How the Philadelphia Eagles nearly became the Phoenix Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles travel to Phoenix and their fans thank heaven.

39 years ago the Eagles went to Phoenix and their fans cursed their fate.

In a dark moment in Philadelphia sports history that has been forgotten by many, there was a brief period at the end of the 1984 season when the beloved Eagles almost relocated to Arizona, the site of Super Bowl LVII.

It followed the Raiders’ move from Oakland to Los Angeles and the Colts’ move from Baltimore to Indianapolis, so the concept of an established franchise uprooting was entirely plausible.

“The idea of ​​the Eagles stepping up and moving turned the city on its head,” recalled legendary Philadelphia sports columnist Ray Didinger, who learned in the middle of the night the news that cash-strapped owner Leonard Tose had agreed to to sell almost half his team to get out of debt. The caveat was that he had to move the team to Phoenix.

“The story came out in Phoenix,” Didinger said. “I was fast asleep at 1am and my phone rang. I picked up the phone and it was the nighttime sports editor and he said, ‘Have you heard anything about the Eagles moving to Phoenix?’ And it was like, ‘Did I just dream that? What are you talking about?’ ”

The Arizona story said the deal was final. With two weeks left in the regular season, the Eagles ran together with Marion Campbell as coach, and they would be packed and gone by the end of the year.

The basics of the story were that Tose would sell 25% of the team to James Monahan, a Canadian real estate developer, for $40 million with a promise to move the club to Arizona. That would allow Tose to get out of debt while maintaining control of the Eagles.

Tose’s daughter, Susan Fletcher, was negotiating the deal and only the final details remained to be worked out. The official announcement was to be made on December 17, 1984, the day after Philadelphia’s last game in Atlanta.

Of course, Didinger argued, the story could be a hoax or just bad information. He asked his editor who wrote it. It was longtime Arizona Republic sports columnist Bob Hurt.

Eagles coach Marion Campbell speaks to safety Brenard Wilson in 1984.

Eagles coach Marion Campbell speaks to safety Brenard Wilson in 1984. The Eagles’ record this season was 6-9-1, almost the last in Philadelphia.

(Art Wilkinson/Associated Press)

“I immediately said: ‘Well, then it’s real,'” said Didinger. “Bob Hurt was one of those guys who had been in Phoenix forever. He was the sports columnist, but much more than that. He knew all the athletes in town, he knew all the politicians in town. He knew everyone and everyone talked to him.”

Thus began a two-week nightmare for Philadelphia, in which the city did everything it could to hold on to a football team that is synonymous with the city. The Eagles were formed in 1933 when a syndicate led by Bert Bell and Lud Wray bought the former Frankford Yellow Jackets for $2,500.

“It’s a great sports city, and the Phillies, Sixers and Flyers certainly have a lot of fans, but the Eagles are the #1 attraction in the city,” said Hall of Fame radio announcer Merrill Reese, who has voiced the Eagles “Philadelphia since 1977 is first and foremost a town of Eagles.”

Tose was an eccentric and colorful team owner, and while prone to financial problems, he was well respected in many ways.

Merrill Reese, play-by-play radio announcer for the Philadelphia Eagles, at the team's championship parade in 2018.

Philadelphia Eagles play-by-play radio announcer Merrill Reese said Leonard Tose was eccentric and “larger than life” as the Eagles’ owner.

(Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

“He was larger than life,” Reese said. “He was extremely generous and loved the team, was so proud of his team and dressed in new clothes every day. He would fly back to the complex from the training camp in a helicopter. He once had a yellow Rolls Royce.

“He was the kind of guy who would find a story in the newspaper about a poor soul somewhere in trouble or a child with medical needs and anonymously donate a large amount of money to that family. He was a bit like in the TV series “The Millionaire”. ”

But there was a downside. In 1999, four years before his death, Tose said at a congressional hearing on gambling addiction that he had lost between $40 million and $50 million gambling. After his Philadelphia home was confiscated for unpaid taxes, he spent his final years alone in a downtown hotel room.

Norman Braman speaks from his office in Miami.

Norman Braman bought the Philadelphia Eagles from Leonard Tose in 1985, a year after the franchise nearly relocated to Phoenix.

(Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

Norman Braman bought the Eagles in 1985 and owned them until 1994 when current owner Jeffrey Lurie took over.

Monahan, who died in 2020, was quite the character as well and had a wide range of real estate holdings. When word broke of Monahan’s intentions to buy a piece of the Eagles, Philadelphia reporter Maria Gallagher tracked him down at Circus World, an amusement park he owned in Florida.

Monahan agreed to the interview … but only if Gallagher rode the roller coaster at the park first.

“I’m not a big fan of roller coasters,” said Gallagher, who is married to Didinger. “He made me sit in the front car with him. The photographer actually took a picture of us and I look like I’m about to die. But true to his word, I rode roller coasters with him and he gave me an interview.”

There was no joy in Philadelphia at the prospect of the Eagles leaving. For two weeks, it was the biggest story in the NFL.

“There was the disbelief phase, then the panic phase, then the anger phase,” Didinger said. “Philadelphia went through all three phases like on the first day. It was, ‘I don’t believe it. I can not believe it. Oh my god, I’m going to hit someone.’ That’s how it developed.”

The Philadelphia Eagles' potential move to Phoenix made headline news for the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 12, 1984.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ potential move to Phoenix made headline news for the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 12, 1984.

(The Philadelphia Investigator)

When the Eagles played that otherwise meaningless finale in Atlanta, hundreds if not thousands of Philadelphia fans turned out. The Eagles won that game to finish the season 6-9-1.

“They really believed that this was going to be the last game of the Philadelphia Eagles,” Didinger said. “They had marks and stuff just bursting into tears to think that it could be that.”

Philadelphia and the NFL set up as many roadblocks as possible, eventually persuading Tose to abandon his plan. It came at a price. The city that owned the stadium had to make financial concessions, including building luxurious boxes on the edge of the stadium.

It’s still unknown if Tose was bluffing about the Phoenix move to get a better deal with Philadelphia and the NFL. Regardless, the fear was very real.

As for Hurt’s role, his Eagles-to-Phoenix storyline caused early alarm, upset some people in Arizona, and eventually became a heroic figure for Eagles fans in Philadelphia.

“Bob Hurt saved the Philadelphia Eagles,” Didinger said.

A Philadelphia writer suggested that the city erect a statue of Hurt in front of Veterans Stadium. Hurt, who died in 2009, joked he preferred to be near the “Rocky” statue at the city art museum.

“Bob Hurt seemed to know everyone, and for some reason, maybe it was his Oklahoma drawl and his friendliness, they liked him and told him everything,” said Kent Somers, longtime sportswriter for the Arizona Republic.

“He would love the irony that 39 years after his column stopped the Eagles from moving to Arizona, the Eagles are in town and playing the Super Bowl. And that people write about him.”

Some people in Philadelphia will never forget the time when Eagles fans were ready to dunk their Tose in the water.

At his ankles. How the Philadelphia Eagles nearly became the Phoenix Eagles

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