In Love with Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles Fans Are Losing Their Mean Streak
- Is Philadelphia actually turning out to be the City of Brotherly Love? It sure seems that way when you listen to sports talk radio. Over the same airwaves where Donovan McNabb was endlessly criticized, Eagles fans can’t stop singing the praises of Carson Wentz. Can he bring home a Super Bowl trophy, or have the die-hards gone soft?
PHILADELPHIA — As is the norm in the modern NFL, most Eagles’ training camp practices are private affairs. They practice at their regular training facility, on fields surrounded by tall fences, and the only outsiders allowed in are credentialed media, certain season-ticket holders, and special guests. The diehard Iggles fans, those who are tailgating outside Lincoln Financial Field at 6 a.m. on Sundays, have been shut out.
There is one exception. In the corner of the practice complex, just next to one of the fields, sits a large white RV, from which the radio station WIP broadcasts shows a few times a week. WIP is a fixture in the Philly sports scene. In the late 1980s, the station was among the first to move to the 24/7 sports-talk radio format as we know it today: loudmouth hosts giving opinions and taking calls from ornery fans. For about 30 years, WIP has been the place where people gather to discuss, analyze, and rip the Eagles year-round.
As you might imagine, the team and the station have a complicated relationship. From what WIP can gather, Eagles coaches and front office members do listen, if only to gauge the climate around the team. At one point, the Eagles actually assigned an intern to listen to WIP and report back what he heard. The players, meanwhile, try to avoid it. When linebacker Ike Reese flew in for rookie minicamp, in 1998, Mike Zordich, the Eagles’ veteran safety, picked him up at the airport. Driving into town, Zordich gave Reese two pieces of advice: “Don’t read the newspapers and don’t listen to WIP.”
But at training camp, for some time, there was no escaping it. For 17 years, from the mid ’90s until 2012, the Eagles held their camp at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa. The practices were mostly open to the public, and as a way to promote the station, WIP would travel up there and host their various talk shows from time to time. The station set up a tent five feet from the sideline and broadcast from 6 a.m. until 7 at night. They’d interview players, take calls and evaluate the practice going on right in front of them. They even set up big speakers, so the fans could hear them. But the players could, too.
“If we were going: ‘I’m telling ya, this McNabb, he always chokes in the clutch . . .’ he could literally be walking by,” says Angelo Cataldi, a WIP personality who’s been at the station for 28 years. “Players would be coming down [the field] while we were ripping them.”
And they ripped Donovan McNabb worse than anyone. It didn’t help that he and WIP didn’t get off to a good start at the 1999 NFL draft. In the days leading up to it, Cataldi says, the mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell, was convinced that the Eagles were taking Ricky Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, with the No. 2 pick. “Rendell told us that we should be up there for that crowning moment, when we got Ricky Williams,” Cataldi says. The station figured it’d at least make for a good promotion, so Cataldi took 30 Eagles fans—“30 crazy people,” as he describes them—up to New York. When the Eagles selected McNabb instead, those 30 Eagles fans booed him mercilessly. “And he held a grudge for 11 years,” Cataldi says. Not once in 11 training camps, according to Cataldi, did McNabb appear on a WIP show (though he did after retiring).
Other Eagles players had their own issues with the station. The constant critiquing and negative commentary got to be so much one year that, when WIP asked to interview a player, Ron Howard, the team’s public relations man at the time, told them none of the players wanted to—they hated the station that much. Cataldi was livid. He threatened to never broadcast from Lehigh again, so Howard said he would see what he could do. “He drags over Chad Lewis, and Lewis does a very perfunctory interview with us and leaves,” Cataldi recalls. “Ron told us later: he paid [Lewis] $200 to do it! I think out of his own pocket!”
WIP had that kind of pull in those days, during the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, during Terrell Owens’s first training camp, the Eagles were drawing about 20,000 fans a day and the WIP personalities acted a bit like rock stars playing to a packed house. The WIP tent became a meeting ground before practice, fans doing E-A-G-L-E-S chants and singing the team’s fight song. If a fan ever wanted to get on the radio, they’d just be handed a microphone.
