Philadelphians were pleasantly surprised a couple of weeks ago to find our city on the shortlist for Amazon’s fabled HQ2. Only a few days later, we were even more pleasantly surprised (to put it mildly) to find our NFL franchise on a significantly shorter list: potential Super Bowl LIII champion. And though the Amazon news may not have mobilized the Crisco Cops like the Eagles’ blow-out victory in the NFC Championship did, both events say a lot about this town’s collective psyche.
The Eagles, our be-winged municipal avatars of hope, heartburn, renewed hope, heartbreak, and season-ending injury, have long played out on the gridiron that tantalizing, infuriating proximity to greatness that Philadelphia writ large, stuck between the power poles of New York and Washington, D.C., has suffered for the better part of generations. Neither a nexus of high finance nor a hotbed of global politics, Philadelphia has endured interminable derision as a backwater of the I-95 corridor (except when condescendingly dubbed the “Sixth Borough” every time rents spike in Manhattan). And just as the Eagles, season upon season, find themselves within a battery’s throw of the brass ring, Philadelphia’s story has been a perennial tale of languishing just adjacent to success.
Does that endless state of affairs engender some bitterness? Is there a Hoagie Finder on the official Philadelphia tourism website? It’s a bitterness that has come to stereotype Philadelphians as ornery, rude, bullheaded and fatalistic. But more to the point, it’s a characterization that we, as a city, have largely come to accept and even embrace.
At its worst, this self-conception fosters the graceless, obnoxious behavior that a few (but still far too many) Broad Street boneheads made headlines with after the Eagles’ win over the Minnesota Vikings. But at its best, internalized underestimation by our supposed betters sublimates itself into something far more productive: grit.
Believing we have nothing to lose and everything to prove is a powerful combination. Whether out of stubbornness or spite, Philadelphia is, more than anything, a city that refuses to give up, that illustrates what Penn’s MacArthur Award winner Angela Duckworth describes as grit—the power of passion and perseverance. That kind of doggedness in the face of long odds is exactly what propelled the Eagles to their number-one ranking ahead of the 2017 playoffs. Of all the stats that make a football season, the one that sticks out above the rest this year was the team’s willingness to go for it on fourth down 26 times. Only the Green Bay Packers took more last chance shots, and no team beat the Birds’ 17 successful conversions.
The Philadelphia Eagles and their devoted fans are just a few days from either anarchic exultation or crushing despair. But win or lose, the Eagles, this city and our shared grit will persevere. That’s what grit does.
Going for it on fourth down takes a lot more in guts than it gives in glory. More often than not, the execution doesn’t produce a touchdown bomb or a breakaway run, but a meager yard or two, hard-earned through the combined efforts of a steely-eyed quarterback, a leg-churning running back and a stalwart offensive line. A fourth down conversion isn’t much to look at, but when it succeeds it breathes new life into a possession on the brink.
You need only make your way from the Linc to the heart of Center City to see a hurricane of new life being breathed into Philadelphia’s civic infrastructure. Cranes and barricades and hard-hatted workers clog busy downtown thoroughfares as new high-rises reach skyward and old edifices undergo grout to girder renovations to make way for new businesses. Across the Schuylkill River, Drexel University, Penn, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Comcast and others are forging new pathways in innovation across a multitude of disciplines, seeking world-changing breakthroughs in technology, medicine, education and the eradication of poverty.
And just like the 2017 Eagles, these institutions, each with their own character and comparative advantages, have come together in service of a cause greater than any single one of them. Through their collective insight, influence and patient collaboration, our civic vanguard is building a convincing case that we are equal to the opportunities and challenges that a behemoth like Amazon would visit upon Philadelphia. Likewise, our football team, in the face of skeptics, haters, injuries and all manner of reversals, is building just as convincing a case that they are equal to the challenge of the New England Patriots, who are, let’s face it, the Amazon of the National Football League.
By the time you read this, the Philadelphia Eagles and their devoted fans will be just a few days from either anarchic exultation or crushing despair. But win or lose, the Eagles, this city and our shared grit will persevere. That’s what grit does.
Ajay Raju, an attorney and philanthropist, is chairman of DilworthPaxson and a founder/board member of The Citizen.Photo: firefighters daughter via Flickr