It’s a Philly thing

What grieving the Eagles loss taught me about how to come home

6 minute read
Vintage color photo of a young man with brown hair in a crowd, in a Flyers jersey, drinking out of the silver Stanley Cup
Heather Joelle Boneparth's young grandfather, drinking out of the Stanley Cup in 1974. (Image courtesy of the writer.)

The Eagles lost the Super Bowl. I am probably sadder than I am allowed to be, given the point in their season I started paying attention. But the way they lost stung—a blowout would’ve been better. This felt like we had it, we had it, then we lost it. I am just glad I promised to watch only the first quarter with our friends down the block because by the time things started going south, I was spewing acid at my family from the comfort of our own home. It was a tough couple of weeks, as personal tribulations met the collapse of this game in a textbook display of one of my most Philadelphian qualities: how poorly I lose.

I grew up in Philadelphia, New Jersey—not New York, New Jersey. People born and raised in the tri-state area know the difference. I have the street cred of any longtime Philadelphia fan. As a kid, I sat in the nosebleeds in the pouring rain to watch the Phillies lose to the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series and lived my first true heartbreak when the Detroit Red Wings swept the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals right before my eyes.

Losing hurts. We are supposed to mourn, pull ourselves together, and stand ready to go again. But sports are not just sports. What’s at stake is much larger than the game being played.

A sporting eulogy

Sports might be second only to religion in providing our greatest sense of heritage and custom. Passion passes from generation to generation. My Pop-Pop drank from the Stanley Cup in 1974 and, years later, welcomed me into his Flyers family. I wrote about his deep history with the team and our ritual of being smuggled into the games without tickets. But as he descended into macular degeneration and dementia, Philadelphia sports became one of his final constants. They were a lifeline.

As he got worse, it felt like my natural progression was to forfeit this part of my life. I read my essay at his funeral surrounded by our friends from the stands, like an end cap on my relationship with them. Maybe it was just too painful to imagine going back to that place without the person who went with you.

Gators and Giants

When you don’t know who you are, it’s easy to move on to somewhere new. We tend to affix our sense of self to our sense of place. I went to college in Florida, where there was almost no one from Philadelphia—New York, sure, but most of my friends squabbled over turf wars between Miami and Tampa. I had no skin in their game. It was easier to throw myself into college sports as a Gator, especially when we were winning at everything. Winning felt so good. Heather from Philly became a blonde sorority girl in Abercrombie denim who said "y’all" with a straight face. That made sense for me at the time.

But when I moved to New York, I felt even further from Philly despite being much closer to home. New York City can consume your personality. Even slogging through law school and the Great Recession and my low-paying jobs and a deepening depression and grocery shopping in the pouring rain, I convinced myself it was the greatest place in the world. That’s the storyline that keeps you there for almost a decade (like me)—or maybe your whole life. I’m still not sure if it’s true. Sometimes an old block can bring me to tears; sometimes, I wonder whether I suffered from Stockholm syndrome. Either way, I deeply believed that what I was doing there I could not do anywhere else, and I projected my moral superiority on the people in my life who weren’t there. I never went as far as to root for the Giants, but if I stayed, I wouldn’t have been able to make any promises.

“Go Birds”

Six years ago, we moved to Central New Jersey—the 50-yard line. I didn’t know anyone, but I knew myself a lot better. When it was time to choose sides, it’s no coincidence I felt drawn to people who grew up close to where I did in the Philadelphia suburbs and down the shore. We don’t have to say much to establish a connection. My good friend from Margate often agrees: we’re just cut from the same cloth. We are speaking an unspoken language.

Sports are a language, too: a vehicle to communicate that you understand each other. Before the big game, I laughed at a meme that showed the many things “Go Birds” actually means for Philadelphians. It means I got you—I get who you are. We are direct, viewed as aggressive by some. We are scrappy. We are not quite humble but self-effacing, for sure. We are not the classiest, but we do right by people. And no one will ever call us fake—what you see is what you get.

Heavy losses on the way home

The game started taking a turn for the worst, and my stepmom said something like, “Well, Heather. Wouldn’t your Pop-Pop want you to hold out hope?” I said, “Nah. He’d say this was all bullshit, the refs called a bullshit holding flag, and he’d want to leave before the traffic.” It was savage but so true. I am a sore loser, but I’m proud of where it comes from.

Taking interest again is bittersweet. I find it hard to open myself back up to this world without thinking about everything that used to be there and the people I can no longer share it with.

Pop-Pop is gone. Mom-Mom is now, too. She was alive for the Super Bowl but declined in the days to follow. Maybe I sensed a deeper mourning to come because the game felt much heavier than it should have been.

I was able to be there in the end. I sat by her side and said everything I wanted to say. She was the best grandma, the best friend an only child and grandchild could ever ask for. But I think Pop-Pop was waiting for his wife to console him. I have to believe that was the case.

When the chaplain came in, he told us about his conversation with Mom-Mom the week prior to her death. He grew up in Northeast Philly, three blocks from where my grandparents raised their family. He told us how they reminisced over street names and grade schools and fireworks over the neighborhood stadium. I sat and listened to him do the same with my mom and uncle. He was speaking an unspoken language. He was bringing them all back home.

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