When talk about a new stadium for Philadelphia first came up in the mid-90's, conventional wisdom was that the city would build a new stadium for Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies, leaving the Eagles to play in a renovated Veterans Stadium.

The Vet -- the former home of the Eagles and the current home of the Phillies, who have 10 home games left -- opened in 1971. All the stadiums built at that time were similar to each other -- "cookie cutter" stadiums, they're called -- built in a bowl shape to accommodate as many people as possible, and built for baseball, football and concerts. These dominated National League towns that also had football teams: Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium (1965), St. Louis's Busch Stadium (1966), Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium (1970) and the Vet.

The Vet was a dump, but for Philadelphia fans, it was home.

In 1998, when the state approved funding for two new stadiums in Pittsburgh, it was only fair that two new stadiums would be built in Philadelphia as well. The Phillies open their new stadium, Citizens Bank Park, in April 2004.

Despite the glitz and glamour of the new stadium, Eagles fans remained cautious about adopting the Linc -- as it was immediately dubbed -- just yet.

"Look at this here," South Philadelphia's Joey Marcone said as he pointed at the darkened Vet before Monday night's opener. "This place is a shithole. But it's my shithole. It's our shithole. I don't think we'll ever be able to replace it."

The opening scenario couldn't have worked out any better. Opening on national television, Monday night, in front of 67,772 fans, against the team that ended last season's postseason run.

At a press conference announcing the new stadiums in 2000, Eagles executive Joe Banner foreshadowed the game: "I imagine a Monday night game to open the '03 season," he said. "The stadium is all lit up. There are fireworks. Everyone is excited about it."

And that's what they got: A Monday night game to open the 2003 season, against the hated Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the final game at the Vet, the Bucs stunned the Philadelphia faithful in the NFC Championship, 27-10, in the final game at the Vet, and went on to rout the Raiders in the Super Bowl.

In that game, the Eagles went up, 7-0, on Duce Staley's 20-yard touchdown run just 52 seconds into the game. They wouldn't score another TD -- their Super Bowl hopes ended when Ronde Barber returned a Donovan McNabb interception 92 yards for a touchdown with just over three minutes to play.

The Daily News put it on this Monday's front page: the first game was, no doubt, THE EXORCISM.

"No, [a win] won't erase last year's loss, nothing could," Mike Hackenberry from Margate, N.J., said. "But, you know, if they win this game and go on to win the Super Bowl..." He paused, pondering the possibility. "Maybe we'll be able to forget about that Sunday."

A Bucs fan walks through the parking lot about four hours before gametime, brandishing a giant flag with the team's logo on it.

"Hey asshole, you're nothing but a Chuckie reject!" yells a fan, making a reference to Bucs coach -- and former Eagles offensive coordinator -- Jon Gruden, who got his nickname from his resemblance to Chuckie from the Child's Play movies. "Go to hell!" screams another. "Faggot!" screams a third.

This is the reality of Eagles fans tailgating in the parking lot before the game: they're crude, they're politically incorrect and they don't exactly think before they talk. Make no mistake, it's a friendly crowd -- unless you're lavish in your support of the opposing team -- but it can be an intimidating one.

Some of the fans here took off work for two days just so they could tailgate from nine in the morning before the game and, later, until three in the morning after the game.

"I was leaving work at 1:30 today, my boss asked me what I was doing," Scott Kennedy, from Northeast Maryland, said. "I said, 'I'm going to the Eagles game. You're not gonna stop me.'

"It ended up being OK, though, 'cause his boss ended up taking off today and tomorrow just for the game."

Despite the crudeness, others insist that football -- especially Eagles football -- is something that brings the entire city together.

"Look at this," Center City's Marvin Schnoll said. "You got high-powered Philadelphia lawyers drinkin' beer with the common criminal. You got teachers talkin' to ironworkers. This is a great place, man, a great place."

"The 700 Level will never die."

That's the slogan that John Proetto has on the back of his camper, decorated inside and out with Eagles memorabilia. He's been an Eagles fan his whole life and a season ticket holder for the past eight seasons.

The 700 Level was the embodiment of everything right or wrong with Philadelphia fans, depending on who you asked. The fans were loud and crude, and routinely chanted "asshole" at opposing teams' fans.

The notorious events are, in reality, blown out of proportion: the famous jeering at Michael Irvin's neck injury as he lay motionless on the Vet turf was only a small group of people (others were booing teammate Deion Sanders, who was jawing with fans near the end zone at the time). The guy in the Santa Claus suit who had snowballs thrown at him actually invited the fans to do so -- and talks about how much he enjoyed the experience to this day.

