Last week I shared my 10 memories of Eagles training camp in West Chester, and I was planning to wait until next summer to do the Lehigh version. Crazy as it seems, next summer will be the 10th anniversary of the Eagles’ final training camp in Bethlehem.
But you guys asked, so here it is. Ten memories of Lehigh.
It’s no secret how much I loved Lehigh camp. The cool misty mornings as the fog rolled in. The beautiful setting of the practice fields in the Northampton County hills. The virtually unlimited access the media had to the players, access we loved because it let us help the fans get to really know the players and coaches.
Lehigh. Seventeen great years, and the last chance Eagles fans ever got to see their team up-close-and-personal throughout the summer.
So here are 10 of my favorite memories from the 500 or so days I spent covering the Eagles at Lehigh from 1996 through 2012.
T.O. Day: Any conversation about Lehigh has to start with Aug. 6, 2004, when the world descended on Lehigh to watch Terrell Owens practice. On a spectacular Friday morning, an estimated 25,000 fans clogged the Lower Saucon Township and Hellertown roads to get a glimpse of T.O. in his first summer with the Eagles. That 2004 camp was a short one, with only 11 days open to fans, and on Aug. 6 a combination of beautiful weather, the annual “Kid’s Day” activities and T.O.’s presence created the perfect storm. Route 309 was clogged almost down to Quakertown. Fans who did get there parked a mile away behind Goodman Stadium after the Eagles’ lots were full and thousands of fans never made it to the practice fields. Many who did found themselves unable to get close to the fields. WIP’s Morning Show never made it to Lehigh for their live broadcast, and even Andy Reid needed a police escort to get to practice on time. I did make it there on time but only because I left the house at 5:30 a.m. and took a little-known shortcut to the parking area (Friedensville Road from Hellertown to Creek Road north to Goodman Drive west and into the back entrance of the parking lot!). At the time, it was believed to be the largest crowd that had ever watched an NFL training camp practice outside a stadium. True or not, it was incredible, and Donovan McNabb and T.O. put on a show that sent the fans who were lucky enough to see it into a frenzy. It was breathtaking. “This is my eighth year at Lehigh,” Chad Lewis said. “And I’ve never seen it like this.”
Ricky arrives: It was July of 1997, the Eagles’ second summer at Lehigh. The Eagles were coming off two 10-6 playoff seasons, Ricky Watters was coming off two monster Pro Bowl seasons, and expectations were sky high. We were out in front of the Eagles’ dorm those early years – McClintic-Marshall Hall – and Ricky, who rarely did interviews, was in a chatty mood. I’ll never forget him popping out of his massive SUV on reporting day followed by a huge entourage, walking over to a group of writers with a huge smile on his face and saying, “I smell it. I smell it in the air. I smell a Super Bowl! I’ve been there before. I know what it smells like. … I think we can have one of the best teams the Eagles have ever had.” The Eagles went 6-9-1.
The Day RayBob Couldn’t Stop Talking: For 14 of the Eagles’ 17 years at Lehigh, Andy Reid was the head coach, but the first three years it was Ray Rhodes, and in at least one big way RayBob was the polar opposite of Big Red. Andy never said much. Ray? You couldn’t get him to stop talking. Ray claimed he hated talking to the media, then he would stand there for 20 minutes telling “one-eye” stories (“When I” did this, “when I” did that, etc.). Ray was the best storyteller I’ve ever been around. Anyway, when it rained at Lehigh, the Eagles generally practiced inside Rauch Fieldhouse. But one rainy day, the fieldhouse was unavailable because of a camp, so the Eagles held a walkthrough at Stabler Arena, the basketball arena where the Grateful Dead played a legendary show in 1981. Because of the storms and the early end to practice, there were only about 10 writers there when Ray met the media, and you knew the good stories were about to flow when Ray scanned the media to make sure there were no unfamiliar faces. And this one day at Stabler, he got into a groove and couldn’t stop. His stories were detailed and hilarious and raunchy and every single one would probably get him fired today. On that day he went at least half an hour just regaling us with stories about former teammates, friends, coaches, family members, you name it. None of it had to do with football and it wasn’t anything we could write about. But it was amazing just listening to him talk.
Howie and Cullen Jenkins: Once the 2011 lockout ended, training camps opened up almost immediately. The Eagles were adding players every day – this was the summer of the Dream Team – and after one morning we watched Andy Reid and Howie Roseman standing near the 50-yard-line of one of the practice fields long after everybody else had left. Howie was on his cell phone, and it seemed like something important was happening, so a few of the beat guys stuck around to see what was up. Finally, Howie got off the phone and shook hands with Big Red. Howie began walking over to the group of writers waiting for him. About five seconds later, Adam Schefter tweeted that the Eagles had signed Cullen Jenkins. Fifteen seconds later, Howie reached our group and said he had a scoop for us, and we said, “Yeah, we know, you guys signed Cullen Jenkins.” He looked bewildered. “How could you possibly know that already? It literally just happened.” Schefter literally tweeted it out in the 20 seconds it took Howie to walk across half a football field.
