Bird lovers

PHILADELPHIA – Tommy Zachwieja, 77 years old and nursing a glass of vodka, is wearing a Philadelphia Eagles sweater from the 1970s and the satisfied look of someone who is dreaming about the Super Bowl for a team he's been a fan of since, well … hey Tommy, when exactly did you become an Eagles fan?

"Since about 1941, I guess," said Zachwieja, a retired roofer on Sunday evening. "I've seen the Eagles on TV play up at Shibe Park when they beat the Chicago Cardinals. Been a fan since then."

He paused.

"How many people even heard of the Chicago Cardinals?"

No one answers. No one is even listening here at Krupa's, a small, smoky, corner-shot-and-a beer joint that is unique only because there are hundreds of other places just like it in the blue-collar neighborhoods that, collectively, make Philadelphia so decidedly, terrifically unique.

You hear about the long-suffering, working-class fans of the city, and this – the tightly packed, snow-covered corner of 27th and Brown – might as well be the epicenter. Krupa's has been family operated since before prohibition and is as much the neighborhood's living room as a bar. But what neighborhood?

Long-standing residents, including most of them here on this night, say it's Fairmount. Others (or newcomers attracted to its easy access to Center City) say it's Art Museum.

"I say if you bought your house for under $15,000, then it is Fairmount," said Joe Ferry, who's been tending bar here for 23 years. "If you bought your house for over $100,000, then it is Art Museum."

Regardless, no one is listening to Tommy Zachwieja because everyone is talking at once about the Eagles and the beautiful thing they did to the Atlanta Falcons. Images of the menacing New England Patriots finishing off the Pittsburgh Steelers flicker on the bar's lone television, but no one is concerned right now.

This was too long coming for anything less than a double shot of 200-proof joy.

Hell, Bill Eisenhower, a roofer and 15-year Eagles season-ticket holder, was talking about the emotion of watching the NFC championship trophy presentation in person. This is a big, burly guy, with calloused hands who couldn't help but tear up.

"Yeah, we cried," Eisenhower said. "My friend Ed, his father was there. He's been going since Franklin Field. It's beautiful. That's what it's all about."

No offense to Patriot fans – good, loyal and once victory-starved folks themselves – but if there was ever a city's fan base that needed a championship, it is Philadelphia. Not since 1983 (the 76ers) has a major pro franchise in this town won a title.

Not only is that a long drought but there also has been some crushing defeats, such as the Eagles' three consecutive NFC title game losses. Or Mitch Williams gopher-balling the Phillies right out of the 1993 World Series. Or the Flyers losing their last five Stanley Cup finals appearances.

Or the Sixers getting to the 2001 NBA finals only to watch their coach, Larry Brown, bail out three years later to win the title in Detroit. Or Temple and St. Joseph's, featuring Philly-guy coaches and players, reaching a combined six NCAA Elite Eights since 1988 but never a Final Four.

And don't forget, this is the hometown of Smarty Jones.

Even Rocky lost at the end of the original movie.

The memories are so haunting that on Sunday morning when Ferry hung up an advance copy of a promotional edition of the Philadelphia Daily News with a headline declaring the Eagles had beaten the Falcons, the patrons cringed.

"They were all yelling, 'Don't do it, don't show it," Ferry said.

All of which sparked a debate about the most heartbreaking defeat. "The Tampa Bay loss was a killer," said Eisenhower of the NFC title game loss two seasons ago that is blamed on overconfidence.

"Nah," said Greg Roth, a granite installer. "Last year's championship game (against Carolina), our receivers got totally bullied."

The beauty of Philly fans is that they are as loyal as a golden retriever but still as mean as a pit bull. They love all of their teams, but when the players stink or go soft or choke, well, hell hath no wrath.

Donovan McNabb, anyone?

"I booed McNabb," Ferry admits. "I was one of the guys."

Ferry was quickly busted on since McNabb played a near flawless game Sunday.

"You're just racist," said one guy. "You don't like Irish quarterbacks."

Everyone laughed.

"Hey, he used to be bad," said Ferry, standing his ground. "McNabb was bad in the playoffs."

Like most bars, Eagles games are near religious events at Krupa's. Ferry brings food – hot sandwiches – and the prime seats near the television are taken early. If "Fly Eagles Fly" isn't sung a half dozen times, then something's wrong. It is standing room only by the first quarter and the basic motto here is, "Win or lose, stick around and booze."

But it is better when they win.

The connection between the team and the city is as strong as any in sports. Almost everyone here brought up the much publicized bond between the Red Sox and the residents of New England.

You just can't crave a championship more than these fans.

The Eagles players may be rich and famous and from far away locales. They might never darken a door in Fairmount, but to this crowd, to this city, white or black, old or young, city or suburb, they seem like neighbors.

"The Eagles are the best thing about the city of Philadelphia," Eisenhower said. Better than the Declaration of Independence?

"Not even close."

Just imagine if the Eagles win it all.