Wilbert’s Run. Say those words to any Eagles fan who was around to see it, and they instantly know what it is you are referring to. The play itself wasn’t all that spectacular. It was a simple off tackle forty-two yard touchdown run. But, when you look at all the build up leading up to that moment and all the emotion that came pouring out of that crowd at Veterans Stadium during and after it, it is probably the most memorable single play in Eagles history. As I am typing these words and thinking of that moment, I can see the goose bumps rising up on my arms and I can feel the chills running up and down my spine. It was that big of a moment.
January 11, 1981 is a day that will live on forever in my memory. For a ten-year old kid who was as big a sports fan as I was, it was Christmas, Easter and Fourth of July all rolled in to one. The Philadelphia Eagles would be playing the Dallas Cowboys for the right to play in the Super Bowl in New Orleans. On top of that, I would also be going to see the Flyers play the defending Stanley Cup Champion New York Islanders later that night. It was to be a day of days.
My Dad was lucky enough to have tickets to both of the Eagles’ playoff games that year. A guy he worked with had an extra ticket for both games. When my Dad told me this, I got all excited and assumed I would be going to both games as well. I can only imagine the look of disappointment on my face when he told me I wouldn’t be going because there was only one extra ticket. Being the great Dad he is though, he went out of his way and went out and got me tickets to a Flyers game to help ease the pain. If the Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs, the NFC Championship game and the Flyers game would fall on the same day. With us living in Glenside which is about a half hour away from the Stadium, this had all the makings of a logistical nightmare, but Dad had the solution.
I’ll never forget how excited I was when my Dad told me of the plan. He waited until after the Vikings game to make sure the Eagles would be playing the following week before he surprised me with it. I still wouldn’t be going to the Eagles game. But, he was going to have me watch the Eagles at my cousin’s house on Juniper Street in South Philadelphia. It was a place I had always loved going to. Anyone who knows where Juniper Street is knows how close it is to the Vet. When you walked out the backdoor of my cousin’s house, the Vet was virtually in their backyard. This solved the logistical problem of going to both games. My Dad would go to the Eagles game, walk back to my cousin’s house, we would have a great Italian dinner and then we would go to the Flyers game that night. It was nirvana.
In the divisional round, the Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the first NFC match up. The other NFC semifinal would pit the Dallas Cowboys against the Atlanta Falcons. Everyone in the city wanted Dallas to win that game because: one – what would be better than beating our most hated rival to go on to the Super Bowl? And two – If Dallas won, the Eagles would have home field advantage in the NFC Championship game. If Atlanta had won that game, the Eagles would have had to play the Falcons in Atlanta. The video of the Eagles fan at the Vet after the Vikings game summed up the whole city of Philadelphia’s feelings towards the Cowboys, “We want Dallas, DALLAS!! We HATE You!!!”
We got our wish. The Cowboys defeated the Falcons in Atlanta and would be coming to the Vet to play the Eagles. The gamesmanship started right away. At the very beginning of the week, the Eagles announced they would be wearing their white jerseys at home instead of their green ones. This would force the Cowboys to have to wear their blue jerseys. The Cowboys were infuriated. They hated wearing those jerseys. For whatever reason, they had a terrible record whenever they wore them. It’s why they always wore their white jerseys at home. It caused such a stir that after that season, the NFL instituted a rule that stated a team had to give at least a week’s notice if they were going to switch what jersey they chose to wear at home. We were in their heads.
The day had finally arrived. To this day, it is still one of the most bitterly cold days I remember. It was four degrees at kickoff with a seventeen degree below zero wind chill factor. I was talking to my cousin about that day a few weeks ago and he said, “I remember your Dad came back to the house after the game and he had icicles in his beard”. It was that cold.
Dallas received the opening kickoff and right off the bat, you could tell the Eagles and the Veterans Stadium crowd had come to play. The Eagles defense swarmed all over Dallas’s offense and forced a three and out. That first defensive series was punctuated by a play by Eagles linebacker John Bunting. Dallas QB Danny White tried a short swing pass to Ron Springs and before Springs could even turn upfield, Bunting was all over him. The Veterans Stadium crowd went bananas as Bunting slammed Springs to the turf.
After a short punt by Dallas QB/Punter Danny White, the Eagles got the ball in excellent field position. Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski threw an incomplete pass on first down setting up a 2nd and 10. What happened next will live in the minds of Eagles fans forever.
Jaworski turned and handed the ball off to running back Wilbert Montgomery. Montgomery started to run right and before he even hit the hole, the Veterans Stadium crowd erupted like I never heard it erupt before. They could see the hole that had opened up for Montgomery and knew right then and there, even before the television announcers, that Montgomery was gone. It was as if all the frustrations that came from all the years of losing to the Cowboys for so many years came pouring out of that crowd. People who were at the game said the ground literally shook when Wilbert broke through that hole. Even though it was early in the first quarter, you pretty much knew the Cowboys had no chance to win in that Stadium on that day. The Eagles dominated the game and went on to win 20-7. Wilbert Montgomery finished with 194 yards rushing.
Normally for me, nothing trumps a Flyers game. But for that one night, the Flyers were secondary. I remember walking in to the Spectrum that night and everyone was still abuzz about the Eagles. All throughout the game, people were doing the E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES! chant. Usually this is something that infuriates me but, not on this night. On this night, there was a reason for it. It wasn’t a bunch of obnoxious Eagles fans doing it randomly at a meaningless Sunday afternoon Phillies game. It was Philadelphia fans doing it to celebrate a huge Eagles victory. We were all as one that night. During the Flyers game, the Raiders were playing the Chargers in the AFC Championship game. The Chargers were heavy favorites against the Raiders and had beaten the Eagles during the regular season. The Raiders were the AFC wildcard team who the Eagles had beaten that year. They were considered to be the much easier Super Bowl opponent for the Eagles. When they flashed that the Raiders had beaten the Chargers on the Spectrum scoreboard, the place went absolutely bonkers. It was so loud in the Spectrum that they had to stop play on the ice because no one in the building could hear themselves think. The ovation just kept going and going and going. The Flyers wound up losing the game 4-2 but, I and the rest of the city were on such a high it was completely inconsequential.
That whole entire day is something I’ll never ever forget. The anticipation leading up to a great sports double-header, watching the Eagles with my cousins in South Philly, Wilbert’s Run, the Eagles finally going to the Super Bowl, the atmosphere in the Spectrum that night, spending the day with my Dad. It really was a day of days for this kid from Glenside.