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‘My teams are undefeated during this quarantine’: Philly sports fans live on replays

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A group of friends from Coatesville have been coming together for 8 years for the Eagles season opener. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

A group of friends from Coatesville have been coming together for 8 years for the Eagles season opener. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Jackie Vereb’s TV diet is usually chock full of sports. Especially in the spring, when the NBA, NHL, and March Madness are all in full swing.

“This is always an awesome, overwhelming time for sports,” said Vereb.

Enter the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 11, roughly a month before the playoffs, the NBA suspended the season after a player on the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19.

The next day, the NHL followed suit.

Hours later, the NCAA made its own announcement. A big one. The Division 1 men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments were cancelled.

The news hit Vereb hard. After pro football, college basketball is her favorite, with March Madness the crown jewel.

“I feel slightly empty because there’s nothing to watch, ” said Vereb, who’s rooted for the men’s teams at Villanova University since she was a teenager living in Delaware County.

That misery has company.

The Philadelphia region is home to some of the country’s most passionate — some say craziest — sports fans in the country, whether a team is championship caliber or in the cellar.

With no live competition, some diehard fans are dealing with a bit of an identity crisis — another layer of strange on top of an already strange situation.

Many are turning to old games to fill the void.

The Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots in 2018 is a popular pick.

Tyrone Johnson, a lifelong Philly sports fan, recently rewatched Villanova’s historic upset of Georgetown in the 1985 men’s college basketball championship game.

He also revisited the game when former Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins became the franchise’s all-time hit leader, another win.

“I lost sports. I don’t need to watch other losses from my teams from the past to bring back those memories ” said Johnson. “I’m gonna create a fantasy world where my teams are undefeated during this quarantine.”

Others are listening to sports talk radio, including the The Mike Missanelli Show, where Johnson is a producer and fill-in host.

What do Johnson and Missanelli talk about for four hours each show?

So far, the hottest and most consistent debate is whether people would stomach watching sports without fans in the stands — if it was the only way for live competition to make a comeback.

“Some people are saying ‘no.’ If they can’t be 100 percent, Wells Fargo Center, Sixers games, 20,000 people then I don’t want it,” said Johnson.

The lack of live sports hasn’t been all negative.

Johnson’s drive-time program, for example, has become a place for fans to vent about being cooped up in the house. And, in at least one instance, a venue for male camaraderie.

“He can’t go out with his friends. And obviously he can’t go watch the game. So he was just calling about [how] being able to hear us made him feel quote, un-quote normal,” said Johhson about one caller.

Vereb said without new games to watch, she’s found herself spending less time in front of the television, and more time catching up with loved ones. She’s also been reading and exercising.

“It’s a nice change. I just wish I had a little bit of something — some type of sport to watch,” she said. “It’s been an adjustment.”

Eric Emanuele, host of 4th and Jawn, a popular podcast about the Philadelphia Eagles, said the pandemic has put his life-long obsession with the Birds into perspective.

“As serious as we take sports, as serious as I take football, as serious as I love the Eagles, all of a sudden you start to realize, ‘OK, there’s way more pressing issues in life,’” he said.

On March 12, the same day that pro hockey and March Madness were cancelled, Major League Baseball nixed the rest of spring training and announced it was delaying the start of the 2020 season.

Opening Day was scheduled for March 26.

The NFL season is still up in the air, making fans like Emanuele more than just a little nervous.  For now, he’s trying to picture a positive scene — him standing shoulder to shoulder with Eagles fans inside Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia. Cheering on the Birds. Celebrating the end of the pandemic.

“They hike the ball and you see that receiver open, and you know he’s open and the quarterback just lets it rip, and all of sudden you stand up out of your seat and there’s like silence for a second and a half. And then all of a sudden you go crazy. That’s gonna be a good day,” said Emanuele.

He might cry.

He probably wouldn’t be the only one.

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