Today we veer off track a little bit. We're going to set aside the current Eagles team to talk about a book. I'm sure most of you would love to know my thoughts on the latest Danielle Steele novel, but that will have to wait. Instead we're talking about a brand new book called Bury Me In My Jersey: A Memoir of My Father, Football, And Philly. The author happens to be a friend of mine, Tom McAllister. He is a regular poster on the Eagles Message Board. You may know him there as swamistubbs.
Some of you may wonder why you should care about Tom's book. Tom is a gifted writer. I've read a couple of chapters and it is excellent. His story involves 2 of the 3 keys to a good life - family and Eagles football (PBR is #3). The book isn't about his take on the team, but rather what it is like to be an Eagles fan, something we can all relate to. There are a few long distance Eagles fans who read this blog. I'm in that category. This book offers a glimpse into what it is like to be an Eagles fan growing up in Philly. Color me green with envy. Kelly green, preferably.
As for the family aspects...that is just as interesting believe it or not. Let me tell you a quick story. I grew up watching Mazda Sports Look with Roy Firestone on ESPN in the mid-80s. Roy is the best sports interviewer I've ever seen. I loved watching his show. Back then we didn't have the glut of sports coverage that we do today. Getting to hear athletes talk was special. I absolutely loved watching Roy every chance I got.
One day in June I turned on the show and was greatly disappointed to see that his guest for the day was his dad. Father's Day was coming up that weekend and Roy wanted to honor his father. Boring. Who cares about Roy's dad? I wanted an interview with someone famous like Robin Yount, Reggie Theus, or Todd Christensen. Give me any successful athlete. I was not happy to see an episode wasted like that.
Then something funny happened. Roy started the interview and I was blown away. Listening to father and son talk about their relationship and sports was mesmerizing. They told the greatest stories. I was only a high school kid, but learned a great lesson. People are what makes sports special. That is true of the players who play the game. The people who coach the players. The people who cover the games. The fans who watch the games. If a good writer can combine family and football, I'm all ears.
I conducted a Q & A with Tom so that you can find out some more about him and his book. Here goes:
Q: Let's start with some basics so people can get a feel for you. How long have you been an Eagles fan? Who is your favorite player?
The first season I really watched was 1991, the year Bryce Paup broke Randall's leg. I'd kind of been on the periphery during previous seasons, half-watching games with my brother and my dad, but I didn't begin to understand what was happening until '91. That year wasn't bad, but the Randall injury made it feel like a bit of a lost cause from day one. The '92 season, though, is still one of my favorite seasons, since that was the first time I followed a team from preseason all the way through a playoff win. I must have watched replays of that Eagles-Saints playoff games a hundred times growing up.
Favorite players: I've always been a defense guy when it comes to favorite players. Seth Joyner is one of my favorites all-time. Loved William Thomas too. Since sometime in '04, Sheldon Brown has been my favorite Eagle; I really admired the way he carried himself on gameday, his reliability, his candidness with the media, the whole package. Now I'd say my top two are Trent Cole and Jason Avant. The perfect attitudes for football players.
Q: Your book is partially about what it meant to grow up in a family of Eagles fans. Watching games was about football, but was also a family bonding experience, whether that was good, bad, or a mixture of both. That makes me so jealous. I grew up in a family of non-sports fans or passive sports fans. Watching games was and remains an afterthought. Tell us about some of the "rites" of watching Eagles games with your family.
The routine has definitely evolved over the years. Growing up, we didn't do anything special, necessarily, but we all had our assigned seats (Dad in the recliner, me in the couch nearest him, my brother next to me, then mom next to him) and wore our Eagles gear. But there wasn't a big production like some people do, with the home theater, the big gameday meals, and everything else. All my dad cared about was watching the game, which meant there wasn't a lot of talking, and when we did talk, it was to analyze a play. My dad was a very analytical guy, not prone to the kind of emotional outbursts that I am.
Now, I watch most of the games with my in-laws, which usually means seven or eight people, great food (we're all into cooking, so there's some competitiveness with the gameday menu), and more superstitions than I can list. Last year, my father-in-law printed up the House Rules for Eagles games, and they're on display wherever we're watching. My favorite rule: if something good happens for the Eagles when you're out of the room, you have to stay wherever you are until something goes wrong. Once, this led to someone sitting in the bathroom for about forty minutes, until Matt Bryant hit that 62 yard field goal.
Q: You have referred to yourself as "obsessed with the Eagles". Does your family think there is something strange about how much of a fan you are? What about your wife? Does she embrace your love of the Eagles or is that ever a point of contention between you two?