Others are, of course, not silver-lined: Phillies fans throwing batteries at Cardinals' outfielder J.D. Drew in 1999; the first hand transplant recipient, Matthew Scott, being booed as the ceremonial first pitch opening the 1999 baseball season dribbled across the plate; and the bottle rocket shot across the 700 Level near the end of a Eagles' blowout loss to the 49ers on Monday Night Football.

The bottle rocket incident forced the Eagles and the city to set up a court in the basement of the Vet to deal with the problems.

The Linc contains only two levels -- 100 and 200 -- and some people are worried that the new stadium is too sterile, too upscale, too much like Eagles' owner Jeffrey Lurie.

Over the summer there were incidents that caused uproar from Eagles fans: the banning -- and later re-allowing -- of outside food at the Linc, the lack of water fountains, the lack of VIP and handicapped parking.

"If I could describe Jeffrey Lurie in two words, I'd say: 'greedy mongrel.' He charged 10 dollars to park when I came to look at my seats," Wayne Bolden, from Rising Sun, Md., said. "This new place is nice, but it's not going to be the same."

The fans remain hardcore, though. John Proetto of Broomall, Pa. -- who uses his RV only for Eagles games -- even has an annual event, "Fine Dining at the Vet," now in its sixth year. He and his friends come down early for the game and have a nice breakfast and lunch.

"It's fun, you know," he said as he pointed out some of his favorite photos in the RV. "We all go to the game, enjoy the people, have a great time."

Attracting a bevy of followers is "Helmetman," dressed in Eagles garb and, naturally, a helmet.

"It's just a way to pump up the fans," Helmetman said. "We came up with the idea in Jacksonville and brought it back up here. It's just for fun."

Helmetman -- and the Helmettes, three young, attractive women in Eagles jerseys who flank him at times -- take photos with various fans, start up the E-A-G-L-E-S cheer and stoke the crowd into a frenzy.

Karen and Richard Gustke drive down six and a half hours from Rochester, N.Y., for every Eagles home game. They're not even originally from the area.

"Some people probably think we're crazy, but it's the Eagles," Karen said. "Why would we not come down?"

It's an hour before gametime, and the parking lots are empty. Everyone's inside getting pumped up, except for a few shady scalpers selling what appear to be counterfeit tickets and one middle-aged couple sitting on lawn chairs.

Richard and Christy Lin are watching the game on TV, projected onto the side of their van in the Vet's parking lot. They couldn't get tickets for the game, but decided it would be fun to tailgate and watch the game outside the stadium anyway.

"We're die-hard Eagles fans," Richard, from Northeast Philadelphia, said. "We had to be here, even if we couldn't get in."

The game begins with a laser and light show. The giant screens display a video history of the Eagles. The place is loud. If not as loud as the Vet, then pretty damn near close.

Second-year Eagles running back Brian Westbrook returns the opening kickoff 47 yards, and the place senses that a rout is on.

But, after the Eagles punt three plays later, the place quiets down a bit. The crowd roars again when wide receiver James Thrash takes an handoff on a trick play and goes 47 yards deep into Tampa territory. After a pass interference penalty in the end zone, the Eagles have first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

McNabb drops back on first down, and throws it over the head of wide-open tight end L.J. Smith. After a run for no gain and an incomplete pass, the Eagles attempt a field goal.

Backup QB and holder Koy Detmer pulls up the ball on a fake, and throws a wobbler to a wide-open Smith -- who drops the ball.

The crowd is silent, and won't roar again.

The ending of this story, of course, is that the Bucs shut out the Eagles, 17-0. Joe Jurevicus, who caught a game-breaking 72-yard reception in the NFC Championship, caught two scores in the second half to put the game away.

Duce Staley fumbled the ball away on the game's final play.

Clearly this was not the opening the Eagles were expecting.

"It sucks, it fuckin' sucks," a tired Ron Anderson from West Philly said after the game. "If they had just scored [on the fourth-and-goal], it would have been OK."

Although fans were down, they weren't out.

The stadium is "a great place," Center City's Pat Duffy said. "It's a shame the Birds weren't able to win."

The Eagles return to the Linc on Sunday to take on the Patriots. Win or lose, the fans will return every week this season -- no tickets remain for any home contest -- to cheer on the Birds.

Pundits may say that Eagles' ownership has gotten what they wanted: a stadium that will sell out for years to come, even if there's a bad product on the field.

But for the fans cheering on the Eagles in South Philly every Sunday, it's only about one thing.

Football.


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