Today, in what oddly should have been a really joyous day for Philadelphia after a terrible Eagles loss, has turned into an overcast one. Ryan Howard, the Phillies young phenom, was named just the third player in the Phillies' nearly century-long history to be the league MVP. That news was overshadowed, however, by the loss of Andre Waters, one of the Eagles' alumni, who apparently shot himself.
Waters was never really more than a solid player over the course of the career with the Eagles, yet he reached fan favorite status for his reputation. There's good reason for it.
Around the time he broke into the Eagles lineup, Buddy Ryan had just taken the reigns as head coach. For those of you who aren't sports fans, stick with me here, because there's a larger socio-geographic-psychological point.
Buddy Ryan came to the Eagles, fresh off winning a Super Bowl with the Bears, as their defensive coordinator. As the head of their defense, Buddy installed the "46" scheme, which was based on three principles: Attack, attack, and attack. It would give up the big play, but relied on the theory that it would make even more defensive plays by crushing the opposing quarterback and making their receivers fear hard, often nearly illegal, hits.
Buddy was embraced fairly quickly by the town. Even though his first couple of seasons weren't very successful, his style fit exactly what the town wanted to see at that time.
Philly, in the mid-to-late 80s, hadn't won a championship for a few years, and each of the teams were entering pretty dark days. The Phillies were constantly beat-up on. The Flyers, who had been a venerable team, slowly became a joke by decade's end. The Sixers got worse by the minute by way of insanely lopsided trades, not in their favor. The Eagles had been equally as bad, losing game after game under Marion Campbell. So, the sports scene was the laughing stock, and the fans' blood was boiling.
At the same time, the city itself was a joke, around the country. The economy was bad and the city was bleeding manufacturing and other blue collar jobs. The neighborhoods were run down, and crack houses were popping up all over. Our Mayor, Wilson Goode, actually dropped a bomb on the city. Not metaphorically. He literally had a bomb dropped on the compound of MOVE, an African American cult that had been squatting in a building on Osage Avenue . If that wasn't bad enough, the bomb set off a huge fire, and pretty much the whole block burned down, killing a load of people. The Mayor, clueless, said he didn't think dropping a friggin' bomb would do that. Nonetheless, Philly gained infamy through a rap song that you might have heard of, "The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire! We don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn."
So, Philly was taking a beating. Bad.
In comes Buddy Ryan, with a game plan that was simple - exact punishment on the other side, at any cost. We loved it, because for us Philadelphians, it wasn't just about beating up another football team, it was about allowing the football field to become our battleground against all the other cities who were giving us shit.
One game, against our most hated rival, Dallas, Buddy offered up a bounty of $500 to any player who could knock Dallas Kicker Luis Zendejas out of the game (Buddy kind of denies this, but I don't know anyone who believes him). See, Zendejas had been kicking for the Eagles, was cut, and then started talking smack about the team. He might as well have been trashing the whole city, as far as we were concerned. Buddy, with his bounty, was our avenger.
Within his wrecking crew of some of the most vicious defenders ever to play the game, one name always came to the top as the nastiest - Andre Waters. Dubbed, "Dirty Waters" by Monday Night Football analyst Dan Dierdorf, Waters always seemed to be in on all the hardest hits. Buddy liked to call them "oolicks" because they were the hits that made the crowd go, "Oooooh..."
Looking back, I don't know if any of his hits were "dirty." Maybe they were. All I know is that at the time, I hated Dierdorf for giving Waters that name. To me, and to the legions of fans, there was nothing dirty about laying the wood down on a player for a team of a city that made fun of you. See, Andre Waters, by being the nastiest player on the nastiest defense was "our" player on the field, by way of his hits against other cities. So, Dierdorf was calling US dirty!
Amazingly, you never heard about Andre Waters off the field. He never got into trouble. He never cried about wanting more money, like so many of today's athletes. Hell, he never even talked. I can't even remember what his voice sounded like. Again, it was the personification of Philly's emotional state at the time. We didn't want to get into shouting matches with other towns, we just wanted to punch their lights out and walk away.
Now, Andre Waters has, tragically, taken his life. As far as the news says, there was no suicide note, there were no frantic cries for help. Like he always did, he let his actions speak for him. I wish he would have opened his mouth before doing this. Because as true as it is that Philly was an angry place when he played there (and sometimes still is), another truism is that we always take care of our beloved own, and Andre would have been treated no different. Now he's gone. Rest in Peace, Andre. You didn't just play for our team, you played for us. For that, we'll always love you.