Ray Didinger on “Tommy and Me”

This week in North Philly Notes,  Ray Didinger, author of One Last Read and The New Eagles Encyclopedia, recounts bringing his play Tommy and Mebased on his life, to life on stage.

I didn’t know it was possible to have an experience that is both exhilarating and painful. But that’s what I was feeling Sunday night as Tommy and Me, my first—and probably last—stage play had its final performance at the Fringe Arts theatre.

It was exhilarating because the sellout crowd sent the play off with a standing ovation and afterwards people stayed around to say how much they enjoyed it. The story flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s and the career of Eagles great Tommy McDonald and dozens of people came up to me to relate their own memories of Franklin Field. Some still carried the ticket stubs in their wallets. Three bucks for a seat in the end zone. Yes, it was a long time ago.

TommyandMe SetThe painful part was walking back into the empty theatre and seeing the crew dismantle the set. During the two-week run from August 3 through 14, I virtually lived in that theatre. It became my world and each night when the lights went down and the actors took the stage, I was transported back to my boyhood when I was the freckle-faced fan who wanted nothing more than to carry Tommy McDonald’s helmet as he walked to the practice field. It brought a lump to my throat every night. But on Sunday, seeing it stripped down and silent, reminded me it was, indeed, over.

I knew this night was coming. I knew there would be that moment when I had to let go and Tommy and Me would become a memory, but it did not lessen the sense of loss. We sat at the bar for a long time—the cast, the crew, the whole Theatre Exile team—and talked about the play and how it grew into something larger than we first imagined. All 12 performances were sell outs and each show ended with a standing ovation that seemed to grow louder each night. Tom Teti, the veteran actor who played Tommy McDonald, said, “This was a rare one.” The others at the bar nodded in agreement.

Picture_r688x459Once we left the theatre that night we would be going in different directions. Joe Canuso, the director, is going back to work on Rizzo, the play he successful staged last year and is reviving at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in September. Matt Pfeiffer, the actor who played me as an adult, is headed to Naples, Florida, to direct a play. Ned Pryce, the actor who played the young Tommy McDonald, is already in rehearsal for a role with the Iron Age Theatre. Tom Teti is rejoining the team at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern. Simon Kiley, who played the 10-year-old me, is getting ready to start sixth grade at Girard Academic Music Program. I would return to talking about the Eagles on WIP Sports Radio and Comcast Sports Net.

The New Eagles Encyclopedia_smBut for a little while longer, we were sharing the bond that was Tommy and Me, the play I wrote about my boyhood hero and our unlikely 40-year journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had never written a play before and when I started I wasn’t at all sure it would ever be produced. But thanks to Joe Canuso, who believed in the project, and Bruce Graham, the superb Philadelphia playwright who helped in its development, we were able to bring Tommy and Me to life. To sit in the theatre each evening and hear the audience laugh, sometimes cry, boo any reference to the Dallas Cowboys and ultimately applaud at the final curtain was a thrill unlike anything I had experienced before. I know I’ll never forget it.

Each night ended with the cast returning to the stage to answer questions from the audience. The very first night, a woman stood up and said: “I’m not an Eagles fan. I don’t even like sports…” I thought, “Where is this going?” Then she said, “But this story really touched me.” Several theatre critics [reviews below] made the same point: it isn’t a football story. It is a story about a boy, his hero and dreams coming true. It is a story I always wanted to tell and that’s why on Sunday night it was hard to let go.

Read the DC Metro‘s review. 

Read the Broad Street Review‘s review

Read Philly.com‘s review

Read NewsWork‘s review

Read Philadelphia Magazine‘s review 



Reflections on the AFL and its merger with the NFL

This week in North Philly Notes, Charles Ross, author of Mavericks, Money, and Men, blogs about the AFL and the growth of the NFL.

As I sat watching the NFL draft I couldn’t help but think about the AFL and its merger with the NFL in 1970.  Pro football is clearly the most popular sport in America and that popularity is largely due to the rival leagues calling a truce and becoming one.  The last two teams to win the Super Bowl were original AFL teams–New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, and interestingly they struggled to achieve success as members of the AFL.  They never won an AFL Championship but the Patriots have won four Super Bowls and the Broncos three.  Maybe more importantly Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams probably didn’t anticipate the teams that made up the so called “foolish club,” being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, when the original franchise fee was $25,000.

