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Sunday's Word: Phobophilia

On June 4th, 2010. my wife and I were nerve-wrackingly watching the Flyers play the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup.  Uncle Tony, who was born and raised in Philly, was text messaging us back and forth furiously from his home south of the Mason/Dixon line.

Up 4-1, I thought the Flyers were in terrific shape.   They had manhandled the Blackhawks all game, and had a three goal lead.  At home in the Wachovia center.  "They're definitely going to win now," I told my wife, who had followed the Broad Street Bullies in their Stanley Cups of the 1970s, thinking - foolishly - that it would make her smile.

Instead, she looked at me as if I had told her I had gone bankrupt. "DON'T SAY THAT!," she said, as if my uttering those words would create an epic meltdown.

She and Uncle Tony had a field day with that, as the Blackhawks got two quick goals late in the game to make the game 4-3.  "Can they do anything easy?" Uncle Tony messaged.  "He doesn't understand," she texted back, even though the Flyers would hold on and win the game 5-3, and keep the Orange and Black in the Cup.

She was right.  I didn't understand - until this weekend.  Watching Lehigh cruise to a big lead this weekend, almost give it up, and then hold on to win made me realize that I didn't understand a key element of Philadelphia teams and Eastern Pennsylvania fan angst: "phobophilia".  (more)

"Phobophilia" means a love of things that make you fearful.  For most people, that means, for example, you might be a big fan of the Jason film series, or perhaps you like Fangoria magazine.

It also happens to be a 1995 TV special from the duo of Penn & Teller,  featuring "terror/magic hijinks".  Their brand of humor certainly fits "Phobophilia" very well, involving death-defying magic, snarky humor, and frequently some T&A.

This takes on a different meaning, however, for Philadelphia area fans.  It's not really a love of fearful things per se - it's more of a fatalistic view of their favorite teams.  They expect epic meltdowns, awful penalties, fly balls lost in the sun, to deny them what they (seem) to really, truly want: wins.  Championships.  Success.

Philly fans seem to really be in agony when the Flyers blow a two goal lead.  But if they have "Phobophilia", it could mean that they secretly really love the drama of the potential meltdown.

If nothing else, it certainly would explain a lot about Flyer fans like my wife and Uncle Tony in the last thirty years.


Normally, the plight of Philly's pro sports teams doesn't carry over to the collegiate ranks.  But a game that was played at Lincoln Financial Field this Friday seemed to have all the "phobophilia" of any typical pro team in the city of Brotherly Love.

At the Linc this Friday was the second annual "Mayor's Cup", pitting FBS Temple - a team that was once in the Big East for football - versus Villanova, a team who is heavily rumored to be considering once again to jump to Big East football membership.

This had all the makings of a great game: Villanova being last year's national champions, of course, but Temple last year went from sad sack team in the MAC to an 8-3 record and playing in a bowl game.  Temple was good, but Villanova was good, too.  I don't think anyone who knew anything thought that the Wildcats were going to be a pushover.

And it was a thrilling game, too.  Villanova largely controlled the tempo of the game, breaking a 7-7 tie with a 9 yard run up the middle by senior RB Aaron Ball and keeping just ahead of a frustrated Owl team most of the game, holding them to long field goals from PK Brendan McManus rather than touchdowns.  But two missed field goals by Villanova kept Temple in dangerous position all game.

But the real "phobophila" - on both the Temple and Villanova sides - really started to come to the forefront after Owl QB Chester Stewart found WR Michael Campbell off a deep play-action pass to give Temple a slender 22-21 lead.

A two-point conversion would have really put some serious pressure on Villanova to respond with a touchdown rather than tie and put the game to overtime.  Stewart had a man open, and had the ball in his hands - and dropped it.

Thus began an incredible 4 minute stretch in Philadelphia sports history, where two teams - channelling QB Donovan McNabb, Jeremy Roenick, Mitch Williams, whomever you prefer - proceeded to do their best to not win the game.

A Villanova 3-and-out ended in a punt, where all Temple had to do fair catch the ball, get a couple of first downs and go home with the Mayor's Cup.  Instead, Stewart fumbles on his own 20 - and Villanova senior DB John Dempsey recovers.  Characteristically for a football team in the Linc, Temple head coach Al Golden does his best Andy Reid impression and challenges the ruling on the field.  Of course, the play stands, burning a valuable time out - leaving them with one with 2:17 to play.

