from scratch as a free agent from Yale in 1979.

"When I came in with (former Coach) Dick Vermeil it took me three years to start, and I had to play better than the man in front of me," he said. "I think I've improved. I almost went to the Pro Bowl the last two years, so it stands to reason that I should be playing."

Spagnola hasn't asked to be traded--yet. Philadelphia is his home. He grew up 60 miles away in Bethlehem and, since joining the Eagles, has started an investment banking career, an athletic club in partnership with teammates Jaworski and Mike Quick and involved in a multitude of community projects. Every year he plays Santa Claus at the Eagles' and Phillies' annual Christmas party for children of policemen and firemen who were killed in the line of duty. He is as Philadelphian as a cheese steak sandwich.

But if he ever should choose to sound off, he would find willing ears among the notoriously tough Philadelphia media, which voted him its "Good Guy" award this year. Apparently, he is as popular with the writers as he is with the fans.

"That sort of surprised me," Spagnola said. "When I got that award it was the first public appearance of Buddy Ryan. I often think that maybe that hurt me somewhat. Here I was getting a good guy award from the press, right in front of him. He must have thought, 'Who's this big mouth?'

"But I guess I've been accessible and have tried to accommodate people. It goes with the business. If people can get to know you better off the field they'll be a little more supportive when you're on the field."

Spagnola also appreciates the Philadelphia fans, who are among the most expressive in the country.

"In a lot of NFL cities, football's the only game in town, so they're more college-type crowds: very much behind the team," he said. "Philadelphia is more like a show-me town. If you put quality teams on the field, they'll respond. They can be the best fans in the world if you do well. They'll help you win.

"On the other hand, if the team does poorly at the outset of a game (the Eagles are 0-3), they can turn on you and almost be a negative influence.

"I think Buddy Ryan has brought in a whole new sense of enthusiasm. A lot of people want to come and see first-hand what's going on with the Eagles."

Spagnola just isn't sure how long he'll be a part of it.

"I play this game for fun," he said. "The money's great, and I always thought I'd hit a point where I would play for the money, but it really hasn't happened, and this year I'm making more than I ever have.

"But the fact I have other things to lean back on--a good education and things going for me in the off-season--has allowed me to play football with a little less pressure than other guys."

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