Mavericks_smEvery original AFL team including the two expansion teams have played in the Super Bowl, however, there are two NFL teams that have never had that experience, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. Again the Browns and Lions picked early on Thursday night, both teams since the merger have arguably struggled to field strong teams led by great quarterbacks and solid defenses, the usual ingredients necessary to reach the pinnacle of a successful pro football season.  The draft was virtually parallel to the percentage of African American players in the NFL, in essence the overwhelming majority of players selected were black.

The two universities that I owe much of my professional success had a historic night.  The Ohio State University where I received my Ph.D. had five players selected in the first round and the University of Mississippi where I have spent the last twenty years since leaving OSU, had three players selected in round one for the first time in school history.  Three of the five players from Ohio State were African American and all three from the University of Mississippi, of course having five players selected in round one for perennial power OSU was not necessarily a surprise.  But for the University of Mississippi to have three players chosen was, unfortunately the controversy that surrounded offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil’s fall to the Miami Dolphins because of posts on his social media page dominated the media’s focus and took the spotlight off what both programs had achieved.

Arguably the growth of the NFL since the merger is a real testament to pro football’s marriage to television.  The medium of television helped to increase the value of franchise’s, players contracts, coaches contracts, and profits from owners.  Large amounts of money fuel these relationships and ultimately the same relationships at the collegiate level.  Billy Cannon signed his contract to play for the Houston Oilers instead of the Los Angeles Rams after the Sugar Bowl in 1960, on New Year’s Day.  Cannon had agreed to contracts with both the Rams and the Oilers which was a NCAA violation, and he signed his contract on television under the goalposts when the game ended.  This was great publicity for the AFL and set the tone for the next six year war between the AFL and NFL.  The saga of Tunsil also played out on national television but like Cannon many fans will want to know more about this young man and his ability to be successful on the football field during this upcoming season.  The Miami Dolphins think he will be successful and so do I.

A lot has changed since the merger but one thing has not, the success of teams will be established on the field.  Publicity both positive and negative will continue to characterize aspects of what is now America’s favorite sport, in many ways the NFL has reached a zenith where the only competition is itself.  Pro football is not competing against the NBA or even major league baseball, its chief competition now is its own public perception.


Ray Didinger’s recap of the E-A-G-L-E-S season opener

This week in North Philly Notes, Ray Didinger, author of The New Eagles Encyclopediarecaps the Eagle’s season opener against Atlanta. 

A season of high hopes opened with a shocking disappointment as the Philadelphia Eagles dropped a lackluster 26-24 decision to the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. The Eagles offense, which was so dynamic in the pre-season, did not show up until the second half and by then coach Chip Kelly’s team was already in a 20-3 hole. They rallied but ultimately fell short.

“We played a lot better in the second half, but we did not come to play in the first half,” Kelly said. “We didn’t play very well in the first half at all.”

The New Eagles Encyclopedia_smThe Eagles were a popular pre-season pick to make the NFL playoffs and possibly play their way into Super Bowl 50. They were the highest scoring team in the league in their four exhibition games and with quarterback Sam Bradford making his first regular season start, the Eagles figured to roll against a lightly regarded Atlanta defense. Instead, they couldn’t get anything accomplished early.
The Eagles had only six first downs in the first half compared to 16 for the Falcons and they were outgained almost two to one. The Falcons had 244 yards in the first half to the Eagles 125. In the second half, the Eagles got their offense untracked and Bradford completed 21 of 25 passes for 219 yards as he brought the team back, but in the final minute his pass bounced off the hands of receiver Jordan Matthews and was intercepted by safety Ricardo Allen icing the victory for Atlanta.
“It just felt like we were playing behind the sticks all day,” Bradford said, referring to the numerous penalties the Eagles committed (they had 10 in the game for 88 yards) which forced the team into long yardage situations. “We couldn’t really get anything going on first down. We were in too many second-and-longs.”
DeMarco Murray made his Eagles debut in the defeat. Murray was the NFL’s leading rusher last season playing for Dallas and he scored two touchdowns against the Falcons, but he finished the game with just nine yards on eight carries. Matthews led all receivers with 10 catches for 102 yards.
The Eagles trailed most of the game but they had a chance to pull ahead with three minutes remaining. They trailed 26-24 but they had third-and-one at the Atlanta 26 yard line. Kelly called for a handoff to Ryan Matthews, a running back acquired from San Diego in the off-season. Matthews was stopped for no gain so Kelly had to make a decision. Should he go for it on fourth down or send kicker Cody Parkey into the game to try a 44-yard field goal? A successful kick would have given the Eagles a 27-26 lead. Kelly went for the field goal, but Parkey’s kick was wide to the right.
“The ball was right in the middle of the field,” Kelly said. “I didn’t think it was a tough one. He’s hit those before.”
“It was my fault,” Parkey said. “There’s no rhyme or reason. I’m human and I missed.”
It was a disappointing performance overall by the Eagles marked by sloppy play, poor tackling, dropped balls and mental mistakes. It makes their home opener Sunday against division rival Dallas even more important. If fans are looking for a silver lining, there is this: The last time the Eagles won the NFL championship was 1960 and that year they lost their opener to Cleveland, 41-24. They came back the next week and defeated Dallas 27-25 to start a nine game winning streak.

