Super Bowl will be bittersweet for some Eagles fans

Listen 2:20

When Matt Stehman scored tickets to the NFC championship in Philadelphia, he wanted to take his grandfather, Bill Santangelo. On his way to the game, Stehman picked up a small, laminated funeral card propped against the family television and stuffed it in his pocket.

Midway through the contest, he held the card aloft and snapped a photo with Lincoln Financial Field as the backdrop.

Santangelo died in July 2016.

He was a child of the Great Depression, abandoned by parents who couldn’t afford to keep him. He bounced through temporary homes through most of his youth. At 16, he lied about his age and joined the Army. Somewhere amid the tumult and misery, he found the Philadelphia Eagles.

“It kinda seemed like that was his one escape from reality,” Stehman said.

In 1961, Santangelo became a season ticket holder. His tailgates were legendary, partly because he had a prime parking spot near the players entrance at Veterans Stadium. He became everything his childhood wasn’t, Stehman recalled: happy, inviting, bursting with energy.

“He was always the one — we’d go to his house and [couldn’t] wait to get there,” Stehman said.

On Sunday, the small funeral card Stehman carried to the NFC championship game will be propped up again next to the family television, the same place it’s been nearly every day since Santangelo died. The card will be a subtle reminder of time’s passage, and the way the Eagles weave their way through generations.

“Year after year, you come back, and you sit there with your parents, your grandparents, your brothers, whoever,” said Stehman. “And you root for them together. You wait for it to happen together.”

You probably already know what the “it” is.

The Philadelphia Eagles haven’t won a championship since December of 1960. That’s nearly 60 years of births and deaths, now wrapped up in this potentially triumphant moment.

On Sunday, a lot of people in the Delaware Valley will stop and watch a football game — for themselves, but also for the people who can’t watch it with them.

Carrying on traditions

Zach McCarty plans to crack open a Budweiser. It was his grandfather’s favorite beer, the same grandfather who first introduced him to football.

McCarty’s family in rural Pennsylvania didn’t have cable television. But on Sunday afternoons, he would travel with his mom to Barrington, New Jersey, climb up into his grandfather’s La-Z-Boy recliner and watch the Eagles.

Sunday will be exactly five years since Jake Fayette’s grandfather, Larry Fayette, died suddenly. He wasn’t born an Eagles fan, but he moved to the region around 1960 and became as devoted, and fickle, as any native Philadelphian.

“He’d always call them bums,” Fayette recalled. “And then the next minute he loved them.”

Jack Ryan’s dad, William, was never an Eagles fan. In fact, he supported the rival Giants.

For reasons he can’t quite remember, Jack decided at a young age he’d be an Eagles fan. He didn’t know the rivalry or even much about the sport. Later, in college, he started following football more closely. Only then did he realize how miserable his dad must have felt watching his son, for no stated reason, cheer the Birds.

But William never showed it. He bought his son Eagles gear and autographs and buckets of chicken wings on game day.

“Dude tried his best to put on a smile,” Jack said.

Perhaps to atone for unmentioned sins, Jack surprised his dad with Eagles-Giants tickets in 2016. He’d never heard his dad so happy.

But William never made it to the game. Cancer felled him just over a year ago.

Jack didn’t inherit his Eagles fandom from his dad. But he wouldn’t be a geeked-out Birds fan this Sunday if his dad hadn’t let him go his own way. Without his dad’s tolerance, Jack would never have found the family of Eagles fans he so cherishes today.

“Even though I missed my chance to tell him, I love my dad, who put his own interests aside in order to let me be a part of it,” Jack said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.