My wife and I have been dating since freshman year of college. Back then, we had a mutual friend whose girlfriend hated sports, to the point that the girlfriend would actively root against Philly teams because she hated him watching the games. I made it very clear to my girlfriend/wife then that I thought that was a pretty awful way to live. She didn't have to love football the way I did, but she had to at least understand and not try to undermine it.
Thankfully, she's a sports fan too-- baseball and football especially. She doesn't get nearly as intense as I do, but she watches every game as closely as everyone else in the room. She has two sports-crazy brothers, so she's had a lot of experience with the emotions of game day. In the past, we did have a few contentious moments, when I was admittedly going overboard, spending 8-10 hours a day on the Internet looking for Eagles info, breaking my toe kicking a table after the loss to Oakland in '02, leaving drunken voicemails for Drew Rosenhaus, that kind of stuff.
Q: I know that I've changed quite a bit over the years. I used to live and die with each game in a way that would dictate how I felt for the coming week. That's not healthy, but it is how strongly I felt about the Eagles. With time I've learned to "just relax" a bit more. I now see the big picture and I don't get too high or too low. Has anything like that happened with you or do you still live and die each Sunday? Have you changed at all as a fan?
Absolutely. I started to hint at this one in the last answer; through high school, college, and even grad school, I had a lot of moments that, in hindsight, are pretty embarrassing: self-inflicted injuries, holes in drywall, fights during games, hurling beer at an opposing fan. Dumb stuff. I think it would have become a big problem between me and my wife, actually, if I hadn't grown out of that a bit. But I've become much better at managing my emotion, especially on game day. A loss used to ruin me for an entire week; a losing streak made me unbearable. I still hate the losing, and some things will drive me crazy during the games, but usually I'm much better at talking myself off the ledge now.
Q: You and I first "met" on the Eagles Message Board (EMB). I've had a hard time getting friends and family to get beyond the notion that a message board is more than a chat room of devious freaks and/or venomous fans. Those types are certainly present, but there are also many good fans eager for discussion and an exchange of ideas. Have you had the same experience in terms of people wondering why you care so much about a message board?
I joined the EMB about 10 years ago on a whim, looking for rumors on free agent visits, and never had any intention of posting, let alone becoming a part of the community for a decade. But now there are people on that board who know a lot of personal details about my life (and I know about theirs), and who have been there with me through some important years in my life-- roughly age 17 to now, when I'm 28. I'm sure if you could track down my old posts, it would be a pretty good way to chart my maturation and personality changes over the years.
Still, there's that old stigma about meeting people over the Internet, and I get it, to an extent; it seems unnatural, maybe. But the EMB is a way for 100,000 like-minded people to congregate and to know that, no matter what, there are other people out there who care about the same things as you, and who understand why you feel the way you do. There's a lot of value to something like that. Everyone's looking for a place where they feel like they belong; for me, for a long time, the only place where I felt that was the EMB.
Q: Let's talk about the city of Philadelphia. Many people are shocked to learn that I'm not from Philly. Heck, I've only visited a few times. I have loved the little time that I have been up there. Tell me about Philly, as you see it.
Philly is a vastly underrated city. For much of my life, I underrated it too. It's easy to overlook its virtues, because, for such a big city Philly can really feel like a small town. At times, that small-town feeling can be charming, because you always feel like you know somebody, but it can also make you feel claustrophobic and the city can seem pretty small-minded when everyone gets tunnel vision. But that's a familiarity breeding contempt kind of situation. If you let yourself get lost in that mindset, you can miss that Philly has a great independent music scene, a thriving arts culture, a lot of excellent restaurants, and really good beer. And don't forget that fact that it's a living, evolving museum, with some of the most important landmarks in the country's history.
I'm gushing a bit. Philly's been home to me for most of my life, so I'm obviously biased on this, but I do love the city, and sometimes get irrationally defensive when people point out its flaws. The way I see it, the imperfections -- the dirty and sometimes ugly streets, the occasional overt rudeness, the weird public transportation system, the violence, etc. – make the place more authentic. There's an honesty and a shocking earnestness about this city. Philadelphia is a place that wants to be loved and respected, and when it gets spurned (through failed sports teams, the mocking of the media, the dismissive waves of New Yorkers, etc.) it reacts bitterly, with a gargantuan chip on its shoulder. I can see why people would focus on the ugliness that sometimes accompanies this attitude, but I think that's what gives us our charm.
Q: Was there any particular moment or event that led you to write the book? What was your inspiration?
