The fans were in the stands long, long, long before the announced 7 PM start to the first of two public practices at Lincoln Financial Field. They'd been waiting so long for this moment – Eagles football, in person, and even though it wasn't a game, it was still fun, needed for the psyche, absolutely necessary to fuel the insatiable hunger inside.
The 2021 Philadelphia Eagles season is here! And the fans came out and had themselves a party.
What they saw on Sunday night for 1 hour, 45 minutes was a good, crisp, and highly competitive practice. There were big plays down the field – a Quez Watkins leaping grab, a Travis Fulgham tippy-toe catch on the sidelines, some big runs from Miles Sanders and Boston Scott, an aggressive defense that late in the session took the football away and then ran down to the South end zone to celebrate. See, it's all practice. Gotta be ready for when it all starts for real.
On the field, it was a dry run of sorts for Thursday night's preseason opener against Pittsburgh (7:30 PM kickoff, NBC10 in Philadelphia) at Lincoln Financial Field. In the stands, with nearly 26,000 fans – men, women, kids of all ages, families from everywhere – it was a total lovefest. The fans did the requisite "E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!" chants and they performed wave after wave after wave. They stayed until the very end on a perfect night in South Philadelphia.
"It was crazy and I gotta admit this, I missed it," running back Miles Sanders said. "Those fans, they bring the energy. It was great out there."
Lincoln Financial Field was a shell of itself last season during the longest year of all our lives when the COVID-19 pandemic closed offices and shut down live events and forced the NFL, for the most part, to play in empty stadiums. And without the fans, let's face it, football just isn't football. The Eagles just didn't have the same gusto last season and the games felt, and players said this all the time, like very competitive practice sessions instead of energy-driven, must-have showdowns.
On Sunday night, the fans were back as they filled the lower bowl of Lincoln Financial Field and got right into midseason form.
"Thank you all for coming out," Head Coach Nick Sirianni said as he spoke on the field and addressed the crowd after the practice ended. "It was great having you out here and we can't wait to see you on Thursday night and all of this season."
As much as the fans were into it during the practice – oohing and aahing and refreshing their memories of who is who and locking in the players with the new numbers – Darius Slay is No. 2 and Steven Nelson is No. 3 and so on – they went bonkers after it was over and players signed mini-footballs and tossed them into the stands and signed autographs and just renewed acquaintances with the best fans in the world.
"We missed y'all last year and we're glad to have you back," said Pro Bowl defensive end Brandon Graham after he grabbed the on-field microphone and led his own "E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!" chant with the crowd. "You just keep bringing it. It felt great to have you with us tonight."
We're not going deep into the football part of it because, well, that wasn't the big story. The fans were the big story. The fans and their connection to the players and the team and what the Philadelphia Eagles mean to the people in this city and this region. It was a great night for everyone.
"Hold it, hold it, right there," center Jason Kelce said as he pointed out his target (a young boy) to whom he gently tossed a football. "Great catch. That's some fun right there."
It sure was. It felt normal for the first time at Lincoln Financial Field since the playoff loss to Seattle ended the 2019 season. It felt normal and it felt wonderful as the Eagles fans again showed how much they mean to the game. They don't catch the football and they don't make tackles, but they sure do make a difference.
"The home-field advantage is right here," Graham said. "If you've been around here long enough, you know that. Tonight, I felt it all over again. It's been too long since I felt that way."