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Veterans Stadium memories remain strong 15 years later: Weinberg

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Thursday marked 15 years since Veterans Stadium was demolished.

On March 21, 2004, the Vet was flattened in just 62 seconds, sections of the 33-year-old arena imploding like a giant wave while the Phillie Phanatic, former Phillies outfielder Greg Luzinski and a loud crowd celebrated.

Realistically, it needed to imploded. Multi-purpose, Astro-turf covered stadiums like the Vet, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium and Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium had become outdated and antiquated, like drive-in movies, 8-track players and pay phones.

For those too young to remember, drive-ins were outdoor theaters where you actually parked your car in front of the screen and hung a speaker on the driver’s side window. Our go-to spot was the Wildwood Twin Drive-In on Route 47 in Rio Grande, which closed after 36 years in 1986, giving way to the Rio Grande Shopping Plaza.

Tearing down the Vet marked the end of a unique era in Philadelphia sports.

In 1998, Eagles officials responded to widespread fighting and other beer-induced antics from the fans in the infamous 700 level by creating a jail in the bowels of the Vet. Then-Municipal Court Judge Seamus McCaffrey meted out the sentences that consisted of fines and/or a few hours in the clink.

Serious offenders were initially sentenced to return to their seats to watch quarterback Bobby Hoying and company struggle to a 3-13 record that season, but it was regarded as cruel and unusual punishment.

For the better part of 30 years, from the early 1980s to the Eagles’ final game at the Vet — a 27-10 loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC championship game in January 2003 — Hammonton’s John Rodio, otherwise known as “Sign Man,” hung huge banners across section 360 at the 50-yard line.

Sadly, he never got a chance to hang his final sign, which read “We’re Feeling Super,” after the defeat to the Bucs.

The end of the Vet also meant ripping up artificial turf that had about as much cushioning as a sidewalk. I remember seeing Chicago Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis tear the patella tendons in both knees while planting his cleats to go up for a pass in 1993.

According to Tony Grossi’s book, “Tales from the Cleveland Browns Sideline,” Browns defensive tackle Jerry Sherk contracted a career-ending staph infection in his leg from the Vet turf in 1979.

But for longtime fans, the Vet also housed its share of special memories.

The late Tug McGraw struck out Kansas City’s Willie Wilson, then thrust his arms skyward while being mobbed by his teammates to celebrate the first World Series championship in Phillies history in 1980.

Many of the fans who watched McGraw, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose in action were in the stands a few months later as Wilbert Montgomery broke loose for a 42-yard touchdown during a 20-7 win over Dallas that sent the Eagles to their first Super Bowl.

My most vivid memory was in the early 2000s, long after the Vet’s charm and usefulness had disappeared.

After an Eagles practice, I climbed into the elevator for the ride to the dining room/press area with former Courier-Post writer Kevin Callahan and about a half-dozen others. Two hours later, the doors were pried open by the Philadelphia Fire Department and we became subjects of a story on channel 10.

Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field have drawn mixed reviews from fans. The first-class amenities make for a nice experience, and both the Phillies and Eagles have enjoyed success in their new digs.

But some actually miss the rowdy atmosphere inside the Vet. They long for the days when the 700 level wasn’t just a section of stands, it was a way of life.

I prefer the current locales to the Vet. Comparing it to the Bank and the Linc is like comparing drive-ins to IMAX theaters.

Best of all, their elevators work.

David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.

Contact: 609-272-7201 Twitter @PressACWeinberg


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