The Eagles are in first place in the NFC East, which is not the same thing as being good. Have you watched the Eagles? For your sake I hope you have not. If you have, you are likely an Eagles fan, which these days—and for so many days that came before them in the franchise’s largely frustrating history—means convincing yourself that maybe everything will be OK even though the evidence would suggest otherwise.
Fairly recently, there was a time when things were not so grim. That is hard to believe, but it’s true. In fact, things were very good once upon a time not too long ago, which is also true and even harder to believe. The Eagles won Super Bowl LII over the New England Patriots just three seasons ago. I was there. And yet, sometimes it feels like the win was part of a different lifetime—or that it never happened at all. To be from that city and to watch that team means accepting, in the end, that things will usually not work out. Because they had never worked out before.
After a while the conditioning sets in and you get comfortable. You accept the pattern: During the preseason, there is hope, and you talk yourself into the Eagles going 9-7 or 10-6 or, if you’ve gone all hokey wide-eyed optimist, 11-5. Maybe they win a couple tight games during the season and you start to think about them winning a playoff game. Or two. But never three. Three would be madness. Even thinking about the Super Bowl is generally too great a leap to make. Saying it out loud in company might get you committed, or at the very least exiled to Jersey. Then the Eagles eventually lose and/or suffer a bunch of injuries, and the season ends the way it always does, with disappointment. At which point the talk of next season begins in earnest. It is always about next season.
“It’s kind of like [after] a bad breakup, [when] you start to fall in love again,” Kyle Thrash said about rooting for the Eagles. “You think, ‘I remember this, I know the feeling.’ But then you don’t want to get too ahead of yourself. It’s like ‘pump the brakes, don’t get hurt.’”
Spoken like a Philadelphian. That’s where the filmmaker was born. Thrash’s mom likes to tell people how she had the Phillies game on in the hospital during labor. As the story goes, Lenny Dykstra hit a double as Thrash was being delivered. It was a good day for the family. That’s the kind of feeling that Thrash, the director of a new documentary about the Eagles and their fan base, wanted to get at in his film. It’s called Maybe Next Year and will be on the usual platforms on Tuesday, November 10.
Except in Maybe Next Year, Thrash somehow captured the year. It was a stroke of unintended luck, following the Eagles and their fans as they marched to a Super Bowl LII victory, because how do you plan for something that never happened before (and hasn’t happened since and might never happen again)?
Thrash’s initial intention was merely to document and humanize a fan base that is … unique. Let’s go with “unique,” because I am related to some of them. Thrash said there are preconceived notions about Philly fans who are “stigmatized in the national media.” And so he set out to make “a football movie that’s not about football,” one that aimed to get at the essence of people who are obsessed with their team and hand down that legacy (of mostly losing) from one generation to the next. (When I was a kid, I remember watching the famed Fog Bowl at my buddy’s house and remarking how great it was to be an Eagles fan. My friend’s dad looked at me sideways and said, “It sometimes feels less great as you get older.” They lost that game.)
In an attempt to understand the flock, MNY spends most of its time following four fans through the fateful 2017 season. Some of them are recognizable to the Philly faithful. There’s Shirley Dash, a.k.a. “Eagles Shirley,” who is best known as a radio caller to 94.1 WIP’s morning show where she regularly rants to longtime host Angelo Cataldi, who encourages that sort of thing. (You might know Cataldi as the guy who led a gang of maniacs called “The Dirty 30” up to New York for the 1999 NFL draft where they booed the Eagles for selecting Donovan McNabb, or rather, as they like to tell it, they booed the team for not taking Ricky Williams. Cataldi was also my sports journalism professor in college; I got an A.) There’s Barry Vagnoni, who wears an Eagles jersey over shoulder pads on game days. He spent his retirement money earmarked for a move to Florida to build a 2,000-square-foot backyard clubhouse for Eagles games—including a full, 35-foot bar—where he often hosts around 100 friends and family members. He calls it “the locker room.” Vangoni used to drive around in a PT Cruiser decked out in Eagles decals with a cutout of Swoop, the team mascot, riding shotgun; his wife rode in the back. There’s Bryant Moreland, better known as EDP, who has a YouTube channel with more than 2.1 million subscribers who mostly watch him scream and smash things when he gets mad about the Eagles, which is often. EDP stands for … well, look it up. This is a family site. (It stands for Eat Dat Pussy.) And there’s Jesse Callsen, who has a special needs son and a father who has cancer and later dies of it, but not before all of them get to see something they thought was impossible.
The film hits all the high points of that improbable season, including Tom Brady dropping that pass in the Super Bowl—which naturally comes complete with an Eagles fan turning to the camera and helpfully saying what we were all thinking: “Fuck you, Tom Brady”—and culminating in the championship we all waited our entire lives to see. And while it may sound like MNY follows a familiar sports doc formula where the characters involved are pleasantly surprised by the outcome and their rough edges are sanded down, that is not the case here. Everything worked out for the Eagles in the end, but that was merely a happy accident.
Despite the championship and all the ugly crying that comes with it, the movie reveals that even in the best of times, everything in Philly is most decidedly not sunny. In MNY, that is literally the case. The film is dark and rainy and gray, the way most East Coast cities look in the fall and winter when the weather gets cold. Where national TV broadcasts for big games often feature glossy tracking shots of City Hall, perfectly lit Boathouse Row, or clichéd stock footage of sizzling steak and onions at Pat’s and/or Geno’s, Thrash mercifully skips all that in favor of the Philly that Philadelphians actually know: corner stores and dank local dive bars, the El and the refinery, kids poppin’ wheelies on their bikes (and their wheelchairs) as they roll past row homes. There’s an industrial feel to all of it, as though the next dreary Batman movie will be shot in town once the documentary is done with it. There’s no effort to make the city pretty—which only makes it all the more beautiful to those of us who know and love it.
“We don’t feel right having everything perfect,” Thrash said. “You want a couple dents in the car to feel like you’re from the area. It has to feel a little lived in to be right for the city.”
That may sound odd, but it also resonates as right in my experience. It’s not so much that Philly can’t have nice things, it’s that we rarely have nice things and we’re not always sure how to act when we do. That’s the vibe that MNY does its best to translate for people who don’t speak our language. The film documents a season when everything works out, but it really shines when showing how, after Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury, and after the Eagles went into those playoffs as the first one-seed in NFL history not to be favored by the oddsmakers, the fan base happily readopted the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality it’s always loved lugging around. Being top dogs is often an awkward fit, but call us underdogs and suddenly the masks come out and everything makes sense again. Eagles Shirley put it perfectly when we recently chatted on the phone: “That’s our make and our model. That’s our clothing.”
That’s the Eagles fan experience you get for much of the film. It’s less about people who are about to experience a specific kind of joy for the first time than it is about how those same people, despite a lifetime of losing, kept coming back year after year so their favorite team could kick them while they were still down. When I spoke with Barry Vagnoni, a sweetheart of a man known as “The Hatchet”—that’s how he introduced himself on our call, as “Barry ‘The Hatchet’ Vagnoni”—he said he sometimes asked himself why he roots for the Eagles when doing so is “not good for your health.” For Vagnoni, that might literally be true. After he had emergency bypass surgery, his doctor told him to keep hydroglycerin pills in his back pocket on game day.
A classic NFL Films scene that puts typical Eagles fandom in context is excerpted early in MNY. The narrator explains that “a true Philadelphia fan learns to boo before he learns to speak,” while video rolls of a guy in a kelly green sweater giving a full two-arm middle finger to the camera, followed by a small child saying, “They stink.” In our cold, dark hearts, every one of us was that child—and then we grew up, went to the games, and learned to flip the bird to the Birds.
Philly fans are no doubt (in)famous for their behavior. As the film reminds everyone, the old Veterans Stadium had a jail in it, which remains closer to a point of perverse pride than a source of embarrassment. (I briefly passed through that jail once during college.) And yet Thrash does not glorify the knuckleheads that have unfortunately become part of the city’s collective identity. While some of us insist the rowdy mouthbreather faction is small and does not represent the greater group, it also undeniably exists. In one MNY scene, after the Eagles beat Atlanta in the playoffs, a visiting fan dressed in full Falcons regalia congratulates the locals on the victory—only to be verbally accosted by meathead Eagles supporters. In another memorable moment, a fan tailgating in the parking lot blows up part of his hand in a fireworks mishap, then wraps his injured, bloody mitt in a towel and tells the camera, “We’re going to the fucking game and the Eagles are going to fucking win.”
In fairness, every fan base has extremists who are easy to make fun of and would be better off excommunicated. I’ve always felt that Eagles fandom is best defined not by its idiot element but rather by shared suffering. (That goes for the Sixers, Flyers, and Phils fan bases, too.) It’s sort of a city-wide support group with learned behavior that parents teach their children. The depiction of that learning process is the best part of MNY. There is a lot of talk about Super Bowl LII being a win for moms and dads who weren’t around anymore to witness it. That part really hits home. My dad died in the summer of 2004. He was a huge fan. I still have a vintage kelly green Eagles blanket he loved on cold game days. Later that season, the Eagles went to the Super Bowl. My family was convinced the Birds would best the Pats and win it all for him—and they did, it just took another 13 years to pull it off.
Of course, Super Bowl LII was one shining moment lumped among so many Eagles campaigns that have been shrouded in darkness. This season has not gone to plan. There have been countless injuries, Wentz has been inconsistent, and the team is 3-4-1. The only consolation is that the rest of the NFC East is just as dreadful, if not worse. When I asked Thrash how he felt about the Birds’ prospects for the rest of this season, he stopped for a couple seconds and then let out a long sigh. Nothing more needed to be said. Maybe next year.