I’ll never forget the day: December 24, 1978. I was eight years old at the time and I couldn’t have been more excited. It was Christmas Eve. No school for the next week and a half. The Eagles were playing the Atlanta Falcons at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta in the NFC Wildcard Game. It was the first Eagles playoff game in over a decade. Santa Claus was coming the next day to bring us lots of presents.
Or was he?
With this being the first Eagles playoff game in such a long time, the whole city was abuzz. The Eagles had finally started to turn the corner under third year coach Dick Vermeil. With the combination of the coming holiday and a huge Eagles playoff game on the horizon, the city was in a festive mood. People all over the city were having Christmas/Eagles playoff parties. Me being eight at the time, I was finally old enough to go to one of these parties.
I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I was going to be watching an Eagles playoff game with a legendary group of guys. Absolute die hards. Eagles season ticket holders. Guys who were around when the Eagles had won their last championship in 1960. Guys who would drive out to Hershey to watch Eagles training camp. My Dad used to tell me stories of how they would give the Eagles players rides to practice. Before the Eagles ever had a mascot, one of these guys took it upon himself to dress in an Eagles costume and act as the mascot. During one game, the fans behind the endzone at the Vet took up the chant “Ralph Can Fly. Ralph Can Fly” With that he jumped from the stands behind the endzone flapping his wings on his way down to the Veterans Stadium turf only to break his leg. Another can be seen on the History of the Philadelphia Eagles DVD mouthing the words “You Suck Staubach!!!” as John Facenda is narrating in the background. I attended my first Eagles game that year and was able to see all these guys in action. It was pure entertainment. Just as entertaining as the game itself sometimes. So just imagine the horror I felt when one of them, my Uncle Tom, came up to me before the playoff game started and said, “Michael, if the Eagles lose this game, Santa Claus isn’t coming to Philadelphia”
Santa Claus isn’t coming to Philadelphia if the Eagles lose?? My God!! The stakes in this playoff game had risen exponentially for this eight year old. How could that be??
That first Eagles game I attended in person was against the Rams and was a microcosm of the 1978 Eagles season. The Rams, featuring the likes of Pat Haden, Wendell Tyler and Jack Youngblood, were an NFL power at the time and would present a big test for the up and coming Eagles. The Eagles struggled out of the gate and fell behind 13-0. Ron Jaworski was absolutely brutal in the first half and really started to feel the wrath of the fans. They booed louder and louder with each incomplete pass. At one point a chant of “We want John, We want John!!!!!” went up in the crowd calling for Eagles back up QB John Walton. The fans finally got their wish and in came Walton. With that, the Eagles stormed all the way back to take a 14-13 lead with just over two minutes left in the game. Veterans Stadium was in an absolute frenzy. The Eagles were on the verge of upsetting one of the best teams in the NFL. It wasn’t meant to be though. Haden led the Rams down the field and Rams kicker Frank Coral hit a 51-yard field goal as time ran out to win it for the Rams. It was the first 50 plus FG of Coral’s career. It was a devastating loss but since it was my very first game and it was such a great game I wasn’t bothered by it at all.
On the Flip side, 1978 was also the year of the Miracle of the Meadowlands. I’ll never forget the euphoria I felt when Joe Pisarcik collided with Larry Csonka and left the ball on the Giants Staduim turf to be picked up by Herman Edwards who ran the ball in to the endzone for an improbable Eagles win. The win was a very costly one though. Eagles placekicker Nick Mike-Mayer got hurt in this game. I didn’t realize at the time just how costly that injury would be. The place kicking duties were left to Eagles punter Mike Michele. A name that will live in infamy.
Michele was an absolute disaster. Even extra points which had once been automatic were an adventure. Every time he came on the field to attempt a FG or extra point you had to hold your breath. You just hoped and prayed he wouldn’t cost the Eagles a key game.
The playoff game against the Falcons couldn’t have started any better. The Eagles dominated from the opening kickoff and stormed out to a 13-0 lead. The Eagles defense was dominant for most of the game and kept Steve Bartkowski and the rest of the Atlanta Falcons in check. The 1978 Eagles being the way they were though, they weren’t going to make it easy. In the second half, the Falcons stormed all the way back and took a 14-13 lead. I was on the verge of tears. With time winding down though, the Eagles drove down the field and got themselves in to field goal range. All that needed to happen was for the Eagles to convert a chip shot 34-yard FG to win it. The Eagles would advance to the next round and Santa Claus would be coming to Philadelphia. The ball was even in the middle of the field so the kick couldn’t have been any easier. Out comes Mike Michele. Just seeing that number 13 trot out on to the field made your stomach flip and turn. There couldn’t be more riding on this kick for me. The kick went up and as soon as it came off of Michelle s foot, you knew it had no shot. It started hooking left as soon as it left his foot. The site of all of the Atlanta fans behind the endzone frantically waving their arms to signal the kick was no good was and will forever be embedded in my mind. I was absolutely devastated. No Eagles playoff win. No Santa Claus coming to Philadelphia.
This eight year old had been indoctrinated in to the world of Philadelphia Sports.