Remembering #60 on the Eagles: “Iron-man” Concrete Charlie

This week in North Philly Notes, Ray Didinger, author of The New Eagles Encyclopediaremembers Chuck Bednarik.

Chuck Bednarik died early in the morning, Saturday, March 21 at age 89. His passing marked the end of an era in professional football. Bednarik was the last of the game’s true ironmen, a man who played virtually every play of every game for much of his 14-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles.


Author Ray Didinger, left with #60 Chuck Bednarik at the Eagles Training Camp, 1956

Bednarik played center on offense and linebacker on defense and also handled the long snaps on punts and placekicks. He only came off the field on kickoffs and sometimes not even then because for several years he also kicked off for the Eagles. Still, the man known as “Concrete Charlie” missed only three games in his pro career. His toughness was legendary.

Bednarik played in eight Pro Bowls, the most of any Eagle. He still holds the team record for interceptions by a linebacker with 20. He joined the Eagles in 1949 after an All-America career at the University of Pennsylvania. He helped the team win an NFL championship in his rookie year and he helped the Eagles reach the top again when they reclaimed the title in 1960.

In the 1960 championship game against the Green Bay Packers, Bednarik played 139 of 142 plays. He was 35 years old, the oldest player on either team, yet he played 58 of the 60 minutes and in the closing seconds he was the one who made the game saving tackle on Packers fullback Jim Taylor.

The Eagles were clinging to a 17-13 lead when quarterback Bart Starr threw a pass to Taylor who broke several tackles and was at full speed when he reached the nine yard line. That was where the 6-3, 235-pound Bednarik wrapped him in a bear hug and wrestled him to the ground. Bednarik pinned Taylor to the turf until the last few seconds ticked off the clock.

Bednarik60“He was squirming like hell trying to get up,” Bednarik said. “He was saying, ‘Get off me, you so-and-so.’ When the second hand hit zero, I said, ‘You can get up now, you so-and-so, this (expletive) game is over.’ That was the ultimate, winning that game.”

Bednarik had a similarly memorable tackle earlier that season when he leveled Frank Gifford of the New York Giants to preserve a crucial 17-10 victory. Bednarik’s crushing hit left Gifford unconscious on the field with a severe concussion. A Sports Illustrated photographer snapped a photo of Bednarik dancing over Gifford which made it appear he was rejoicing in the knockout. Not so, Bednarik said. He was celebrating that Gifford fumbled the ball and the Eagles recovered to lock up the victory.

“I was just happy we won,” Bednarik said. “If people think I was gloating over Frank they’re full of you know what. Looking back, that hit might have put us both in the Hall of Fame. I know it was the most publicity I ever got.”

Bednarik was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility. His jersey number 60 was retired by the Eagles.

Bednarik came up the hard way and that shaped his personality. He grew up in the shadow of the steel mills in Bethlehem, Pa. His parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia so money was scarce. As a boy, he couldn’t afford a football so he made his own by filling an old stocking with rags. At 18, he was a waist gunner on a B-24 bomber flying combat missions over Germany. After each mission, he knocked back straight whiskey to calm his nerves.

