Sportswriter, radio personality, TV analyst, playwright, sports commentator and in this case author Ray Didinger has seen and talked to just about everyone who’s anyone in the world of sports and has been covering the Philadelphia sports scene through one form of media or another since 1970. In his new memoir, Finished Business: My Fifty Years of Headlines, Heroes and Heartaches the five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year, six-time Emmy award winner (as a writer and producer for NFL Films) and best-selling author captures the incredible highlights of his five decades of living and breathing sports reporting. He’s interviewed the likes of Hank Aaron, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali, Julius Erving, Jack Nicklaus, and Mike Schmidt, and has written film scripts for Hollywood stars such as Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin. As this excerpt from his new book demonstrates, Ray also treads the line between being an Eagles fan who bleeds Eagles green and covering them as a professional journalist, reveling in their highs, suffering in their lows and bearing everything in between. – G.B.
On the Thursday before the Super Bowl, I made my weekly appearance on the WIP morning show with Angelo Cataldi. I had my usual stack of statistics and almost all of them favored the New England Patriots.
I went over them point by point, spelling out all the reasons why the Patriots were the better team. By the time I finished, Angelo was face down on the desk.
Then I said, “But I think the Eagles are going to win.”
Angelo jumped out of his chair, grabbed his head and let out a howl that probably startled the carriage horses in Independence Mall.
“After all that,” he said, “you’re picking the Eagles?”
“I just have a feeling about this team,” I said.
It was vague and unscientific and probably not very convincing to anyone outside the Philadelphia area, but that’s how I felt. I believed in the Eagles. I picked them to beat Atlanta. I picked them to beat Minnesota and even though they were underdogs again I was confident they would beat the Patriots.
I don’t always buy into the team-of-destiny thing but I believed it with the Eagles. I believed it because I could tell THEY believed it.
In the conference championship round, the AFC game was played first. The Patriots hosted Jacksonville. The Jaguars went ahead in the first half and extended their lead to 20-10 in the fourth quarter.
We were watching the game in the NBC Sports Philadelphia studio. The producers and cameramen were cheering for Jacksonville; they felt the Jags would be an easier opponent in the Super Bowl.
I was rooting the other way. I wanted the Patriots.
To me, it would have been a letdown to get to the Super Bowl and face the Jaguars. If you are the Eagles, a team that never won a Super Bowl, do you really want the first win to come against the Jacksonville Jaguars? Where is the glory in that?
You would finally have the chance to tell that big mouth Cowboys fan at the office that your team won the Super Bowl and his reply would be, “Big deal, you beat the Jaguars.”
I also didn’t like the fact that Jacksonville brought back painful memories of Super Bowl XXXIX. The Eagles lost to the Patriots in that stadium. If the Eagles were on their way to the Super Bowl — and I felt certain they were — I didn’t want any trace of Jacksonville.
Also, I was certain the Eagles would be favored over the Jaguars and that would mess up the underdog karma. The Eagles had become so comfortable in that role — and coach Doug Pederson had become so good at playing it — that it would have flipped the script at the worst possible time. Better to be the underdog, especially against the Patriots.
Besides, who goes to the Super Bowl hoping for a soft touch? It is supposed to be about beating the best, right? Well, the Patriots were the best. The proved it again by storming back to beat the Jaguars, 24-20, on two Tom Brady touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles took care of the Vikings so the matchup was set for Super Bowl LII in Minnesota.
The NFL set up shop at the Mall of America, a 96 acre complex of stores, restaurants and amusement parks all under one roof. The Eagles were in an adjoining hotel which meant their coaches and players spent the week in the mall, mingling with fans and buying souvenirs.
You couldn’t walk ten steps without bumping into a player, usually with his entire family. They were incredibly loose and having a really good time which I thought was a good sign. I mentioned it to my broadcast partner Seth Joyner, who played in two Super Bowls with Green Bay and Denver
“These guys can’t wait to play this game,” Seth said. “They aren’t nervous, not even a little bit.”
On Saturday, I called home. My wife said, “I have to tell you something. You’re not going to believe it.”
She said there was an eagle flying over our house. It circled long enough that she had time to get the binoculars for a better view. Yes, she said, it was definitely an eagle, majestic and unmistakable, right above our house. At one point, it actually landed on our garage.
In the 32 years we had lived there we had seen every kind of bird but never an eagle. So why now? Why on Super Bowl eve?
“I know it sounds crazy,” Maria said, “but I think it is the spirit of your mother and father.”
“I do, too,” I said.
Just for the record: We never saw the eagle again. That was the one and only time. Scoff all you want: I think it meant something.