OR: The Truest Philly Move Since That Robot Died
One day when I was 15 years old, I wrote a short story as part of a mid-year coursework assignment for my English class. I was, at the time, attending a small rural boarding school in my home country of Malawi, and the course was one of ten subjects I was taking towards a two-year secondary school finishing certificate graded out of the UK. Because the assignment had been given to us by a substitute instructor — the main teacher for our class was out sick that week with a bad case of malaria — most of the other students had decided to outright not do the homework, because, no matter the country, teenagers will always try to mess with substitute teachers. The best my academically driven self could muster under the challenge of that rebellion, however, was to write the story in a clandestine haste right before bedtime, and then to deliberately not revise the draft. I felt sort of bad when I handed it in the next day, as I knew I could have done better and I knew this teacher would have known that; but I only had so much of a tolerance for being uncool, and a sloppy first draft was my private way of still doing me while also not entirely sending up the rest of the class.
As it turned out, the teacher thought the story was very good. So good, in fact, that he took me aside after class and asked me if I had taken the idea from somewhere else. To his halfway credit, he asked this in such a sidelong and compassionate manner that I actually initially missed his meaning entirely; I suppose, thinking about this now, that he imagined that the best student in the class had finally cracked under the weight of several years of pressure, and plagiarized something she thought no one would recognize. I only fully figured it out later that afternoon, as I kept turning the phrase “got the idea from somewhere else” over in my head, wondering where he possibly would have thought I would pick up said idea. Our library was pretty good but not great; we had no access to television or movies except for one movie every other Saturday evening in the main auditorium, along with two other classes in the school; and our single computer lab was not even connected to the internet. Only after overthinking the moment all afternoon did I suddenly realize that he, as opposed to myself, had barely thought about his assumption at all: he had simply felt that there was no way a student that age could write a story that good, not in Malawi at least, and so concluded, naturally, that the idea could never have been mine.
If there is a strange splinter under my skin about the Eagles win this past Sunday, in an ultimately positive way but still surprisingly infuriating, this sits exactly at the emotional locus of that moment from my secondary school days, when I realized that even a teacher who admired and respected me a great deal just didn’t believe I could possibly be that good a writer. Right up until Sunday’s game, the final game of the entire tournament, the Eagles found themselves disparaged as flukes from left to right, from players to game plays, by people calling themselves experts in the sport. Even the rabid support of a few of those experts — Kyle Brandt, for example, whose fiery pro-Eagles rants you should absolutely watch if you have not already — was insistently tinged with a dash of humor, like, “we know that this is sort of ridiculous, but we think they have a real chance?” And even as the clock was running out in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, when the Eagles had long taken the lead and were holding solidly onto it, commentator Cris Collinsworth — who really needs to re-evaluate a lot of things this week — kept acting as though every lost second was in fact the moment that the Patriots would inevitably make their predictable game-ending play, taking home the Lombardi not because their skills in the match earned it, but because it was simply their tournament birthright.
The Eagles’ win, then, feels like the truest Philly move since that time a few years ago when the hitchhiking robot got beat up and left for parts in Old City. Similar spirit, albeit in a decidedly more positive way — your underestimation of our capabilities will soon enough turn into your loss. Sorely, if Tom Brady’s post-match face is anything to go by. Just as whoever programmed the robot should have probably known better than to allow it to travel anywhere near Philadelphia’s city limits (I mean, I love my city…but c’mon, son), it is mind-boggling that despite crushing it game after game after incredible game in the lead-up to Sunday night’s stellar conclusion, somehow the Eagles’ presence at the Super Bowl continued to be resoundingly categorized as not merely unusual, but outright wrong. A deviation in a data set that one would do well to ignore, because otherwise that data point skews the line of best fit away from its predicted course. So even in a match that most observers would universally admit was brilliantly fought by both teams but by the Eagles in particular, somehow the dominant narrative until the clock finally struck zero remained that the Patriots, though well-challenged by the Eagles, would ultimately rise to win the day.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, our tendency to not care what people say about us worked out perfectly. The Eagles won the Super Bowl; they were simply a better team, and each day the number of people grudgingly accepting this increases. But in that win, they simultaneously exploded to an entirely different level of triumph: they proved that the best response to people who refuse to believe in you despite all evidence suggesting they’re incorrect is simply to leave them in the dust. And while I’m absolutely elated at the win — mind you, this is coming from someone who normally doesn’t care for SportsBall — I’m also rankly irate that it took the Herculean effort of winning the Super Bowl for a critical mass of people to finally admit that the Eagles were even serious contenders for the Lombardi at all, something they had proved long before that point.
This left me with the realization that it wasn’t because the Eagles’ performance this season was particularly poor that people couldn’t see them as winners. Rather, people couldn’t see them as winners because they believed that the Eagles were just irredeemable losers, in the same way that the country unshakably believes Philly to be a trashy, busted city with a serious machine discrimination problem. It’s the same reason that newspapers around the country are covering Sunday night’s Broad Street exploits as “typical Philadelphia,” yet when the Seattle Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl and revelers burned furniture in the streets, damaged one of Seattle’s most historic buildings, and assaulted a police officer, it was cute. Because otherwise Seattle’s national perception is that of a civilized folk: people who climb mountains and not lampposts, who eat granola and not cheesesteaks, who ride horses rather than punching them. Similar behaviors were acted out in both cities’ post-game streets, though; yet Seattle is allowed to be insane as an exception, whereas Philadelphia’s insanity is a categorical rule.
So on Thursday afternoon, when I’m decked out in green and fighting for my square foot of standing room along Broad Street, I’ll be screaming not just for the Eagles — Ertz in particular, because that was clearly three steps, Collinsworth — but for everyone who ever got put in a box that no one around them seemed to want to let them leave. I’ll be raising my glass — fine, Solo cup, but still — to everyone who is doing the work day after day towards the dreams in their eyes, but whose work is lonely, because so many people around them say it’s not possible and they’re wasting their time. I’ll be pouring one out for the unrealized dreams of everyone for whom their versions of my secondary school substitute English instructor ended up being the deaths of their aspirations, and I’ll be downing a Yards IPA or three for all the teachers and mentors who have erased the sour imprints of people like that, and instead pushed me and people like me to places we didn’t even know how to imagine when we first started out.
More than anything else, though, I’ll be hoping that those people, my people, find the courage to quietly or openly shut their naysayers out. I’ve found that either way works; it just depends on how far you need the naysayers to stay away from you and one’s tolerance for the ensuing chaos of that decision. And I’ll be hoping, finally, that those people either live in Philly already or are otherwise on their way. We’re a city proudly repping the seeming improbable; occasionally bad, undeniably, but more times really good, and the good is only becoming greater. If nobody believes in you but you, then this is your home, because here we know that this unbelief is a lie. Because here, the Eagles fly, and force the unbelievers to see what we always knew to be true.