In a normal year, for a normal Eagles season opener, Shannon Rabbitt would be at the game, screaming her head off for her beloved Birds.
But nothing about 2020 is normal, so Rabbitt found herself in a Gloucester County parking lot turned drive-in movie theater Sunday, hugging a stranger she had just met after an Eagles field goal against the Washington Football Team and vowing to drive an hour from her home in Manahawkin every game to tailgate, COVID-style.
“I love the Eagles, but there’s no chance to get into the stadiums this year," said Rabbitt, 37, who had planned to tailgate with a date but who got stood up and made the best of it. “This is the kind of outdoor dining I can handle, and I made friends."
Eight months and a pandemic separated the end of the 2019 Eagles season from the start of the 2020 season, and fans were starved for their team and the rituals of fall: beers from the car, the smell of sausages and peppers on the grill, games of cornhole, and the camaraderie of hundreds of fans cheering together.
For $40 a carload, Rocco Gallelli offered to fans the opportunity to enjoy just that. Gallelli, who owns Innovative Catering Concepts and a banquet facility in Monroe Township, never set out to run a concert venue and drive-in movie theater, but the coronavirus hobbled his business, and suddenly having a giant, 300-space parking lot was a lifeline.
He rented a giant movie screen and plunked down a stage, bringing bands in some nights, showing films others, allowing folks to bring in their own food or order from his catering trucks. Eagles gatherings seemed to be a natural next step, and the idea took off, gaining national attention.
“We’re bringing Eagles nation together,” said Gallelli said. “And right now, we want just to get to the other side of COVID.”
Fans came from near, such as Anna Hillman and her family, from Sicklerville, and farther, such as her newfound friend Rabbitt, from the Shore. The Hillman family put out a generous spread of food and shared with Rabbitt, who high-fived Hillman’s grandson Easton Caraluzzo, 4, as the Eagles took possession of the ball in the first quarter.
“We’ve been teaching him about the Eagles since the day he was born,” Hillman said.
The parking lot was close to capacity, with some fans in masks and others wearing them at their chins or pulling them off in the late-summer sun.
Vin Carter, of Mechanicsburg, came to the tailgate for her uncle’s birthday, driving more than an hour from central Pennsylvania to South Jersey. She loves the Eagles and wanted to take an opportunity to celebrate with her family, but admitted to being a little nervous in the crowd.
“I’m still a little paranoid about the proximity of people socializing with no masks," Carter said.
No doubt, though, it was good to get out, said Carter, keeping an eye on her daughter Cassidy, 5, and son Phoenix, 9 months, who gleefully zoomed around a patch of asphalt in a baby walker.
“It’s a little sense of normalcy,” she said.
It was, Bob English said, a revelation to be at the tailgate, where the occasional “E-A-G-L-E-S” cheer rang out, and whenever the Birds scored a touchdown, people ran up and down aisles holding Eagles flags.
“This is the first time since February I’ve gone out to someplace that’s not Lowe’s or the grocery store,” said English, who works at Asher’s Chocolates in Souderton, Montgomery County, and came with a group of family and friends from work.
The Asher’s group arrived in an RV newly purchased by Barton and Jessica McBride, who have family in California and needed a way to get to their relatives without flying.
“We thought we’d make the most of it,” Jessica McBride said, nodding at the giant TV, the table groaning with food, and the friends gathered around it. “We’ll go camping, and we love the Eagles, so we’ll tailgate.”
To be honest, Jinaki and Malik Muhammed, from the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, are not big Eagles fans. But they came out with a group of die-hards to get some fresh air and to do something social, and were glad they did.
The couple — who raised their fists during the national anthem in a salute to the Black Lives Matter movement — were first in line to get into the tailgate, and were glad to get a good spot, to enjoy the warm September air and the sense of festivity.
The Muhammeds, who are 70 and 68, respectively, kept away from revelers not wearing masks.
“It’s the younger generation," Jinaki Muhammad said. “They’re partying, and they forget about it.”
Tim Kudgis, of Northeast Philadelphia, felt something unusual during the tailgate, he said: happiness.
“Sports,” said Kudgis, 36, “gets you through the darkness. And it’s better to watch when you’re with a bunch of fans, so this is a breath of fresh air.”
Kudgis and his friend Donnie Hart, 32, of Mansfield, said they were optimistic about the Eagles' prospects this season, but weren’t making any bets.
“It’s 2020,” Hart said. “Anything can happen. We might win every game, or lose every game.”