The secret to an epic Eagles tailgate? These die-hard fans say it’s the people

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Thousands of people filled Lincoln Financial Field Sunday afternoon for the Philadelphia Eagles’ season opener against Washington — but not before hosting some hours-long parties in the stadium’s surrounding parking lots.

WHYY wanted to hear your favorite Eagles tailgate traditions and Philly fans didn’t disappoint.

Some of these traditions predate the Linc. Some stand out because of their extravagant vehicles and their indulgent menus — others because of the lengths organizers go to keep the tradition alive and bring people together.

Grilled ‘birds’ at ‘the boom-boom’

A group of friends from Coatesville have been coming together for eight years to tailgate at Eagles games. Even though the team loyalties vary throughout the group, they enjoy coming together to celebrate their love for football. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

L.T. Woodward’s tailgate tradition started as a way to celebrate his birthday.

“Everybody said, … ‘Let’s tailgate.’ I was like, ‘Man, I never tailgated. I don’t know what to do,’” the Coatesville resident remembers.

Eight years later, it’s clear Woodward’s learned how to tailgate.

The small birthday party with just a handful of family and friends has transformed into an all-out mini-block party attracting dozens of people. The crowd watched TV screens propped against a gutted beige RV they call “the boom-boom,” with non-stop pop and hip-hop coming out of multiple speakers, and hot food made on a five-foot-wide grill.

“We put turkeys on there. We call them ‘birds,’” Woodward chuckled.

But what makes this relatively new crew of tailgaters stand out among a sea of green are the hotspots of blue and red jerseys.

Woodward himself is a Cowboys fan and some of his relatives root for Washington. But team allegiance doesn’t matter to this family, who welcomes fans from across the country.

“What makes this tailgate special is the camaraderie, the brotherly love, you know. People take care of one another,” said Wall Ace, who is related to Woodward and came from Washington, D.C. to spend time with his family.

Get on the Zubus

Craig Thomas (center right) comes from Maryland for every home game in his Eagles-themed ‘Zubus.’ Once at the stadium, friends flood the van for his traditional tailgate. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Craig Thomas has made the nearly two-hour drive from Spring Lake, Maryland to every Eagles home game for the past 20 years.

Thomas’ love for the Birds was serendipitous. He was born in upstate New York, and his first professional sports game was watching the Giants take on the Eagles at the old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia when he was 10 years old. (He thinks Ron Jaworski and Harold Carmichael were on the team at the time.)

“I just enjoyed going to Veterans Stadium, taking it all in, and I just said, ‘Oh, I like the Eagles,’” he said.

Craig Thomas comes from Maryland for every home game in his Eagles-themed ‘Zubus.’ Once at the stadium, friends flood the van for his traditional tailgate. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Thomas’ team spirit now manifests itself in the “Zubus,” a white van bearing the name of the Philadelphia Eagles, decorated with green zebra stripes on the top and bottom sides. The name is inspired by Zubaz brand pants, a popular style in the 1990s. Thomas still wears a pair — but only in green.

“One of my bucket list items was to have a tailgate vehicle,” he said. In 2012, he made his purchase after years of research.

Friends gather for a tailgate party at Craig Thomas’ Eagles-themed Zubus outside Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Thomas’ tailgating crew met on the former website BleedingGreen.com, before the invention of Facebook made it easier for Eagles fans to find each other.

Thomas said he doesn’t mind the long drive because the event is about more than throwing a good party.

“First of all, it’s all about the Philadelphia Eagles,” he said. “That’s our blood, that’s our team, and that’s why you come back. The second part is being around the Eagles fans, enjoying their friendship and talking about the game, talking about personal things.”

Friends gather for a tailgate party at Craig Thomas’ Eagles-themed Zubus outside Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

“There’s a lot of frat parties out here and this is certainly not that,” said John Maley, who’s been coming to Thomas’ tailgates for 12 years.

Maley said Thomas has created an environment where everyone — even fans of opposing teams — can drop in. Also, the potlucks are never a disappointment, he said, especially the fried Oreos and perogies.

“The food’s amazing. Sometimes they’ll cater it to where the opposing team is from. We’ve had snow crabs here during the Tampa Bay game,” he said. “And the drinks are always flowing.”

And word of the Zubus is spreading — Thomas estimates as many as 70 people come through on a Sunday when the game is early and the weather is nice.

“Every year, it just keeps growing and more people come,” said Diane Merlavage, from Northumberland, Pennsylvania, who has been coming to the tailgate for the last two decades.

‘Tailgating in heaven’

This is Al Morris’ first tailgate without his Uncle John Walter “Jake” Fleming in more than 30 years. Morris wasn’t sure if he would keep the tradition after his uncle died before the 2019 season began, but “it’s what he would have wanted.” (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

One Philadelphia family’s annual tailgating tradition, which goes back at least 30 years, carried a more somber tone Sunday.

Al Morris and his family mourned one of their leaders, John Walter “Jake” Fleming, who died in July at the age of 71.

“If you’ve been out here in the last 10 years, especially in this area, you’ve known this guy,” Morris said, pointing to a photo of his Uncle Jake propped on a stand and adorned with green and white ribbon that read “tailgating in heaven.”

Fleming, an army veteran and retired SEPTA foreman, helped rally the family for their tailgate parties, which still include a DJ booth, TV screens, and an Eagles-themed bus.

His friendly personality kept the tradition going, Morris said, as did his skills behind the grill, which included fried turkey and fish.

“He got us into football,” said Butch Carn, who has been coming to Fleming’s tailgates for the past three decades. “That’s why we’re going to have a big memorial for him today. We’re trying to not emotional, but we’re going to get through it with an Eagle win today.”

Al Morris continued his family’s 30-year-old Eagles tailgate tradition this year following the death of his uncle who started it. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

At one point, the family wasn’t sure whether they would go through with Sunday’s celebration, but Morris said he ultimately got everyone together.

A tradition passed on by his father and uncle, it’s one Morris plans to keep.

Honorable mentions

While it may seem as though an oversized party bus would boost your tailgating experience, Ralph DiMaria and his group are a reminder that it’s the people — not the vehicles — who make the experience.

Whipping out an Eagles chef’s hat and apron, DiMaria joked about his comparatively humble setup — his crew drove down to the Linc with only a white plastic picnic table, a tent for shade, a deep fryer, and alcohol.

“It was good when we first came, but it’s towered down ever since because these lazy people now do nothing for the tailgate,” he said.

Jokes aside, DiMaria said the event was special … as his friends threw bottle caps at him to distract him from talking to a WHYY reporter.

“The fact that they’re throwing bottle caps at me makes our tailgate special and later on, the table is going to be smashed on somebody’s head and that’s going to make it epic,” he said.

Two parking lots over, Sally Cantor and her husband celebrated their 34th anniversary at another small tailgate. They moved to Ohio 10 years ago, but remain season ticket holders.

Sally Cantor and husband, Roger Mayer, came all the way from Ohio to celebrate their 34th anniversary. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

“We’re not going to let moving to Ohio keep us away from the Eagles,” she said.

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