1. I went to grad school for creative writing in Iowa City, IA. One of my first nights there, I met a classmate who happened to be from central NJ and was a huge Philly sports fan. This was back in August 2004, so we spent all night drinking cheap pitchers of beer (Tommy, I know you'll like this: $1 pitchers, any beer, just about every night in Iowa City) talking about how amazing the season was going to be, how great TO was, etc. The next time I saw him, he gave me the book Fever Pitch, which is Nick Hornby's memoir about being an obsessed Arsenal soccer fan. He said something along the lines of “you should read this, and you should write your own version of this about Philly and the Eagles.” I didn't take his advice then, but he'd planted the seeds.
2. Three years later, I saw Tra Thomas buying oranges in the supermarket, and semi-stalked him through the store. Afterward, I was thinking about how weird it was that—while I was with my wife-- I followed this football player and looked into his cart to see what he was eating, then watched him to see what his car looked like. It seemed pathological and sad and disappointing. My life had come to being a part-time instructor at a couple colleges, not writing anything, and stalking football players in the produce aisle-- what a letdown. So I decided to write an essay about it. The essay was kind of a mess, but the friend who gave me Fever Pitch read it and insisted that this was exactly what I had to be doing all along. He isolated the parts about the EMB and Philly and my dad and showed me how I'd just laid the foundation for a memoir really exploring why I care so much about the Eagles and what being a fan means to me.
Q: The process of writing the book must have been one heck of a trip down memory lane. What were some of the good memories? How about the bad?
One thing I haven't really mentioned yet is that this book, in many ways, is an elegy for my dad, who died of cancer when I was 21, and who has had an enormous influence on me. One of our great bonds was watching and talking about football, and so this book evolved from a reflection on my obsessions, to trying to unravel the roots, meanings, and effects of those obsessions. All of which is a long way of saying that early in the process, I realized that this book required that I really analyze my relationship with my dad, so the most interesting part of this process was digging through family stories, photos, and documents to learn more about my dad, who he was before I was born, and how other people viewed him.
The remembering really was an act of re-learning my own history, and better understanding our relationship, so that was all very revealing and interesting and rewarding. It's impossible to undertake a project like this and not learn about yourself.
More directly, one of the best memories: going to my first game with my brother and my Dad and seeing the Eagles dismantle the John Elway Broncos, 30-0. In piecing together the details for the book, I learned that my Dad had worked a lot of overtime to be able to afford those tickets, because I'd been begging him for months to take me to a game.
Worst: the scenes where I'm in the hospital with my dad, naively thinking he's going to get better, but everyone else around us knows he's dying. Had I realized the gravity of the situation, I'm sure our last conversation would not have been about Jerome McDougle.
Q: What was your families reaction to the idea of the book? Have they read the finished product? Any reaction from them?
My wife is very reserved, and so the whole concept of being a character in a book terrified her a little bit. But she read it (she proofreads the final drafts of everything I write) and saw that she had nothing to worry about; no one looks better in the book than she does, and I'm the one who stars in the lowest points. Overall, though, she was extremely supportive. I'd gotten an MFA in creative writing, but this was the first time I wrote anything I really cared about, so she was glad to see me finally doing something, instead of just talking about how someday I'm going to be a writer.
The rest of my family hasn't read it yet, so I'm waiting now and hoping they think I did everyone justice in there. The whole family, though, has been amazingly supportive of the project from the day I started until now when we're in the promotional process.
Q: Do you consider yourself somewhat of a typical fan and thus think the book is something that the families, girlfriends, and wives of fanatical Eagles fans should read to help them understand who they are dealing with? We Eagles fans are a strange group at times. Some would argue 24/7/365.
If this book does nothing else, I hope it gives people an honest look at what it means to be a devoted fan. Sometimes it's entertaining, sometimes terribly sad, sometimes joyous, and often a mixture of all three. Writing it made me really grapple with my reasons for caring so much about the Eagles, and I hope it translates onto the page; fans should enjoy it because sometimes they might see themselves, and friends/family of fans should enjoy it because they'll get an unfiltered insight into the mind and life of someone who cares way more than he probably should about football.
You can pre-order the book if you like.
It is due for release on Tuesday. Might make a good Father's Day gift.
I have 2 requests. First, buy a copy of Tom's book so we can show support for our fellow Eagles fan. Second, please don't start calling me Oprah. Unless I get her paycheck.
Feel free to share your own stories in the comments section. I didn't grow up in an Eagles family so all I can offer are some good sports bar tales.