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Up (too) close to Eagles heroesBY: Dan Rottenberg 12.14.2009
Our contributor Bob Ingram recently attacked the current corporatized Philadelphia Eagles management, expressing his preference for the flesh-and-blood blue-collar owners and coaches of yesteryear. But has Ingram actually met any of his heroes? I have, and therein lies a lesson.
My afternoon with Leonard Tose, or:
Our contributor Bob Ingram recently vented his spleen upon the current Philadelphia Eagles management, to the apparent approval of many of our readers. (See “Why I despise the Eagles.”) Franchise owner Jeffrey Lurie, Ingram explained, is “a New England prep school snob.” General manager Joe Banner is “Mr. Peepers with a spreadsheet.” Coach Andy Reid is “more senior management than a true football guy.”
Ingram expresses his preference for blue-collar football executives like the Eagles’ former owner, Leonard Tose (“a bare-knuckle trucker in a tailored suit who couldn’t stay away from the casinos until they sucked him as dry as Jeffrey Lurie’s soul”) or the Eagles’ former coach, Buddy Ryan, who “wasn’t afraid to call out head coach Mike Ditka, the arch pug, when he felt the situation demanded it (and sometimes when it didn’t).”
For those of us who are too old to actually play football, such rhetorical rants no doubt provide a therapeutic outlet for working off one’s aggressions. But Ingram’s diatribe begs one important question: Has he actually met any of his heroes? I have.
The year was 1982. In my op-ed column for the Inquirer, I chastised Tose for publicly whining because the city had agreed to share the Eagles’ home, Veterans’ Stadium, with the Philadelphia Stars of the rival U.S. Football League. Next thing I knew, I was on the receiving end of an irate phone call from Tose, who seemed less interested in describing the specifics of the Eagles’ lease at the Vet than in describing the varieties of sexual intercourse he wanted to perform upon me and his other perceived enemies.
Sensing an opportunity to meet one of the larger-than-life figures of our age, I dashed down to Tose’s office at the Vet. Unlike, say, a doctor’s waiting room, the anteroom was empty, and I was immediately ushered into the great man’s presence. (He didn’t seem to have much else to do.)
Now, assuming you are a rational being, put yourself in Tose’s shoes. You are a public figure. You are meeting, for the first time, a columnist for the city’s largest newspaper. You understand the importance of first impressions. Here is your opportunity to shine, to impress, to destroy your enemy (as Lincoln put it) by making him your friend.
A trembling lackey
Of course nothing of the sort happened, because Tose was a man of ego, not reason. In my presence he simply resumed the same profane diatribe he’d conducted with me on the phone. Between the four-letter words, I discerned that he might actually have a valid gripe against the city, but it was left to me to point that out to him. He simply couldn’t articulate it.
At one point in our conversation Tose summoned one of his trembling assistants to provide me with relevant facts and figures. Tose addressed this loyal employee with the same vulgarity that he talked to me. Since I had nothing to lose, I turned to the flunky and asked, “Does he talk this way to everybody?”
During his 16-year tenure as owner of the Eagles, Tose was often celebrated or feared as a man of shrewdness and guile. Yet as I wrote at the time, Tose’s primary characteristic was weakness, as reflected not only in his inarticulate profanity but also in his well-publicized casino gambling binges (which ultimately forced him to sell the team). Most of all this weakness was reflected in his desperate desire to retain ownership of the Eagles, as if he existed only through his franchise.
“I’m talking about survival, you understand?” he told the Inquirer in 1984, when he refused an offer to pay off his $40 million in gambling debts in exchange for the team. “Survival.” This emperor without clothes possessed no sense of his own identity apart from the Eagles, but most Philadelphians, presumably including Bob Ingram, fell for Tose’s charade: They assumed that because he owned the Eagles, he must be a formidable fellow.
Think about it. Bush shook hands with Kerry. Reagan shook hands with Gorbachev. Sadat shook hands with (and even embraced) Golda Meir. But Ryan’s work was too deadly serious for that kind of sissy stuff.
When the Eagles’ owner, Norman Braman, declined to renew Ryan’s contract after the 1990 season, he suggested that Ryan lacked the inspirational spark to take a football team all the way to the Super Bowl. But having said that, Braman went a step further: Even if Ryan could win the Super Bowl, Braman implied in so many words, there could be no joy in winning a Super Bowl with such a mean-spirited coach. Ryan was, indeed, a rare phenomenon: a loser even when he won.
Ryan’s playoff ‘guarantee’
Ryan went on to coach the Arizona Cardinals, where in his first season he gave his personal public “guarantee” that the Cardinals would make the post-season playoffs. When the Cardinals failed to reach the playoffs that year, I was naturally curious to see how Ryan would make good on his guarantee. Would he refund the fans’ ticket money? Resign? Kill himself?
The correct answer is: None of the above. Nor did Ryan mention the guarantee again.
Meeting Moose Skowron
When Skowron and his teammates arrived, he made a beeline for the hors d’ouevres tray, where I was standing. What to say on such a momentous occasion?
Knowing that Skowron had attended Purdue University nearby, I tried this conversation-starter: “Well, Moose, are you happy to be back in your old stamping grounds?”
“Shit yes,” Skowron replied, pointing meaningfully at the hors d’oeuvres. “I’m hungry!”
Perhaps you could argue that this was in fact an ingenious response to a typically banal sportswriter’s question. Still, the lesson for Bob Ingram, I submit, is the same one I learned that night: Don’t get too close to your heroes.♦
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