They rose, time and time again, all 900 of the Who's Who in Philadelphia, applauding and cheering and paying tribute to a man called "a hero" and a person who "changes the world for the better," and when it came time for Eagles President Joe Banner to accept his 2009 Lifetime of Idealism Award from City Year Greater Philadelphia, well, it provided for many an expanded view of a man known best for his business and football acumen.
Banner is best known as the recipient of criticism when something goes off course for the Eagles. He hears it from everyone -- fans, the media and from those who want to take their shots at the team for its football policies.
Joe Banner, hero? Is this the same man who is lambasted on sports talk radio? The same one who has accepted the slings and arrows of an Eagles fan base frustrated that, despite the many successes in the time Banner has been President of this organization, the Eagles don't have a single Lombardi Trophy to show off?
It was quite an experience on Tuesday night at the Crystal Tea Room in The Wannamaker Building in Center City. I have always known about Banner's passion for his family and this football team. I deal with Banner on a day-to-day basis here, as it relates to the Eagles. I talk to the fans every day and I pay very close attention to how he is covered in the media; I know the general tone of the conversation. Banner is at the top of the mountain, and the wind blows hardest there with the voices of criticism.
Even on Tuesday night, on the night of his greatest professional honor, Banner laughed as Governor Ed Rendell, in a taped testimonial, congratulated Banner for the Award, but reminded him of the urgency that the Eagles must win the Super Bowl this season, for it is the final "Super Bowl of my Governership." Laughter, applause all around.
In front of 900 of his closest friends, Banner was humble, a bit awkward, funny, thankful. For two hours, we heard the impressive roll call of Banner's devotion to City Year and its ongoing impact in this region and, indeed, around the world. City Year's motto is "Give A Year. Change The World," as it asks young people of all backgrounds to give a year of full-time service as mentors, tutors and role models for those in need. Banner has been giving since his middle-school days as a youth in Boston.
Since 1996, he has focused all of his volunteer efforts towards bringing the good work of City Year to Philadelphia. That commitment was part of the deal when he agreed to become Jeffrey Lurie's right-hand man to run the Eagles.
All of these years later, Banner was awarded the top honor from the non-profit for which he has raised millions of dollars and profoundly changed the lives of thousands.
"Joe's a phenomenal guy. People see the hard business side of Joe and that's part of being the President of the Philadelphia Eagles," said Eagles head coach Andy Reid. "But there's another side that people don't see and that's the human side, what he does for humanity and what he's done for the city, literally with City Year, the program for the youth.
He's developing future leaders for the City of Philadelphia and he's passionate about it. He's been passionate about it for a number of years. He spends a lot of time, a lot of his time, making sure that these kids have an opportunity, and thus give back to the city something that money can't buy."
Banner's legacy with City Year continues, and he was recognized on his special night in an extraordinarily unique way, as City Year's Alumni Chapter created the Joe Banner Starfish Award, an Award that commemorates Banner's spirit and dedication to national service. A grant will be awarded to a Corps member who demonstrates service in the face of adversity.
For a night, Banner wasn't being judged by how many free agents the Eagles signed, or by the draft record of this team in his time, or by the wins and losses on the football field. He instead was judged – loved, respected, appreciated, even needed – by a community that recognized the incredible impact he has made in the lives of kids.
It was an event that shined a light on another side of Banner, the side that will be an important part of his legacy. The celebration raised a record-breaking $800,000 that included a substantial gift from Banner and his wife, Helaine. Banner characterized his commitment as, "a piece of work that we are just starting."
The shots Banner takes as the Eagles President are, he would say, part of the job, and that while Banner is a grown man who understands the landscape and the punches thrown his way, it can't help but still affect him from time to time. You can criticize the moves he makes, but at times the punches are clearly are below the belt.
Fair is fair, and to be in the presence of a crowd of community and business leaders and the 225 City Corps members who came to honor Banner for making a positive difference, well, it made for an entirely different slant, one that is far closer to reality than some of the things said about a person who has to play the part of the bad guy far too often.