WHEN THE accumulated inconvenience from the Great Pre-Christmas Blizzard of 2009 reached 20 inches, I called it a Saturday night.
Before retiring for a long winter's nap, I watched the local sports wraps. All did live pieces, snow whirling eerily through the bright lights of Lincoln Financial Field, on the monumental task the Eagles had taken on to ensure yesterday's pushed-back game with the 49ers could be played in an environment safe for both players and fans.
It is one thing to clear an outdoor facility seating 67,000 fans after the storm is over. But the Eagles had scant wiggle room. The NFL views postponements as the worst possible kind of bummer. JFK was barely in his casket 2 days after his assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when commissioner Pete Rozelle's league played its full slate of games. I covered the Bears and Steelers in Forbes Field with heavy heart.
Eagles field operations manager Tony Leonard had a plan in place. The vigorous cyclone that formed in the western Gulf of Mexico at midweek and rode up the Appalachians on Friday, then reformed into an explosive Nor'easter off Cape Hatteras on Saturday had been better scouted than the 49ers team the Eagles defeated, 27-13, yesterday on a field drier than an Andy Reid injury report.
A mob of 700 contract workers reported to the Linc at 10 a.m. Saturday. That was during the lightest period of the amazing storm that dropped a December-record 23.2 inches at the official airport measuring station. The Conlin property in Washington Township averaged 23 inches.
Leonard's full-time Linc crew got its marching orders at 6:30 a.m. They would supervise the delicate plowing of the tarpaulin covering the field.
"It has to be done every 2 or 3 inches, when it's most manageable," Leonard said during the third quarter of another bravura performance by DeSean Jackson, who danced through the Niners like a whirling snowflake. "We have two tractors that sweep the tarp and load it into trucks."
When it became obvious the Eagles were dealing with one of the top winter weather events in city history, reinforcements were called in. By 2 p.m. there were 1,200 workers keeping warm and dry in the bowels of the Linc.
"You have to wait until there's a substantial amount of snow to remove," Leonard said.
Inside the stadium, the workers were shown Eagles highlight films and movies on the myriad of TV screens throughout the facility. And when the first group swung into action at 5:30 p.m. to begin serious shoveling, the giant TV boards behind the end zones blazed to light, showing more Eagles highlights while the sound system boomed music to shovel by. The Linc looked like a giant sports bar inside one of those snow globes you swirled as a kid.
At the height of the storm, when snow was blasting South Philly at 2 inches an hour, 1,700 workers were rotating in three shifts. They worked through the night. And while they cleared the clogged aisles in a kind of bucket brigade involving giant rubber tubes that deposited the snow in trucks, a small army of snowplows and trucks cleared an Alp-ful of snow from the sprawling parking lots. And that was not an easy thing to do.
"Remember, we had the Flyers in the afternoon and the Sixers at night to work around," Leonard said.
I walked into the Linc with Paul Domowitch about 1:30 yesterday. I expected to see Ice Station Lurie, a good try that Mother Nature buried in drifts. I was amazed to see the field looking as good as I have seen it, newly sodded between the painted yard markers after the Army-Navy game.
"We've been working on some different things to keep it in better condition," Leonard said.
Crews were still working in the aisles right up to the 4:15 kickoff. And will be working a few more days. There was still enough snow under the seats for Knucklehead Nation to launch hundreds of snowballs - mostly fluffy and ineffective - as the game entered the fourth quarter. But it was nothing like the ice- ball pelting that marred a notorious Eagles-Cowboys game in Veterans Stadium and had Jimmy Johnson scurrying for safety.
I came close to missing Operation Snow Eagle. In fact, I had e-mailed my boss that as late morning approached I was home alone with a tattered "No shoveling" note pinned to my chest and my son, Pete, snowbound at a friend's house. I would not be making it to the Linc on a day when there were at least 15,000 no-shows.
Then there was a knock on the door. It was Carlos, the original White Tornado. He cleans my house every other Saturday and when the storm began asked if he could come yesterday instead. I wrote him off when the snow reached double digits. But there he was, with a shovel leaning against my garage and carved a path to my door.
"Clean today?" he smiled. "Hell, yes," I said. Carlos beckoned to one of the women who assists him. While she went to work, he grabbed the shovel and headed back toward my pellicle-engorged paths. An hour later, I was on my way to the Linc.
On my way to see the result of some of the greatest shoveling in NFL history, or at least since Buddy Ryan coached here.
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