Not one to outdo the Owls, Villanova - remember, who has a decent kicker in sophomore PK Nick Yako who already beat Temple last year on a last-second field goal after a late turnover - inexplicably called two pass plays.  Both plays, which were passes from senior QB Chris Whitney that fell incomplete, meant rather than draining time off the clock to get the clock to, say, under a minute to play, Yako's 41 yard FG came with a 1:57 left to go - "an eternity," according to fatalistic Villanova fans.  To make matters worse, Villanova burned their OWN timeout... to avoid a delay of game penalty, which possibly would have put them out of Yako's field goal range.

Temple, of course, would take advantage of the gift of time, scoring a 43 yard McManus FG with three seconds to play to give the Owls a 25-24 lead.  This being Philly, however, even that wasn't easy: a snap that seemed higher than Ed Pinckney was brought down, somehow by holder Vaughn Charlton for the FG.  (Soft Pretzel Logic goes over this very well in his live blog on the game.)  And Temple's two-minute drill was aided by a Villanova injury that helped save valuable time as well, according to Dave Coulson's recap of the game on College Sporting News.

To cap off the "phobophilia", a late effort at the famous Cal/Stanford lateral play to end the game ended up instead being a greased pig that ended up in the hands of LB Justin Gildea and run back for a final Owl touchdown to end the evening.

Could a game have summed up "phobophila", and the Philly fan experience, better than this one?  I don't think so.


Lehigh, of course, encountered their own "phobophilia" out in Des Moines.  Jumping out to a 21-0 lead, penalties and a turnover on special teams would nearly have Drake pull even with the Mountain Hawks, but when senior RB Jay Campbell punched in his third TD on the evening, Lehigh managed to hold off Drake 28-14.

It was more like Game 4 of the Stanley Cup than Villanova in the "Mayor's Cup."  Villanova, for all their stellar play in keeping an 8-3 FBS team at bay, never were really that far ahead of the Owls so that it felt like they were in complete command.

Lehigh had a commanding lead at halftime, and was playing lights-out on defense and executing with solid, turnover-free play on offense.  Despite some sloppy play here and there, Lehigh was so dominating that it seemed like they were cruising to a win.  You began to wonder if Drake would get another chance to score at all.

But Drake never gave up, Lehigh did their best to shoot themselves in the foot, and then - all of a sudden - the Mountain Hawks looked like it was all going to go away.  It didn't, of course.  But the fall had that same feel that Flyers fans had in Game 4.  "Here we go again.  Can't hold onto a lead."  You could almost feel the Lehigh fans shaking their collective heads, wondering if this Lehigh team knew what it takes to win the football game.

It would be a mistake to think that there was nothing positive - it was a win, of course, and Lehigh's offensive line, led by senior OL Will Rackley, gave up 0 sacks to a fantastic defensive line.  But Lehigh's mistakes opened the way back for the Bulldogs, and the Mountain Hawks were fortunate to step up and make plays to win the game.  Against Villanova, mistakes like that could be the difference between contention and blowout.


And through a quirk of the schedule, these two teams - Lehigh and Villanova - will face off next weekend in the home opener at Murray Goodman stadium.

Based on last year's performance, Villanova undoubtedly will be the prohibitive favorites, as they should be.  They will almost certainly still be the No. 1 team in the nation after taking a bowl team with plenty of expectations to the wire.

But the two teams facing off next Saturday will have something in common.  Something that needs to be corrected: perhaps it's something endemic to teams in the Philadelphia area, something that's simply a part of the early college football season, or maybe something else entirely .  What I finally realized this weekend is exactly what that is.  It's "Phobophila".


Anonymous said…
I know exactly what you mean about the fatalistic attitude of Philly-region fans. Nobody can understand our extreme frustration with so many local teams continually coming ever-so-close only to blow it when push came to shove. I have to admit it now - I turned off the Lehigh game when the Hawks fumbled the kickoff after Drake narrowed the game to 21-14. I too have seen far too many games where the locals dominated most of the contest only to fall apart at crunch time. You can thank this Cassandra for giving up and letting Lehigh salvage a victory.
ngineer said…
In years past, the Bulldogs would have rode the momentum of the horrendous turnover on the kickoff to tie the game and springboard to snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat. Instead, the defense stiffened and Brown made the play of the game with his sack of the QB on fourth down. Then, putting their foot down on the Bulldogs' neck with a heck of a drive to seal the victory. That is what this group needed. Yes, plenty of mistakes, but the kind that can and should be cleaned up. The team showed a lot of talent out there in Des Moines. Now they need to channel it. Dream the dream.
Anonymous said…
Dissapointed to see "Sundays Word" not more congratulatory in nature...after all they did beat Drake and by a spread of 14 more points than the prediction. Yes plenty of mistakes were made...but plenty good happened as well. We need to rally behind the coaches and the players and celebrate their victories...that's what it's about! Congratulations Mountainhawks!

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