'I never thought I'd see anything like this'
On the day of his grandfather's funeral in 1984, Jeff Beck was taken by a family friend to Veteran's Stadium. His grandfather had been a lineman for Temple in the 1940s, and ever since a Beck family member had attended every Owls home game. Jeff was only eight, but on that day it was his job to keep the streak alive.
Now, 31 years later, Jeff is the assistant manager at a Center City sports bar, and his family's streak is still intact. But it's been a lonely vigil, as Temple football has had few such loyalists. He's sat through more blowouts than he cares to remember, with no more than a few thousand fans dotting a cavernous NFL stadium. In 2004 the program was in such bad shape that it was booted from the Big East conference for noncompetitiveness and fan apathy.
That's what amazes Beck about this Saturday, when the Owls will take center stage in both Philadelphia and in the college football universe. Temple, ranked 21st in the country and 7–0 for the first time in school history, will challenge No. 9 Notre Dame in a game televised in prime time on ABC. Another first: ESPN's College GameDay will also broadcast from Philadelphia, setting up outside Independence Hall on Saturday morning. With the game sold out, a Temple ticket has suddenly become a prized possession.
"It's bizarre," Beck says. "I never thought I'd see anything like this."
In Philadelphia, Owls football has long been an afterthought. Most of the city's fans are obsessed with pro sports, and more of their college loyalties are directed toward Penn State, despite State College being 3½ hours away. But this year, with Philly's pro teams struggling, and with the Nittany Lions unexciting, Temple has picked a great time to peak. No one will confuse what's happening in the city with, say, the game-day atmosphere in South Bend. But when the Owls pulled in 35,179 to Lincoln Financial Field for an unsexy Oct. 10 home game against Tulane—after averaging 23,370 last year—it was a sign of major improvement.
"At the Tulane game we were able to do the wave," Beck says. "We'd never been able to do that before."
Much beyond the quality of its teams has kept Temple from becoming a vital part of the city's sports scene. The university has for much of its history been a commuter school, with few students actually living on campus. While the number of residential students has risen significantly in recent years, the Owls still play in a pro stadium in another part of town. Temple is actually now raising funds to build a 35,000-seat stadium on campus, but still, football has never been a major part of student life.
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Pete McAleer, who served as the Owls' manager from 1989 to '95, and who is now a season ticket-holder, has been at games with crowds so thin that he has been able to spot friends at the opposite end of the stadium. This season he has, for the first time, been enjoying the types of experiences fans in traditional football towns take for granted. When he goes shopping while wearing Temple gear, people actually talk to him about the team. Last Thursday he went to a bar to watch the Owls defeat East Carolina 24–14, and found other fans there, too. On Saturday the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News tabloid began building up a game that was a week away. "To see the city rallying around the team is something I never thought I'd see," McAleer says.
Philly's embrace of Temple is not quite all-encompassing. On the Monday morning before the biggest football game in the history of the biggest university in Philadelphia, Angelo Cataldi, the city's most listened-to radio sports talk host, offered this prediction for the game: Fighting Irish 48, Owls 3. When a cohost ventured a more measured forecast, with Notre Dame winning by only 24, Cataldi joked, "How about the second quarter?" It's tough to be a Cinderella in the city. But merely earning discussion time on a Monday morning, when the hosts had a fresh Eagles loss to dissect, was itself a marker of Temple's progress.
When asked about Cataldi's prediction, McAleer dismisses those who have not gotten behind the team, but also says, "Philadelphia is not Friday Night Lights. There are still people that are going to be cynical."
There are also people who are loving every minute of this season, beginning with the Owls' physically dominating 27–10 win over Penn State on Sept. 5, their first victory over the in-state kingpins since 1941. Ted DeLapp, who graduated from Temple in '71 and has been a season ticket holder for about 30 years, says that during the game against the Nittany Lions he kept turning to the people around him and saying, "I can't believe what I'm seeing." He actually pinched himself at one point. Walking out of the stadium, fans were breaking into spontaneous chants and renditions of the Owls' fight song. "The excitement was through the roof," DeLapp says. "It was a catharsis."
No one felt that catharsis more deeply than Jeff Beck, who was there with his father and uncle, maintaining their family streak. Beck says that a win over Penn State was one of his grandfather's dying wishes, and when it came to pass, the whole group was in tears.
While Beck says that this season has already exceeded his dreams, he can't help but want more. He talks of the defense giving the Owls a fighting chance against the Irish. When asked what would it would be like if Temple somehow pulled off the upset, he says, "Maybe this city will finally become a college football town."
Bill Syken is a former writer and editor at Sports Illustrated who resides in Philadelphia. His football mystery, Hangman's Game, which is set in his hometown, was published in August.