It was during those long, hot summers at West Chester that a generation of Eagles fans got its first look at Reggie White, Eric Allen, Randall Cunningham, Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons, Keith Jackson and of course Buddy Ryan.
Every summer from 1980 through 1995, the Eagles practiced on the grass fields behind West Chester University's Farrell Stadium in West Goshen Township, and back then training camp was six or seven weeks long, so fans had plenty of opportunities to sit on the hills and watch all these all-time great Eagles from a few feet away.
There was something special about those days at West Chester. It's where a franchise that had grown irrelevant under Marion Campbell enjoyed a renaissance under Buddy that started an extended run of success that continues to this day.
The Eagles have the 6th-best record in football since 1988, and it all began with those endless Buddy Ryan two-a-days at West Chester.
It's been 26 years since the Eagles last practiced at West Chester University, but with 2021 training camp approaching we thought it would be fun to revisit those days. I only covered the last eight camps at West Chester, but here are 10 of my favorite memories from those endless summers.
JEROME'S ENTRANCE: We would always wait for the players on the first day of camp outside their dorm, Schmidt Hall (one of the few WCU dorms from that era still standing). One summer, Jerome Brown arrived with nothing other than a drum set and a TV. He greeted the writers at the door and then disappeared inside. Three or four minutes later we saw a window open on the fourth floor and there's Jerome with a huge smile on his face. And then in that unique booming voice, everybody -- like everybody within a mile -- heard Jerome bellowing, "BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP WEST CHESTER!!!!!"
IZZY DIZZY: Legendary trainer Otho Davis first conjured up the Izzy Dizzy drill, and Buddy Ryan made it part of Eagles lore. Izzy Dizzy was a team bonding activity before the phrase was coined, and Buddy loved ending one of the long, hot practices with Izzy Dizzy ("Is he dizzy?"), usually on a day the team practiced inside Farrell Stadium so more fans could watch. Izzy Dizzy was basically a relay race where the roster is broken up into six or eight teams, and each player has to run 10 or 12 circles around a baseball bat with their head on the end of the bat, then try to fight dizziness and sprint 20 yards down the field, picking up a football at some point and throwing it to a waiting teammate at the finish line. If it sounds easy, it's not. Watching these great athletes tumble face-first on the grass laughing hysterically as they tried to get through the drill was always a West Chester favorite.
BUDDY AND THE PORT-O-POTTY: There was a Port-o-Potty at the east end of the practice fields, and one time Buddy ducked in during practice, and almost immediately Jerome Brown rounded up a couple other guys, and they ran over and started tipping over the Port-o-Potty while Buddy was still in there. There were only a few guys on the team who could get away with something like that, but Jerome was one of them. Buddy emerged unscathed and laughing.
HERSCHEL AND THE STAIRCASE: It's since been replaced by a winding ramp, but back in the day there was a long staircase from the practice fields up to the fieldhouse, and fans would line the railing along the steps hoping to get autographs. I'll never forget seeing Herschel Walker signing autographs near the top of those steps one crowded Saturday in the smoldering heat for an hour. Until every single kid had an autograph. He never took off his helmet.
RANDALL REALLY COULD DO IT ALL: We knew he could throw, we knew he could run, we knew he could punt. But one day in July of 1989 -- on a back field the Eagles rarely practiced on (it's now Vonnie Gros Field Hockey Field) -- Randall Cunningham kicked field goals. He attempted five or six, making them from as long as 48 yards. It was insane. "Maybe when he's done as a quarterback, we'll let him punt or kick," Buddy said.
HOW MUCH, MIKE?: When Randall signed his then-massive three-year contract extension in late July of 1988, the beat writers needed to find out the contract details. But this being long before the internet, long before Spotrac, long before cell phones, if we didn't get salary info from a media-friendly agent, we often didn't get it for several weeks. So we're all out at practice the day Randall signed and things weren't quite as structured back then, so Mike Quick was on the sideline about 20 or 25 feet from where a bunch of writers were standing and one of us yelled over, "Hey, Mike! How much did Randall get?" Quick looked around to make sure nobody was watching -- this stuff was always a big secret until the numbers eventually got out -- and then with a smile he holds up four fingers and then one finger. $4.1 million. That's how we got the numbers.
BUDDY AND QUICK: One summer the receivers were running a drill that brought them a little too close to a giant blocking sled. Instead of having the sled moved, a West Chester official simply stood in front of it and warned the receivers if they were getting too close. After a few minutes, Buddy walked over to the official, pointed at Quick and said, "82's the only one I'm worried about."
WHEN JIM MCMAHON BOUGHT US A ROUND: Jim McMahon hated the media. Never talked to us unless he was playing and he had to. One night about half a dozen writers were sitting at a corner table at the Rat -- the Rathskeller was the local college dive bar -- and a few players, including McMahon, were sitting at the bar. All of a sudden, a waitress arrives with a tray loaded with beers and says, "This round is on Mr. McMahon." On the way out, I walked over and thanked Jim for the beers. I'll never forget Ron Heller sitting there cracking up when McMahon answered: "Just because I bought you guys beers doesn't mean I want to talk to you."
BUDDY BEING BUDDY: Buddy Ryan's daily press briefings were legendary. Buddy was always good to the regular media, but he loved playing games with guys he hadn't seen before. I remember a poor kid sportswriter from a small-town paper in Central Pennsylvania coming out to West Chester to do a story on some long-shot kid from one of the PSAC schools. You could tell it was a big deal for the kid being at an NFL training camp. He nervously asked Buddy a long question about the kid and his chances to make the final roster, and stood there twirling his whistle and smirking and when the kid finally finished the question, Buddy just said: "I ain't cut him yet," and then looked at the beat guys laughing. Another time a reporter from a small paper asked about another local long-shot kid and Buddy gave him an actual quote -- "Nice kid, big feet," I think was part of his answer. After he finished the quote, Buddy paused and then said to the writer: "You might wanna get that story in the paper real quick," and of course looked over at the beat guys laughing. Buddy was one of a kind.
THE INTERVIEWS: At West Chester (and Lehigh) we had incredible access to players and the freedom to sit down after dinner or between practices and get to know the guys and share their stories with fans. I remember sitting on a bench outside the dining hall listening to Andre Waters talk about growing up in tiny Pahokee, Fla. An incredible interview with Seth Joyner in the summer of 1992 that must have lasted an hour where he blasted everybody from Rich Kotite to Norman Braman to Antone Davis (some things never change!). A chat with Vai Sikahema walking back to the player's dorm where he spoke about growing up in Tonga and how he never wore shoes until he was 8 or 9 years old. A fantastic interview with Wildwood Crest native Bill Osborn, who had been the first Pitt athlete to letter in baseball, basketball and football since Mike Ditka and was a longshot to make the team in the summer of 1989. I remember all those conversations and dozens more as if they happened yesterday because what made West Chester special wasn't football, it was the people playing it.