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‘A beautiful thing’: Eagles fans back for a new season and — yay! — the return of tailgating

The first home game of the season coincided with the last weekend of summer. No one seemed despondent to see the season go, though; football was made for fall.

Exuberant fans tailgate outside of Lincoln Financial Field before the Eagles home opener against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in a much-anticipated full return to the stadium since the pandemic began.
Exuberant fans tailgate outside of Lincoln Financial Field before the Eagles home opener against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in a much-anticipated full return to the stadium since the pandemic began.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Tailgating with unrestrained enthusiasm, Eagles fans ate, laughed, drank, and partied in the parking lots outside Lincoln Financial Field like they were making up for lost time.

The first home game of the year coincided with the last weekend of summer, and no one seemed despondent to see the season go; football was built for the chill of autumn, after all.

As days of lemonade faded into the time of pumpkin spice, enthusiastic revelers gathered close to one another amid the endless rows of parked cars, more concerned about the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line than the pandemic that had forestalled fun for so long.

“I suppose I could be worried about the delta variant,” said Sheila Hernandez, 31, a human resources executive from Easton, unmasked like 99.9% of the tailgating bunch. “It’s in the back of my mind. But I’m vaccinated, and I’ve decided to enjoy the game.”

Her companion, Jonathan Ryan, 29, self-employed and from the Bronx, agreed.

“I’m not worried. I feel the virus has run its course. People either had it and are now immune, or they’re vaccinated.

“Either way, humanity evolves.”

As though proving that point, Shawn Baldwin, 48, a laborer from Bridgeton, Salem County, surveyed the scenes of merriment unspooling around him and declared, “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s been a long time since we could be tailgating.”

He and his buddies ate red snapper hot off a grill on the tailgate of a white Ford F-150 pickup truck, noting that they would be attending the first regular season Eagles home game without COVID-19 seating restrictions since the pandemic started. They anticipated a full stadium, and a high-decibel crowd.

”I had to be here,” said Baldwin’s snapper-buddy, Milton Thomas, 49, a construction worker from Wilmington. “The atmosphere — you can’t beat this. I bleed green and when I scream during a game they hear me. We owe it to the team to be out here.”

Whether Zach Ertz and the boys were grateful that people were dancing to Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” while balancing chicken wings on plastic plates is something we may never know.

On Sunday, acres and acres of concrete were colonized by zealous traditionalists — people hidebound to follow the rules and rituals of A.M. pigskin picnicking: eat a lot, drink more, and thank you for smoking.

Also popular: playing games of cornhole, a pastime that has apparently jumped to the top of must-do lists whenever two or more people gather outdoors.

What couldn’t be missed among the throng was how happy everyone was to be outside together, rather than quarantining back home, hunkered in their solitary man caves and she sheds.

“You just can’t recreate this atmosphere at home, even if you have cigars and eat outside,” said Steve Moose, 66, of West Chester, who golfs and drinks scotch when he’s not tailgating. He and his son, Dan, 30, who works in the beverage industry, arrived at the parking lot outside the Wells Fargo Center at 5:30 Sunday morning, stretching the meaning of the term day drinking by a little bit.

“Since 2010, we’ve been coming,” Dan said. “What a fantastic experience.”

Family feeling is what it’s all about out there, enthused brothers Jim and Bob Howard of Haddon Township.

Twelve years back, they bought an old Audubon High School bus for $250, and tricked it out into an Eagles green lounging machine driven to all the home games.

“We’re keeping family and friendship together on a Sunday,” said Bob, 56, a sales manager.

“What I enjoy most is people-watching,” said Jim, 57, a salesman.

One of the odder things in Jim’s sight line was that of 49ers fans walking unimpeded and un-booed under the plethora of Eagles flags snapping in the cloudless blue sky.

Since when does the opposing team get a free pass?

“There’s been some back-and-forth banter, but it’s all been in fun,” acknowledged Freddy Dedios, 44, an Essex County auto mechanic wearing 49ers gear.

Turns out, he was eating chicken (as ubiquitous as beer out there) offered to him by Eagles fans (!) who were partying in an adjacent parking spot.

Has the pandemic kept people locked up so long they’ve forgotten how to misbehave?

“Freddy is a friend of my friend, Brandy,” said the chicken-giver, D’Andre Laster, 48, a physical-education teacher at Ann A. Mullen Middle School in Sicklerville.

Brandy smiled and waved, as if to say, It’s no problem, Freddy will be allowed to live today.

“If the 49er guy wasn’t with Brandy, though, there might have been a different story here today,” Laster continued, laughing. “But it’s OK, he can have some chicken.”

Drinking Bud Lights in the bed of a pickup, Meghan Spero, 41, a development professional, and her friend, Laurie Timmons, 50, a Wawa finance executive, both from Garnet Valley, smiled broadly at the scene unfolding around them.

“There’s an excitement here today with all these people coming together,” Spero said.

“You can just see the joy,” Timmons said. “Of all Philadelphia sports, Eagles games are best. And this is all a fresh start” after COVID-19.

As it happens, to the disappointment of Timmons and thousands of others, the Eagles couldn’t carry the day, and lost, 17-11.

But that won’t inhibit, discourage, or otherwise prevent their loyal followers from reconvening in the parking lots when the Kansas City Chiefs show up here on Oct. 3.

As Timmons said moments before the game on Sunday, “There’s nothing like an Eagles game. We have yearned for football.”