When the Eagles moved the team’s preseason training camp from Lehigh University to South Philadelphia two summers ago, it ended a 17-year tradition of fans day-tripping to watch and meet their favorite players.
But on Tuesday, thousands were afforded an opportunity to do just that in the stadium where they watch their team take on all challengers.
Those attending the first of two public preseason practices — gates open for the second, and final, one at 10 a.m. Sunday — filled much of the lower bowl at Lincoln Financial Field Tuesday morning and early afternoon.
After head coach Chip Kelly fielded questions from the media, including some about lingering locker-room issues in the wake of Riley Cooper’s racist rant two years ago, he headed out onto the field for the first full-pads practice of the preseason.
There, notable former Eagles players were being introduced to the cheering crowds. That ceremonial greeting included the announcement that Brian Westbrook and Maxie Baughan would be inducted to the team’s Hall of Fame before an October game against the New York Giants.
Then, the sweltering two-hour practice session began before fans who oohed and aahed at catches and kick returns as an announcer described the drills they were watching.
Long-snapper Jon Dorenbos won some fans over by throwing bottles of water and Gatorade into the crowd in between drills.
For football-minded readers, new quarterback Sam Bradford took the majority of snaps with the first team, returning tight end Zach Ertz impressed and (Tim) Tebow Mania is alive and well.
The once-retired now-likely-to-make-team quarterback signed shirts, balls and photos for a slew of screaming fans, pausing before each signature to make sure he had the name of the person for whom he was autographing.
Yet, Tebow was among most every player (current and alumni) who took some time to meet fans who ventured down to the Linc on a sweat-inducing dragonfly-attracting type of day.
Among the fans down on the field after practice were Steve Bethea, his son Jalil and a half dozen or so of Jalil’s teammates on the Lawncrest Lions youth-football team.
Bethea’s admission about second-guessing Kelly’s decisions from his couch on Sundays (if he’s not at the game) had the coach cracking up while signing items for the Lions players.
But more important than getting a laugh from the coach was seeing how his son and friends enjoyed the chance to be close up to their sporting heroes, even if the daytrip-to-Lehigh feel has been jettisoned.
“Everything. It means everything for them to have a chance to see them not just on TV,” Bethea said. “This is a great day.”