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Devoted to Eagles

Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell talks a good game as television host and football fan

January 18, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — The governor of Pennsylvania did not heave that snowball from the top of Veterans Stadium in the direction of Jimmy Johnson and the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, when the governor was still mayor of Philadelphia.

He might have suggested a drunk do it.

And in 2000, through all those long ballot-counting nights of the Bush-Gore election when he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Ed Rendell always appeared ready to take names and tear into some hanging chads.

But the Eagles' 20-17 overtime victory over Green Bay last weekend almost knocked Rendell out. He was begging to bail out early on the two-hour Comcast Sports Cable postgame show he helps host.

Rendell, Democrat and governor of the country's sixth-most-populous state, is the self-described "voice of the fan" on the show devoted to all things Eagles.

Grades are given -- Rendell once gave Coach Andy Reid an "F" after a loss -- plays are dissected, players are skewered.

"Where's the running game?" Rendell will howl.

Rendell has been part of the Eagles' postgame panel discussion on Comcast since the show's creation in 1997, when he was mayor.

The show features Vaughn Hebron, the former running back; Ray Didinger, who wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News and now does the same for NFL Films, and Michael Barkann, familiar to tennis fans as USA Network's roving reporter at the U.S. Open.

When the show began, Didinger said, Rendell was invited to wish fans and the Eagles well and to give his mayoral blessing.

"But the then-mayor came on the set, sat down and just started talking about the game," Didinger said. "He really got into it. He was very much in his element."

Stephanie Smith, general manager of Comcast SportsNet, said hiring Rendell was easy.

"He's beyond entertaining," she said. "He's a passionate, entertaining, rabid Eagles' fan. He was the missing piece of the puzzle. The voice of the rabid fan."

So Rendell returned the second week. And the third.

"I kept thinking, 'These guys get paid to sit around and talk sports. What a great deal!' " he said.

Through his time as mayor, his year as chairman of the DNC (in 2000 during the presidential election) and now into his second year as governor, Rendell has missed only one show, besides the eight he had to forgo last year during the gubernatorial campaigning.

"That equal time thing, ya know?" Rendell said.

"But I said all along that win or lose, I'd be on the show the week after the election. And I was."

The governor was speaking by telephone at 11:30 p.m. from Harrisburg, the state capital. For 45 minutes, Rendell was a passionate advocate for the ferocity of the Eagle defense, the resilience of his favorite team to persevere through several serious injuries and the despair he will feel Monday, should the Eagles, for the third consecutive year, lose in the NFC championship game today.

"It can't happen again," Rendell said of the possibility Philadelphia might lose to the Carolina Panthers at Lincoln Financial Field, squandering a chance to appear in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1981.

"It would be almost too hard to bear, for the team and the city."

There is something about the Eagles that brings out the fan in politicians.

Arlen Specter, the Republican U.S. Senator, has called sports-talk radio station WIP every Monday morning this year after Eagle games.

Specter, looking to be nominated for a fifth term in an April primary, and Rendell might have risked losing the support of Pittsburgh Steeler fans in the western part of the state, Washington Redskin fans in the south-central part of the state and even some New York Jet and Giant fans in the northeastern part of the state, according to Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, but he said the charm of Specter and especially Rendell is their genuine love of the Eagles.

"Increasingly, I think you will see public officials show another side in entertainment kinds of venues," Delli Carpini said. "You certainly see public officials more and more on late-night talk shows, calling in to radio shows that are more entertainment-oriented.

"Especially with Ed Rendell, what the public sees is so genuine. He's a very passionate fan with real knowledge about football. Ultimately, the fan in Pittsburgh understands that Ed Rendell is not fake and he's not doing the show as a politician. He's doing it as a fan."

Rendell has had Eagle season tickets for more than 30 years. Though he could have sat in the comfortable mayoral box, he always chose to sit outside. He still does. When he was mayor, Rendell was seen frequently at the Palestra, where his alma mater, Penn, plays basketball.

And, in the best tradition of bombastic sports-talk show hosts, Rendell was never shy about expressing his opinions of his beloved Eagles. Even when he was mayor.

For example, there was the snowball incident, of which there are three versions.

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