Fifty-seven years and three days.
That is the time elapsed between the bookends for dramas connecting the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings.
On Jan. 18, 1961, the expansion franchise in the Twin Cities named its first coach and he was Norm Van Brocklin, retiring at age 34 as the league’s MVP quarterback for the NFL champion Eagles.
On Jan. 21, 2018, the underdog Eagles hosted the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and gave the visitors a 38-7 thumping. With that went the idea that the Vikings would host the 52nd Super Bowl in their splashy new stadium, known locally as the Taj Ma Zygi.
There have been a number of memorable clashes in between, and none more famous than an end-of-season meeting at Franklin Field on Dec. 16, 1968. The Vikings advanced to the playoffs for the first time with a 24-17 victory. The Eagles finished at 2-12 in Joe Kuharich’s fifth season.
“The ‘Joe Must Go’ crusade was in full fury,” Ray Didinger said. “Getting rid of Kuharich as coach was a campaign that consumed the entire region.
“They were selling those little buttons you stick on a lapel that read ‘Joe Must Go’ outside the stadium. My dad, Raymond, and mom, Marie, were going to the game, as they did every home Sunday, and Marie started reaching in her coin purse.
“Dad said, ‘Marie, are you going to buy one of those?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ Dad said, ‘You’re not going to wear it on your coat?’ She said, ‘Yes, I am.’ ”
Marie would go only so far with her unhappiness that afternoon. She did not join others in throwing snowballs at Santa Claus.
That is the example always used to stereotype the rage of not just Eagles fans but Philly sports fans in general: “They threw snowballs at Santa Claus!”
Nobody points out that owner Jerry Wolman was too cheap to have the stands shoveled out at Franklin Field after a snowfall — or that Wolman had taunted the Eagles fans by giving Kuharich an unheard of 15-year contract extension after the 1966 season, when the customers already were unhappy.
“They got Joe fired after that season,” Didinger said. “And my mom proudly stuck her Joe Must Go button on the visor of her car for months.”
Didinger was the only child for Raymond and Marie. How into the Eagles was the family?
“My dad would take his two-week vacation and we would spend it at Eagles training camp in Hershey,” Didinger said. “Every summer.”
Ray Didinger would stand outside the locker room door and started carrying Tommy McDonald’s helmet to the practice field, to the point McDonald started calling him “little brother.”
Ray was with his parents in their usual bench seats in Section E at Franklin Field on Dec. 26, 1960, when Green Bay and the Eagles met for the NFL Championship. His hero McDonald caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Van Brocklin in the first half.
The Packers took a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter, then the Eagles’ Ted Dean returned a kickoff 58 yards and followed that with his 5-yard touchdown run. The Eagles went ahead 17-13, and the game ended with Chuck Bednarik sitting on Green Bay’s Jimmy Taylor at the 10-yard line as the clock ran out.
That was the only playoff loss in 10 games for Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi. And it remains the Eagles’ last championship, as they try for the third time to win the Lombardi Trophy in this Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Didinger covered the Eagles for the Philadelphia Bulletin and then the Daily News from 1970 to 1996, before moving to NFL Films. He was the presenter when McDonald was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
“There have been long, long stretches of utter futility since 1960,” Didinger said. “What’s different here in Philly is the way the fans remain emotionally involved with the Eagles. They always show up, whether it’s to cheer or to boo. I’m a big defender of that kind of loyalty.”
Hall of Fame player Mike McCormack was the coach from 1973 to 1975 (16-25-1) during the long, futile stretch after the ’60 championship. His son Michael was playing basketball locally for Archbishop John Carroll High School.
“I was booed when introduced as a starter … both for away games and home games,” Michael said. “I was on the student council. There was an assembly for the entire school. Might have been 3,000 kids in there, and there wasn’t one who failed to join in the booing.
“I said into the mike, ‘Thank you, Eagles fans.’ ”
McCormack has written a book on a life surrounded by football called “Born Fanatic” that will be released in April. His father didn’t win with the Eagles, but he also took away Bednarik’s privilege to show up at training camp and act like an assistant coach.
“Big mistake,” Didinger said. “Chuck Bednarik: World War II airplane gunner, All-American at Penn, the last real 60-minute player, center, linebacker and long snapper, and nicknamed ‘Concrete Charlie’ because he sold concrete in the offseason … there was never an Eagle more Philly than Chuck Bednarik.”
Dick Vermeil followed McCormack in 1976. He called up Bednarik, invited him to dinner, told him over three bottles of wine he was “Mr. Eagle” and brought Bednarik back into the fold.
Vermeil took the Eagles to the Super Bowl in the 1980 season. Andy Reid did the same in 2004. Now, Doug Pederson gets the third shot at the Eagles’ first championship since the expansion Vikings hired away their MVP quarterback in 1961.
“Van Brocklin came to the Eagles in a trade with the Rams in 1958, with a promise to be the coach when Buck Shaw retired,” Didinger said. “Shaw retired after the ’60 championship. The guys running the Eagles didn’t want to turn everything over to a volatile guy like Van Brocklin and said, ‘OK, you can be the player-coach.’
“Legend has it, the Dutchman said, ‘That went out with Johnny Blood,’ called up Minnesota and took the Vikings job.”