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WEEK 5 in the NFL

Brotherly Love Lost

In a city that is famous for bringing on the boos, Owens is expected to get a reception unlike any other when he returns with the hated Cowboys

October 08, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

It's no urban legend.

Philadelphia Eagles fans really did boo Santa Claus.

Of course, years later, after Phillies fans jeered a hand-transplant recipient when he bounced a ceremonial first pitch into the dirt and Eagles fans cheered a career-ending neck injury suffered by Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys, the slamming of jolly ol' St. Nick in 1968 seemed almost quaint in comparison.

"Unspeakable, Even for Us," read the Philadelphia Daily News headline regarding the Irvin incident in 1999, when fans applauded as the wide receiver lay motionless on the field for 20 minutes before being taken away on a stretcher.

Long on passion if not patience, Philadelphia sports fans are routinely characterized as rude, crude, caustic and cruel.

And their rowdy reputation should only grow today when Terrell Owens of the Cowboys, once beloved in Philadelphia but now reviled, returns to Lincoln Financial Field for the first time since he sabotaged the Eagles' season a year ago.

"This is the loudest, largest, most anticipated homecoming we've ever had in this town," said Glen Macnow, a sports radio talk-show host, former sportswriter and co-author of "The Great Philadelphia Fan Book," more than 250 pages of anecdotes and memories celebrating the city's legendary leather-lunged legions.

Former 76ers coach Larry Brown and former Flyers center Eric Lindros were lustily booed in their returns. J.D. Drew, who spurned an offer to play for the Phillies, had batteries thrown at him when he showed up with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Even native son Kobe Bryant, whose father played for the 76ers, was given the bum's rush when he was named MVP of the 2002 NBA All-Star game in Philadelphia, city officials later apologizing for the fans' boorish behavior.

But, "This will blow all of those others away," Macnow said of the reception awaiting Owens. "This city really gave its heart to Terrell Owens. This city embraced him as it has embraced few other athletes, knowing when he came in that he was a troubled guy but praying that this was going to work.

"The fans sang songs to Terrell Owens during games ... and really invested emotionally in him. They really believed that the Eagles, who have never won a Super Bowl, were going to get there with Donovan McNabb and T.O."

Owens, who helped the Eagles reach the Super Bowl in the 2004 season, was deactivated by the team seven games into last season after several disruptive incidents, including a contract dispute and repeated criticisms of quarterback McNabb and the organization.

"When it fell apart, largely because T.O. went berserk, the fans felt betrayed," Macnow added. "And not only that, he crossed over to the dark side. He went to the Cowboys. This is Dodgers-Giants, USC-UCLA. Whatever the most hated other team is in Los Angeles, in whatever sport, multiply that times 10 and you have the Eagles fans' feelings toward the Cowboys."

Scalpers reportedly were asking $1,000 for tickets that originally sold for $80, and callers to talk shows last week urged fans to bring prescription bottles to today's game, a reference to Owens' suicide attempt/accidental overdose last month. The Eagles have ordered extra security, though President Joe Banner told the Philadelphia Daily News, "We actually have one of the higher staffing numbers in the league as it is. Oakland might be the only place that has higher."

During the Eagles' 31-9 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, a fan held up a sign that read, "T.O. Get Well Soon So We Can Hurt You."

Owens told reporters at midweek that he expected the worst.

Instead of the "T.O., T.O., T.O." chants that greeted him in happier times, Owens said he was told to expect, "O.D., O.D., O.D." Said Owens: "I'm probably the most hated guy coming into Philly this weekend."

Fans were expected to march on the Cowboys' hotel Saturday night to blare horns and disrupt sleep. Today, they're expected to start arriving at 8 a.m. to begin tailgating in advance of the 4:15 p.m. EDT kickoff. They won't be drinking Gatorade. This date has long been circled on their calendars, radio host John Mozes said, and the latest Owens incident "only heightened anticipation."

Not that Philly fans need much reason to express themselves. As former Phillies first baseman Pete Rose once famously noted, "Some of these people would boo the crack in the Liberty Bell."

Michael Strahan of the New York Giants said that opposing players at other NFL stadiums often are greeted with thumbs-down signs from fans.

"Here," Strahan said, "they give you the middle finger."

Last November, shortly after Owens was suspended, a radio station staged a mock funeral outside the stadium to give Eagles fans a chance to lay to rest the receiver's short time in Philadelphia. Fans dumped various Owens memorabilia into a casket, which was loaded onto a hearse, presumably for burial.

"Philadelphia fans don't see themselves as spectators," Macnow said. "Philadelphia fans see themselves as participants. They believe that they are as important to the results of the games as the players and the coaches."

Even Irvin, the former Cowboy, seemed to understand that.

"Fans in Philly throw the kitchen sink and all the silverware at you," he said in retirement, as quoted in Macnow's book about the Philly faithful. "I think every football team wants fans as nutso as the ones in Philadelphia."

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