“McNabb from the corner!” There was a basketball court on the players’ parking lot and one day long after practice had ended, a handful of players were shooting some hoops before heading back over the mountain for lunch. Donovan McNabb walked out of the fieldhouse, called for the basketball and began dribbling toward his car. Remember, McNabb was a good enough basketball player that he played for Jim Boeheim on the Syracuse varsity a couple years. When Donovan was about 25 feet from the basket, he turned around, raised up and shot a jumper and then turned back around and continued walking to his car. He turned around briefly to see the ball swish through the basket, raised his hands triumphantly, got into his car and drove away.
Dawk being Dawk: It was the day before the Eagles headed out to Ohio to play in the 2006 Hall of Fame Game. Brian Dawkins was already a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time all-pro, and I was curious if heading out to Canton for the first time had any special meaning for him. Dawk was signing autographs by one of the fences. For five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen, 20, 30 minutes. I waited and waited and waited for Dawk to ask him one question, but the later it got the more I realized he probably wouldn’t have time to talk to me. Finally, he started walking over, and there was literally nobody else left by the fieldhouse. No players, no coaches, no media. I figured if I could just get one quick quote from Dawk I could do a story. He saw me waiting for him and walked over and I asked him about the Hall of Fame. He stood there silently for a few seconds and then proceeded to speak – passionately, honestly, emotionally – about heading to Canton the next day and spending time at the Hall of Fame and how that’s the standard he sets for himself and how he doesn’t play the game for individual honors but that he was driven to one day be a Hall of Famer, and Dawk talked for, I don’t know, 20 minutes and I don’t think I even asked another question. Then he thanked me and walked off. I thought of that moment 12 years later as I watched his acceptance speech. The greatest in so many ways.
Cranking the Tunes with Chad: The writers sometimes carpooled down to the practice fields, and once I got stranded down there after all the writers had left. It was a few miles back to the media workroom, and Chad Lewis offered me a ride back, which was very nice of him. Chad is one of the best guys I’ve ever covered. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened when I got into his truck. He began blasting music. Who knew Chad was a headbanger! But it wasn’t exactly the stuff I listen to. It was … different. “Roob, this is the new Mormon Tabernacle Choir Live at Red Rocks! It’s incredible!” It’s important to always open up your mind to new genres of music, and we drove up the hill both bopping along to the Choir!
17 Years of Deja Brew: First year at Lehigh, first day at Lehigh, and Inquirer beat guy Phil Sheridan and I were walking down W. 4th Street in Bethlehem, the main drag on the South Side of town. It was 25 years ago, but I still remember Phil saying, “You’d think we’d be able to find a place around here where you could get a sandwich and a cup of coffee.” About six seconds later, we stumbled on Deja Brew, a funky little coffee shop and deli that serves the best coffee drinks and sandwiches in town. We popped in and didn’t leave for 17 years. Deja Brew, owned and operated by affable Penn State fanatic Jeff Vaclavik, eventually became the summertime home of most of the Philly media and a favorite spot of national media like Peter King, who wrote often in his MMQB piece about Deja Brew’s legendary peanut butter balls. There used to be five hours between practices so we’d all just hang out at Deja Brew and have lunch and work until it was time to go back to practice. With its comfy couches, funky artwork, framed movie posters and decent music, it was a perfect work-day hang and turned into the unofficial Eagles training camp workroom. The Eagles’ public relations staff often ate there as well and it got to the point where they used to announce roster moves by walking around the dining area and telling all the writers Jed Weaver had been released or whatever. Deja Brew was such a staple of training camp that when the Eagles left Lehigh in 2013, the team hired Vaclavik to bring a truckload of sandwiches down to the media workroom every day.
“The Gold Standard:” It was Aug. 7, 2003, and Jeff Lurie was asked about the transformation of the Eagles franchise, from a team that played and practiced at dilapidated Veterans Stadium and won two playoff games from 1981 through 2000 to one housed at a state-of-the-art facility, was about to move into a new stadium, owned the NFL’s best record over the last three years and had just reached back-to-back NFC Championship Games. Here’s what he said: “We have an outstanding team, outstanding coaches with outstanding facilities with a culture that I think is really ingrained in a good work ethic and great characters on the field and off the field. When I’m talking to other owners or other GMs, we’re kind of the gold standard, and the goal is to win championships and to it with class.” Lurie’s “gold standard” comment became an albatross that he was reminded of by fans and media after every big loss or other unfortunate event for nearly 20 years, until the Eagles finally did win a Super Bowl, 14 years after he declared the franchise the gold standard.
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