The Eagles will play a football game Sunday, and the setting will be strange. They will be play in Carson, Calif., in a soccer stadium with a seating capacity of just 27,000, which is less than 40 percent of what an average NFL stadium holds. Even in this relatively small venue, the stands probably won't be filled, and if they are, it will likely be because so many Eagles fans boarded planes bound for LAX or (if they're Philadelphia-area expatriates) commuted to the stadium from their homes on the West Coast. The Eagles' opponent will have a familiar name, kind of, and a loyal fan base, but most of those fans will have remained in their homes, 110 miles or so to the south, because the team isn't theirs anymore, not really.
The Eagles, of course, play the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, and isn't it weird to read that? The Los Angeles Chargers? Even now, as I write this, my mind is telling my fingers to type San Diego Chargers, and I have to stop and remind myself not to. In conversations about the game over the last few days, people I've talked to have called them the San Diego Chargers without hesitation. It's a reflex, and it's natural. After all, the Chargers were in San Diego for 56 years, from the early days of the old American Football League until last year, when their owner, Dean Spanos, finally followed through on his threats to relocate the franchise.
To say there has been backlash to the Chargers' move is to understate it. The photographs and television shots of an unfilled StubHub Center — which will be the team's home until the construction of its new stadium, scheduled to open in 2020, is completed — have been an eyesore both for the franchise and the NFL. One longtime fan, Joseph MacRae, has paid to have planes trailing banners critical of Spanos fly over Chargers home games this season. MacRae reportedly plans to fly one over the stadium during Sunday's game; it will read: "If Spanos wants to see a sellout, he should look in the mirror."
Truth be told, Eagles fans, particularly of a certain age, should have sympathy for MacRae and those Chargers fans who share his bitterness and sadness over the loss of their team. For one thing, Spanos, as billionaire sports-franchise owners are wont to do, sought a significant measure of public funding for a new stadium and convention center annex in San Diego—$1.18 billion, to be exact, according to the Los Angeles Times. And in November, San Diego voters, by a 57-43 percent margin, told Spanos what voters and taxpayers should always tell billionaire sports owners who seek public funding for stadium projects: Yes, we'll be upset if our team leaves, but you won't build a boondoggle on our backs. Pay for the stadium yourself, big guy. Good for them for doing so.
For another thing, in December 1984, Eagles fans came close to losing their team, too. It's difficult to conceive of this now, given the Eagles' popularity in the region, but Leonard Tose's gambling debts really did lead him to a handshake agreement with James Monaghan, a real-estate developer in Phoenix, to sell the team and move it to Arizona. If not for some intrepid reporting by the Arizona Republic's Bob Hurt, who broke the story and, in doing so, ignited enough public outrage to stop the sale, Philadelphia would have lost its NFL franchise.
"Just think if something started now about the Eagles' leaving," Ron Jaworski, the Eagles' starting quarterback at the time, said in a phone interview. "People would be up in arms, and they were ticked off in '84 when those rumors — which, in effect, were not rumors — began to circulate."
In November 1984, after Tose had begun discussing the prospective sale with Monaghan but before anyone knew about the negotiations, Jaworski had broken his leg, ending his streak of 116 consecutive starts. The Eagles closed the season on Dec. 16 with a 26-10 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta.
"I remember that week," he said, "and I'm watching that game and all the news was about the possibility of the Eagles' leaving and going to Phoenix. I was very nervous about that. After seven or eight years entrenched in Philadelphia, I didn't want to leave. I didn't want to move. It was home. At that point, I was very concerned.
"That sounds funny, doesn't it? The Arizona Eagles?"