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January 29, 2018

Sunday is everything for everyone whose first words were, 'Dallas Sucks!'

Opinion Angelo Cataldi
012918_angelo_usat Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Eagles fans cheer in the stands against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field.

Amid all the hoopla for Super Bowl LII, a sweet story emerged about the last appearance by the Eagles in the big game 13 years ago, a brief moment that captures the true meaning of our love for sports in Philadelphia.

As e-mailer Gerald Helzner remembers it, two days before the contest in Jacksonville, a father called in to WIP radio at around 4 one morning and whispered into the phone that he couldn't speak loudly because his sons, seven and nine, were sleeping in the back seat of his car.

They were driving 12 hours each way because the dad wanted his sons to experience the Super Bowl. It didn't even sound as if they had tickets, Helzner recalled. The father just wanted to hand down to his young sons his love for the Eagles. What better way than at the biggest sports event of them all?

The past week has been like none I ever experienced at WIP, and that includes the days leading up to the 2005 Super Bowl. Fans are more optimistic this time, even though the main two villains are still there, New England coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. The diehards here believe this time it's Philadelphia's turn for a parade.

Holding this job at WIP for 28 years has given me a unique perspective in to what games like this mean to the core of the city's fan base - parents and their kids. Even in my own case, there is no topic that bonds me to my son Neil, 38, more than sports. It is a universal language.

The best example I ever encountered of this phenomenon came many years ago when I was doing Eagles pre-game shows across the street from Veterans Stadium. It was the start of a new season, and longtime fan John Zitter was about to cross the turnstile for his 200th consecutive game. He loved the Eagles with a passion, as did his son Jeff.

John never made it into the stadium that day. He died of a heart attack right in our tent, while his son, stuck in traffic near the Vet, listened in horror. For years after that, Jeff would appear unannounced in our studio, just to remind people how much of a devoted fan his dad was, and how Jeff felt it was an honor to carry on the tradition.

Because the wait has been so long since the last NFL championship here - 57 seasons - I had taken many calls in the past few weeks from fans remembering parents who didn't live long enough to see the parade, their dreams now in the hands of sons and daughters who want it as much for their lost loved ones as for themselves.

Every one of the most devout fans who are regular callers to our show – Eagle Shirley, Signman John, Levi from Overbrook Park, Kenny and Jason from the Dirty Thirty, Coma Tracy – have similar stories to tell about how the first letters they learned were the Eagles cheer and, yes, their first words were "Dallas sucks!"

That's why this game means so much. It's more than a chance to win a championship. It's an opportunity to connect the generations in a way nothing else can. It's a way to honor the tradition.

When I told the story on the air about the dad calling WIP in the middle of the night on the road to Jacksonville, I took a lot of grief. The story has no ending, my co-hosts argued. Where's the big finish?

I didn't have an answer to that question when they posed it – I just loved the story – but I do now. The big finish is Sunday in Minnesota when the Eagles win the Super Bowl, and millions of fans – including two boys, now 20 and 22, who were asleep in the back seat of the car – can rejoice together.

***

The city of Philadelphia owes a debt of gratitude to the two drunken idiots who punched horses over the past month, providing a brand-new narrative on why we are the worst sports fans in America.

After all, even the lazy, cliché-loving national broadcasters and writers must have been getting tired of rolling out the old Santa Claus snowball fight from 1968 – that's right, 50 years ago – to portray us as the thugs and hooligans that we supposedly are. The truth is, most of the people who launched those missiles are dead now anyway, don't you think?

The picture of Eagles fans as alcohol-fueled, profanity-spouting nitwits is just too easy a story for the uncreative to ignore. The moment the Eagles crushed the Vikings, vacant brains everywhere just activated the program one more time. Philadelphia fans are brutes, savages, thugs. Blah, blah, blah.

None of these boneheads actually wants to hear the truth. In fact, when veteran Pittsburgh football writer Ron Cook appeared on my WIP radio show after depicting Eagles fans as "sub-human," he had no interest in the fact that the Steelers average 17 arrests per game at Heinz Field, compared to seven at the Linc.

Actual facts have no place in this story because the truth is not a requirement. When video after video surfaced last week of Eagles and Vikings fans shaking hands after the conference championship game, there was no national acknowledgment. What mattered is that a few Minnesota fans didn't like the verbal abuse during a 38-7 rout.

For every moron like the two horse assailants – the animals were not injured, by the way – there are thousands who quietly buy jerseys, bellow chants and count the days until the next game. The sellout streak at Lincoln Financial Field is so long now, nobody is keeping track anymore. There's a word for that: loyalty. You won't see or hear that word this week during the national coverage, either.

