Should the Eagles bring back a beloved tradition?

PHILADELPHIA, PA – JULY 30: Philadelphia Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell (14) during Philadelphia Eagles training camp on July 30, 2021 at Novacare Complex in Philadelphia, PA (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire)

The Philadelphia Eagles will gear up for the 2022 season throughout the remainder of the summer during training camp at the Nova Care Complex. The state-of-the-art facilities provide a practical location for professional athletes to train and an NFL organization to operate.

However, training camp played out much differently before the move to the Nova Care Complex in 2013. After stints at multiple suburban locations like Widener University and West Chester University, the Eagles moved their training camp to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA in 1996. The intimate vibe of a remote location like the Lehigh Valley is now lost for Eagles fans in 2022.

Eagles Make the Trek to Lehigh

Ray Rhodes spent his final three training camps as Eagles head coach at Lehigh, and Andy Reid spent each of his 14 camps there. The Eagles discontinued their stint during the tenure of Chip Kelly, and they have stayed in their own team facilities in South Philadelphia ever since.

Daily practices were open to the public for 17 seasons at Lehigh, and the 60-mile drive from the city of Philadelphia became somewhat of a late summer tradition for Eagles fans desperate for their fix of football during the slowest portion of the professional sports calendar.

Regular season (and even preseason) games at Veterans Stadium and Lincoln Financial Field didn’t provide the best environment for children, but the excitement of an upcoming Eagles season could light up the eyes of youngsters who worshipped their heroes in midnight green. 

“A trip to watch the Birds work out at Lehigh University started like any trip to the beach. Mom and I would get up at some hellish hour and pack the car with all of the essentials before heading on our way. (Pro tip: You can never have too many Goldfish). The trip up the Northeast Extension felt like an eternity in my younger years, but it was always, always worth it.”

-Joe Trinacria of Philly Magazine

The popularity of the daily events economically benefitted the university and the surrounding area in the Lehigh Valley. The presence of an NFL organization gave the university’s football program an edge in recruiting. Significant logistical challenges did, however, arise at the university throughout the month of August each year. The concerns played a part in the eventual departure of the Eagles.  

Doug Pederson spoke in 2016 about his training camp experience as an assistant coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, who hold their camp at Missouri Western State University. 

“I did enjoy going away for the three weeks I was there. It was like summer camp. We were staying in the dorms,” he said.

The concept of a getaway before the season starts in September invokes an old-style football feel that reminds fans of Remember the Titans or Friday Night Lights. The Eagles presented their future Super Bowl winning head coach with the option to move training camp when he was first hired, but he elected to utilize the superior facilities at the Nova Care Complex.

T.O. Mania and the Mess at Lehigh in 2004

The hysteria surrounding Eagles fandom reached its height in 2004 when Terrell Owens became the most celebrated offseason acquisition in Philadelphia sports history. The team also added feared defensive end Jevon Kearse to boost a roster that had reached the NFC Championship Game three consecutive times.

Expectations for the Eagles as a juggernaut dominated the talk around the NFL. A tortured fan base desperate for Super Bowl glory reached unforeseen levels of passion during preseason practices as record crowds flocked to Lehigh University. 

While the exposure seemed great at the time, the organization made a mistake by scheduling availability for both Owens and Kearse to sign autographs as part of the annual Kid’s Day festivities on Friday, August 6, 2004.

According to Ray Didinger, the crowd of roughly 25,000 fans was considered by a credible consensus to be the largest attendance at an off-site training camp in NFL history

Traffic jams surrounded the university early in the morning and spiraled out of control as the day went on. The university simply wasn’t built to withstand the crowd. Some fans who were frustrated with the mess parked wherever they could find space. The WIP Midday Show scheduled a live broadcast from practice, but they never even made it to their site.

While the rush of fans unfortunately overwhelmed Bethlehem and the surrounding area of the Lehigh Valley, it very appropriately represented the most highly anticipated season in franchise history.

Eagles Training Camp in 2022

Fans have lost some of the excitement of a local tradition regardless of the rationale behind the changes in modern times. Practices at the Nova Care Complex are not open to the public, and practices at Lincoln Financial Field in front of the fans have even dwindled from five in 2013 to two in 2022.

The anticipation of another Eagles season has everyone in Philadelphia talking. A.J. Brown and Haason Reddick highlight a group of notable offseason additions to a team that hopes to outperform a 9-8 record from a year ago. Although the available consumption of preseason practice is certainly different than it was 10 years ago, the Eagles won’t suffer from a lack of excitement leading up to the season opener on Sept. 11.  

Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire