Thirty years ago this week, the unthinkable almost happened. The Eagles almost left Philadelphia.
I still encounter young fans who never heard about it. The Eagles leaving Philly? Impossible, they say.
Actually, it came very close to happening and it led to one of the most bizarre games in franchise history: December 16, 1984. That was the day the Eagles played the Atlanta Falcons in a game that many thought would be their last as this city's pro football team.
For a full week, stories had swirled about owner Leonard Tose selling a minority interest in the team to real estate developer James Monighan with the stipulation that the club move to Phoenix at the end of the season. The Eagles' brass already had checked out available office space in the Phoenix area. The deal was all but done, reports indicated.
I still remember being awakened by a 2 AM phone call. It was the Philadelphia Daily News' sports desk calling.
"Did you hear anything about the Eagles moving to Phoenix?" the editor asked.
My eyes popped open.
"The Eagles moving? What?" I said.
The story had just broken in the Arizona Republic. I made a couple calls of my own and learned, yes, it was true. Talks about a move were underway. We spent the rest of the week chasing after Tose and other team officials to find out what was going on.
The Eagles had one more game left in a forgettable season. They were 6-8-1 under head coach Marion Campbell. Ron Jaworski had seen his streak of 116 consecutive starts ended by a broken leg. Joe Pisarcik replaced him at quarterback. The team didn't have much to play for in the season's final week.
Then the story about the move broke and the realization hit: this could be THE last game for Philadelphia's most beloved franchise. The players, coaches and fans were blindsided. Vigils were held outside Veterans Stadium. League officials and politicians got involved to see if the move could be blocked.
Talks between the front office, the league and the city went on all week. They were trying to work out a deal that would keep the Eagles in Philadelphia but when the team left for Atlanta, no one knew what might happen. It was unsettling for the players but worse for the fans who faced the prospect of never seeing the Eagles again.
Leonard Tose eventually sold the team to Norman Braman, who kept the Eagles in Philadelphia
A large number of fans flew to Atlanta. If this really was to be the last game for the Philadelphia Eagles, they wanted to be there. There was no problem getting tickets. The Falcons were lousy (3-12) and on a cold rainy December day, few Atlanta fans were interested in coming out to see more of Mike Moroski (he was the Atlanta quarterback).
An hour before kickoff, most of the people milling around the stadium were wearing Eagles green and carrying signs that said "Don't Take Our Team Away" and "The Eagles Belong in Philadelphia."
The announced attendance was 15,582, the smallest crowd to see an Eagles game since 1962. I'd say more than half of those on hand were from Philadelphia. By the time the game began, there was a report of a negotiated settlement between the Eagles and the City of Philadelphia which restructured the Veterans Stadium lease and added more luxury boxes with all the revenue going to the team. The Eagles would be staying after all.
The players, who went through a surreal week of practice, lost the game, 26-10. Mike Quick scored the only touchdown, a 15-yard pass from Pisarcik. They lost four fumbles and Pisarcik was sacked eight times. The only highlight for the Eagles was defensive end Greg Brown recording four sacks, a club record at the time.
The fans who made the trip from Philadelphia for the game waited near the team buses to cheer the players as they left. Many had tears in their eyes. They heard the reports of an agreement, but they weren't sure they believed them. They had been jerked around so much they didn't know what to believe anymore.
Two days later, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle called an emergency meeting of the club owners to discuss the situation. The meeting was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. It lasted most of the day and while Rozelle tried to put the best possible face on things when it was over there was little doubt Tose was on his way out. He was heavily in debt - due largely to his gambling habit - and he had to sell the team, but he would sell to someone who agreed not to move it.
Tose, who bought the team for $16 million in 1969, sold it to Florida car dealer Norman Braman in 1985 for $65 million. He was hailed as a savior at the time although the fans soured on him later. But try to imagine this town without the Eagles? It almost happened 30 years ago.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the season for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia, the perfect gift for any Eagles fan this holiday season. Meet Ray tonight at the Barnes and Noble in Neshaminy, Pa. at 6 PM. He'll also be at the Barnes and Noble in Montgomeryville, Pa. on Friday at 7:30 PM and the Barnes and Noble in Marlton, N.J. on Sunday at 3 PM.