The media is salivating at the prospect of former Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver Terrell Owens’ return to Philly (ESPN has dubbed it “T.O. Week”). It will be Owens’s first game at Lincoln Financial Field since the Eagles kicked him off the team last November for a series of infractions, including repeated criticism of quarterback Donovan McNabb and the organization. Now Owens wears blue and silver, the colors of the Eagles’ sworn enemy, the Dallas Cowboys.
No one is looking forward to this Sunday’s matchup as much as Eagles’ fans and Owens himself. Philadelphia is planning to welcome T.O. with opprobrium and projectiles. The local sports radio station is holding contests for the most creatively vicious chants.
Mr. Owens, an archetypal egomaniac with the personal motto “I love me some me,” has a vivid concept not only of his unique talent but of his singular place in the history of the game. He raps: “When it comes to this game I’m the best in the field/ Some said I was gonna sign just a one year deal/ But I got what I wanted up front, 10 mil/ Changed the rules of the game so now how you feel?” (Watch it here.) He is relishing the return. It’s a “homecoming,” he said.
Owens may be unique in many ways, but he also fits into the illustrious tradition of athletes returning to the arena of their former teams in the uniforms of their rivals. In 1989, Mo Johnston, a Scottish-born striker who had played for Celtic, signed with Glasgow’s Rangers. Rangers and Celtic share a particularly intense and famous rivalry, which is rooted in religious sectarianism. Rangers have traditionally been identified with Scotland’s Protestant Unionist community, and Celtic with the Catholics. When Johnston, a Catholic, became one of the first of his kind ever to join Rangers after a promise to return to his old club, Celtic supporters burned his effigy. You can still find poetic hatred on fan sites: “Mo, you’re a disgrace… I hope your 30 pieces of silver burn a hole in your arse.”
Baseball fans surely recall the return earlier this year of a shorn, pinstriped Johnny Damon to Fenway Park. The Red Sox’ former center fielder had once stated, “I could never play for the Yankees.” The Red Sox Nation consider him a Judas and dedicated this website as a clearinghouse of sorts to exchange ideas on just how to welcome him home.
But perhaps the most notorious recent example was Portuguese midfielder Luis Figo, who rescinded his contract with F.C. Barcelona in 2000 to join Real Madrid. The rivalry between Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona reflects political, ethic, linguistic and cultural tensions felt between the Castellanos and Catalans. In fact, Barca’s stadium, Camp Nou, was one of the only places in Spain where the Catalan language could be spoken during the Franco regime without fear of arrest. During Figo’s four years at Camp Nou he became a fan favorite and captain; they would sing “mucho Figo, mucho Figo” in his honor. When he returned for the first “Superclásico,” as the games between the two squad’s are called in Spain, the scene was bedlam. They pelted him with mobile phones, bricks, bottles, a bicycle chain and A PIG’S HEAD. The cabeza was secured and now lies on exhibit in the Kultort Museum in Essen as a symbol of soccer fanaticism.
While the Eagles/Cowboys rivalry might lack the socio-political elements that drive those across the pond, hating the Cowboys is central to the lore of the Eagles faithful. Bad blood began with the Cowboys’ historical domination of the Philly squad, but was further engendered though the years. There was the Bounty Bowl, a particularly nasty game between the teams on Thanksgiving day, 1989, that included fisticuffs, an ejection, and the concussion of Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas after a brutal hit by Eagles’ linebacker Jesse Small. After the game Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson asserted that Eagles Coach Buddy Ryan had put cash bounties on the heads of Zendejas and quarterback Troy Aikman.
Bounty Bowl II, December 10, 1989, saw the Eagles fans – including future Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell – beaning the Cowboys players and coaches with snowballs. Johnson was hastily escorted off the field and spared injury thanks to his famous hair-helmet. This was followed by the “Porkchop Bowl” during which Dallas fans threw sundry pork parts towards the Eagles’ bench having heard that Ryan had recently choked on one. Eagles fans are also alleged to have cheered when Michael Irvin, the then bane of their being, went down with a career-ending injury.
Add to this volatile mix the fallout from Owens’ bloodless suicide bomber impression in the Eagles’ locker room last season and the Philly fans’ general penchant for misbehavior. I expect the crowd at the Linc on Sunday to raise (or lower) the regular circus-like atmosphere to that of a burlesque show. Lines of appropriateness will be appropriately crossed. Look for effigies of Owens, flying pill bottles and women dressed as nurses. There is talk in Philly of fans trotting out a bastardized version of the “TO-TO-TO” chant that was meant to honor the wide receiver when he wore green. This time they will sing, “OD-OD-OD.” The TO chant was actually a deviation of the “Olé” version frequently sung at soccer games in Spain. I wonder if they will toss a pig’s head too.