Philadelphia Eagles News

The GM, his son, and the pope: A truly one-in-a-million photograph

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Eagles photographer Ed Mahan is used to audibles.

He watches breathtaking plays unfold from the sidelines of games and remains unfazed by the changing action. That's the life of a sports photographer.

But nothing Mahan saw on a football field could have fully prepared him for the audible he witnessed on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in October of 1979. When Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia, Mahan's football training helped him document history.

Eagles general manager Jimmy Murray, a devout Catholic, received four tickets to see the pope on the parkway. He brought his wife, Dianne, their 10-month-old son John Paul, named after the pope, and gave the last ticket to Mahan.

Mahan's plan was to take photos of the afternoon. Maybe, just maybe, he could get a shot of the pope passing behind the Murray family with John Paul in the foreground.

He ended up capturing a moment no one could have predicted.

"You couldn't make up this picture in a million years," says Murray.

Murray and his wife stood in a reserved section by the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul where the pope was set to exit and ride around the parkway in his "Popemobile." They held John Paul and a hand-painted sign stating that their son was named in the pope's honor.

That's when the Murrays got lucky. Like, "Miracle of the Meadowlands" lucky.

The pope "called an audible," as Murray puts it, and decided to walk through the crowd by the Murrays' section. John Paul, with the sign, was held upwards and a nearby priest noticed. That priest shouted toward the pope in Latin, catching his attention. He walked over.

As the thrilled crowd watched in shock, the pope placed his hand on the baby's forehead and offered a direct blessing. Murray was so overcome by the moment; he said it went by in a blur. Mahan, however, focused in with his camera and framed the interaction perfectly.

*Click*

In an instant, the moment was over. But thanks to Mahan's eye and calm nerves, it was preserved forever.

"It was just perfect," Mahan says. "The sunlight was shining on the pope's face as he blessed him. You couldn't recreate that image if you tried."

"It's a wonderful, beautiful photograph," says Philadelphia Hall of Fame sports writer Ray Didinger. "At that point, people are gasping. Here he is, the pope, walking towards them. And Eddie is able to get that extraordinary shot."

Mahan was in his 10th season with the Eagles in 1979. But he said it was that moment when he truly knew he was a photographer. He didn't let the gravity of the pope's presence overtake him. Mahan focused on the task and took a massively influential photo.

"That picture led me to having breakfast with the pope and telling him about the Ronald McDonald House," says Murray. "You don't know what a picture can do to change your life."

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Murray showed everyone the picture. It was shared through the Associated Press photo wire. Before the Eagles' Monday Night Football game later that season in Dallas, Murray spoke to legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell with a copy of the photo and a story to tell.

At halftime of that broadcast, Cosell relayed that story to the rest of the country.

"So he goes on at halftime and says, 'This child, son of the general manager ...,'" says Murray in his best Cosell impression. "Now guys are calling me up like, 'Yo Mur! The pope is one thing. But Monday Night Football?' It's unbelievable."

Murray founded the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia with help from the Eagles in 1974. Today, there are 364 Ronald McDonald Houses in 64 different countries. Through that charity work, as well as his devoted faith, Murray was able to meet Pope John Paul II two more times.

He was given the coveted opportunity to break bread with the pope over breakfast. He even made the trip to the Vatican with a "real cardinal," as Murray put it: St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial.

Mahan wasn't present at those gatherings to grab another photo. However, a photographer for the Vatican was there when Murray reminisced with the pope about their first encounter years before on the parkway.

"And for me to be in the Vatican and see the pope holding the picture and saying, 'I remember this,' that's a wow for me," Murray says. "There are a lot of great stories that there are no words for."

Today, Murray holds dozens of copies of Mahan's photo, each with the pope's signature on top of it. When he meets someone, he doesn't hesitate to distribute one. Maybe two.

"He passes them out like postcards," Mahan says.

For Mahan, the photo is a moment of pride that showcases the power and influence of photography. For Murray, it still emits an undeniable sense of love and joy.

"It's one of those things that I don't think is an accident," Murray says. "This picture itself, it is historical. That's a memory forever. And I think that's what Edwin's done. He's given a lot of people not just a picture, but a memory and a part of their heart."

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