You can see why Chip Kelly, in 2013, decided to move the team’s training camp to its practice facility in Philadelphia and close the majority of practices to the public. That didn’t stop WIP from pilling on Kelly, as the team kept losing, until he was fired late in 2015. After that, though, the mood on the WIP airwaves seemed to shift, to a more mellow tone. By that time, the Sixers were fully committed to The Process and a long rebuild, and irascible Philly fans had grown more patient. When the Eagles drafted another quarterback, Carson Wentz, with the second overall pick in 2016, he wasn’t booed the same way McNabb had been. He was roundly cheered.
When Wentz first appeared on WIP, he sounded robotic, rehearsed, cliché. Then the Eagles traded Sam Bradford, Wentz became the starter, and the team started 3-0. Over the course of the season, Wentz started opening up during interviews, talking more about his maturation process, specifically tapping into the blue-collar identity of the city. “He’s good at [showing] how much it means to him,” says Jon Ritchie, the former Eagles fullback who now has a show on WIP. “It means so much to us as fans, and when you’ve got a guy, leading the team, that it means that much to as well, you feel a real bond there. You feel like you’re working together with this young man, witnessing the growth, and feeling a pride in the growth. Like you’re a part of the team. He’s able to engender that sort of reaction from the fans, which is very savvy. He’s young, but he’s got a great grasp of what makes this town tick.”
That is one thing that McNabb, at least in his critics’ eyes, apparently failed to do. “He never got the city,” Cataldi says. “He was the best quarterback the Eagles ever had, but he never made a connection with the fans.” (Multiple attempts to reach McNabb for this story were unsuccessful.)
Some people may look at this as a race issue—fans critiquing a black quarterback and celebrating a white one. Ike Reese, the former Eagles linebacker (and McNabb teammate) turned WIP host, doesn’t view it that way. “The only color these fans see is green,” he says. Wentz is being celebrated, he says, because the Eagles haven’t had a franchise QB since McNabb left, and fans finally think they have one in Wentz. “This town is tough,” Reese adds. “If things don’t go well, it’s not going to matter. Just ask Ron Jaworski. Ask Mike Schmidt.”
“We try to reflect the mind-set of the fan,” Cataldi says, “and it is a little gentler Philadelphia than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. We’ve all evolved over time.”
For now, Wentz is still enjoying his honeymoon period in Philly. After watching him for just one season, fans are calling into WIP singing his praises. They tell the hosts they’re expecting eight, nine, 10 wins this season, especially since the Eagles added Alshon Jeffrey, Torrey Smith, and LaGarrette Blount, giving Wentz two big-play receivers and a goal-line running back. “[Wentz has] given people reason for hope,” says Spike Eskin, the WIP program director. “They see light at the end of the tunnel, so they’re giving the team a chance to live up to that.” Four WIP personalities—Cataldi, Ritchie, Reese, and Joe DeCamara—all described themselves as big Carson Wentz fans. Cataldi says he hasn’t been this optimistic about the team since McNabb and the Eagles lost the Super Bowl at the end of the ’04 season.
Last Wednesday, Cataldi did his regular morning show from the Eagles’ facility, just like old times. Except now there are no booming speakers, no roaring crowds, no E-A-G-L-E-S chants. Just a quiet RV sitting there in the early morning, next to an empty row of fields. Then around 6:45 a.m., Wentz popped in for an interview. “Carson Wentz is in the house, baby!” Cataldi shouted into his mic. He interviewed Wentz for about 10 minutes, signed off by saying that he was “rooting” for him, and they posed for a picture together. This was the WIP of 2017, almost unrecognizable compared to the WIP of yesteryear.
“The heyday of WIP at training camp is probably over,” Cataldi says. “We try to reflect the mind-set of the fan, and it is a little gentler Philadelphia than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. We’ve all evolved over time. I guess we’ll have to find new ways to have fun and rip every one of our players. I will say this: it was a party while we had it. It was a party...”
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