There were 50 thoughts running through my mind as I watched DeSean Jackson's game-winning punt return Sunday, which put me 50 thoughts ahead of Giants punter Matt Dodge. But in the end, I was left with this: There is no better place to be a sports fan right now than Philadelphia.
The Phillies are coming off their fourth straight postseason appearance and are the surest bet in baseball to make the playoffs next year. The Flyers just made the Stanley Cup finals and have the best record in the NHL. The Eagles are the most exciting team in the NFC, and maybe the best -- they seem destined for an NFC title-game matchup with Michael Vick's old team, the Falcons. (The 76ers? Well, they're struggling, but hey, a lockout is coming!)
Sure, Boston is contending for titles in baseball, the NFL and the NBA, and that's a great sports town. But I think Philly is more fun right now, because Boston has won titles in all of those sports in the last few years. We've reached the point of sports-fan gluttony in Boston. Nobody wants to hear Boston fans talk about Kevin Gahnett or Cahl Crahfahd. And Boston fans cannot be enjoying this success as much as they did when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, when the Celtics ended their title drought, and (especially) when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. It's natural. Winning isn't as special if you do it all the time.
This is still new for Philadelphia. From 1983 to 2008, the city went 100 seasons without a title in the four major sports. Now, suddenly, Philly can't stop winning. But it's not just the winning. Philly is changing its image and self-image. For years, Philadelphians thought they were destined to lose and the rest of the country figured that's what Philadelphians deserved.
This was the city that famously threw snowballs at Santa Claus (Philly's defense: He was drunk) and cheered when Michael Irvin was carted off the field (Philly's defense: He was Michael Irvin). Kobe Bryant came home for the All-Star game and was booed from start to finish. When Philly fans undergo surgery, they skip anesthesia so they're awake to boo the surgeon.
But look now. Philadelphia has embraced Vick, the most controversial athlete of the last few years. Cliff Lee, the big prize of baseball's free-agent market, signed with Philadelphia because he loves it there. The Phillies didn't even really try to get him. They just kind of hung around and let Lee choose them. To longtime Philly haters, that is like the foot choosing the fungus.
I have always had a soft spot for Philadelphia sports fans, and not just because I like insane people. Philadelphia is my kind of city. It can be beautiful, and if you walk around Center City, you can feel the layers of history.
Philadelphians' problem, if you can call it that, is that they care too much. Sixers games are never star-studded events like Knicks games or Lakers games. The Phillies did not build a fan base by playing in a cool stadium in a hip neighborhood. It is a city of substance. The fact that Kobe Bryant was playing in a meaningless All-Star game was lost on Philadelphia fans. In Philly, there are no meaningless games.
Take a town like that. Add a heavy dose of suffering. Now -- this is key -- mix in some good old-fashioned envy. Since 1982, the Eagles' three big NFC East rivals -- the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys -- have each won three Super Bowls. Philadelphia is located between New York and Washington D.C. -- the two cities that make the most news in this country. Philly fans hate when people say they have an inferiority complex. They love their city for a thousand good reasons. But sports are the one aspect of society where Philly can steal headlines from New York and D.C. That fuels the passion.
Passion like this takes strange forms. While the rest of the country saw Donovan McNabb as a franchise quarterback, Philly fans sensed, earlier than most of us, that McNabb was overrated. The city fell in love with Allen Iverson, but that era was the ultimate Philadelphia sports story -- the closer Iverson got to a championship, the less likely he was to win it. His flaws became more obvious each year, and the Sixers built a team to compensate for them. It was almost like Iverson existed to tantalize Philadelphia, to stir the passion without rewarding it.
The days of pinning false hopes on Iverson seem so long ago. If New York can turn Times Square into a family amusement park, then Philly can turn its sports venues into happy places. These days, Philly sports are about success, not fantasies. It's about Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee-Roy Oswalt-Cole Hamels, a righty-lefty-righty-lefty quartet for the ages. It's about this year's Flyers doing what Eric Lindros never could.
And mostly, it's about a quarterback nobody wanted 18 months ago, doing things nobody in the NFL has ever done before. Michael Vick and Philadelphia had lousy reputations, and people said neither would ever win. But there was Vick at New Meadowlands Stadium Sunday, torturing the hated Giants, a rehabbed Eagles quarterback sticking it to New York. This is Philadelphia's moment.