A very strange thing happened last week. Kevin Cullen, a columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote a piece that was stunningly accurate about Philadelphia fans. He admired our fire, our passion, our – gulp – loyalty.

"I love Philly," he wrote, "and I love Philadelphians."

Two days later, after a viciously negative reaction on social media, Cullen did an about-face and ripped us. It was so much easier that way.

Like thousands of other clueless media types, Cullen will be in Minnesota all week, covering Super Bowl LII. Watch your back, Kevin. I know two drunken Eagles fans who think you look like a horse.

***

You will hear and read dozens of predictions on the big game six days from now, so why not me? After all, I was one of the few guessers who predicted a winning season and a playoff berth for an Eagles team with low expectations. I also went 16-2 on my predictions this season – primarily by picking the Birds almost every week.

I have a good feeling about this Super Bowl because, if defense is the deciding factor, we'll all be attending a parade next week. Tom Brady himself said this is the best defense his Patriots have seen all season. Meanwhile, New England is the third-best defense the Eagles have seen just in the playoffs.

In every category, the Eagles are superior to the Patriots defensively, but especially in time of possession and turnovers. The Birds, at 27:16 have been on the field less than any other defense in the NFL this year, while the Pats are a so-so 29:34. And the Birds are averaging almost two turnovers a game to one for New England, fifth worst in the NFL.

Two reasons for optimism are familiar names in the Patriots' secondary, Eagle busts Patrick Chung and Eric Rowe. Granted, Chung is a much better player under coach Bill Belichick than he was with Chip Kelly, but Rowe remains an enigma in New England. Any one of the Birds' receivers can burn him one on one.

On the other side of the ball, Brady is the best quarterback ever, but not when the pocket is collapsing. The Eagles' pass rush should be able to harass him all day. Fletcher Cox, playing the best football of his career, needs one more dominant game.

Even the coaching matchup is not as daunting as it was 13 years ago when Andy Reid was leading the Birds. Yes, Belichick is a genius, but no coach is having a better year right now than Doug Pederson. Just ask Mike Zimmer, whose top-ranked Minnesota defense lost, 38-7, because of the brilliant play-calling of the Eagles' second-year head coach.

Maybe this is the heart speaking instead of the head, but I think this storybook season will have a perfect ending. The Eagles will shake off early-game jitters and expose the Patriots as a team in serious decline. The Birds will not choke the way Seattle and Atlanta did in recent years.

That's right. I'm predicting the Eagles will win the Super Bowl, 27-17.

See you at the parade.

And finally ...

    • He will never admit it but Carson Wentz is living a nightmare right now, watching the team he helped get to the Super Bowl play in the big game without him. Last week he spoke for the first time since he tore his ACL and LCL, and he said all the right things, as usual. But he is, above all else, a competitor, and he can't play. It should comfort him to know that even if Nick Foles wins on Sunday, Wentz will be back as the starter as soon as he's ready. He's that good.

    • One voice has been conspicuously absent during the ramp up to the Super Bowl – that of former Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Wouldn't you love to know what the new UCLA coach is thinking as the Birds take many of his players – including the quarterback he discarded, Nick Foles - to the biggest game in American sports? And what about Kelly's tight friendship with Bill Belichick? No comment there, either? Something tells me Kelly is more likely to attend Jeffrey Lurie's next Christmas party than show his face this week in Minnesota

    • Lost in the hype for the Super Bowl was the disturbing report on what Roy Halladay had in his system when he died in a plane crash last November. Doctors said he had a fatal level of amphetamines in his blood at the time of the accident - in fact, nearly four times the lethal dose. Was the iconic pitcher hooked on uppers? Did they impair him in the critical moments before his death? None of this speculation happened in the past week because of the Super Bowl. Which is a good thing. (I guess.)

    • And then there was the story last week, also ignored, that the No. 1 pick in the 2016 major-league draft, Mickey Moniak, had dropped from Baseball America's 17th-ranked prospect completely out of the top 100. The selection of Moniak, was one of the first major decisions by Phillies GM Matt Klentak. Alarms should be going off right now about both the young outfielder's .236 batting average in single-A ball and the analytics system that brought him here. Is it possible Klentak has no idea what he's doing? Yes, it is.

    • If you saw the newest video of Markelle Fultz at the free-throw line, you are either very concerned or you don't care at all about the Sixers or their top draft pick. After months of rehab for a shoulder injury, he is still hoisting up bricks from the foul line in a shot-put style. Ironically, Fultz did hit an unbelievable court-length heave last week with his back to the basket. Maybe he should shoot his free throws that way.