The New Eagles Encyclopedia_smAfter the war, he enrolled at Penn where he was a two-time All-America who worked for his meals by waiting on tables in the school’s dining hall. The Eagles made him the first pick in the 1949 NFL draft and signed him to a $10,000 contract with a $3,000 cash bonus. His salary topped out at $26,000 in his final season, 1962, so he worked a second job selling concrete to support his wife Emma and their five daughters.

In his later years, Bednarik was often critical of the modern NFL. He didn’t like all the showboating and he couldn’t understand how players making millions of dollars would play two or three snaps and leave the field to catch their breath. Players today, he said, were “overpaid and underplayed.” He wasn’t politically correct and sometimes it got him in trouble, but for football fans in this area, he will always be an icon.

“Chuck Bednarik wasn’t just a football hero, he was an American hero,” former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil said. “I was proud to call him a friend.”

In memoriam: Jim Johnson, Eagles defensive coordinator

1830_regBy Micah Kleit, Executive Editor, Temple University Press

One of Philly’s greatest sports heroes died last week.  He wasn’t a player on the field, but he made the Eagles one of the best teams in the NFL.  I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Johnson while the Press was putting together The Eagles Encyclopedia, and it was a thrill to talk — however briefly — with the architect of the Eagles’ dominating defense.  Ray Didinger, co-author of The Eagles Encyclopedia, knew Johnson well, and wrote of his passing — and his genius as a defensive coordinator — in his “View from the Hall” column at CSN Philly’s web site.

God’s Own Team: The Week That Was Liverpool’s

In this blog entry by Grant Farred, the author of Long Distance Love, writes passionately about soccer, and the team he connects with–Liverpool.


Mark it down, these two dates and places: the 11th of March, 2009: Anfield Road Stadium, Liverpool; 14th of March, 2009: Old Trafford, the outskirts of Manchester. It was the week that demonstrated, without question, as to who the greatest team in English and European football is today. Real Madrid, albeit a shadow of their once-great selves (where have you gone, Zinedine Zidane? Oh, we miss you so in that all-white strip), came to Anfield and Liverpool proceeded to run amok. As early as the third minute, the two geniuses combined: Stevie Gerrard put El Nino, Fernando Torres, through. Wonderful save by Iker Casillas in the Real goal but, no matter, its all over. Magnificent strike by Torres outdone only by Gerrard’s goal. The useless fruitless Ryan Babbel crosses from the left and, Gerrard, who can only, given the bounce and speed of the ball, hit the ball in one spot: his right ankle, and, it has to be perfectly—and I mean perfectly —timed. For Stevie, or, “God’s Own Son,” as I’ve dubbed him in my book Long Distance Love: A Passion for Football, its not quite routine but Lord is it memorable. Stevie gets his ankle into that inch-perfect position and the ball flies into the net. Christ, what a goal. I’ve played that one now, oh, a few dozen times in my head and I’m still awestruck. Can there be any doubt that God, in her or his infinite wisdom, is nothing other than a Liverpool fan? Two days later, said Zidane proclaimed Gerrard the best player in the world. No argument from me, m’sieur. Real left Anfield in tatters, redeemed only by the reflective honesty of their manager, Juande Ramos: beaten fair and square, is more or less what Senor Ramos offered at this press conference.

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A Brief Overview of American Soccer

David Wangerin, author of Soccer in a Football World, explains why his favorite sport has taken its time to catch on in America.

1985_regIn 1981, the fourteenth year of its existence, the North American Soccer League started to crumble. Membership fell from 24 to 21 teams, crowds thinned and a prized network television contract with ABC had been cancelled. Three years later, the league died – and twelve years passed before another took its place.

Major League Soccer is showing rather more promise in its fourteenth year. It operates with more teams than it’s ever had; attendance is still tracing a (modestly) upward path; and though it still loses money, one or two teams are apparently starting to come out ahead.

A quarter-century may have passed since the NASL kicked its last ball, but its legacy has proved surprisingly enduring. This season marks the arrival of MLS’s newest team, the Seattle Sounders, a name that stretches back to the NASL’s heyday. MLS intends to add two more teams in 2011: one will be called the Portland Timbers, a name of similar vintage, and the other, probably, the Vancouver Whitecaps, who won the NASL in 1979. First, though, the league will also add a team from Philadelphia. A well-marshalled lobby is pressing for it to be named it the Atoms, NASL champions of 1973.

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