Return to Sawgrass: Memories of Eagles' SB week

Return to Sawgrass: Memories of Eagles' SB week
August 24, 2013, 2:30 pm
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Former Eagles head coach Andy Reid addresses the media a week before Super Bowl XXXIX, which was held in Jacksonville, Fla. in 2005. (AP)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The memories came flooding back the moment I walked through the door.

And they had nothing to do with golf.

It’s the Marriott Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., about 45 minutes east of Jacksonville, and this trip is just for an Eagles preseason game against the Jaguars, but the last time I was here was one of the biggest weeks in Eagles history.

Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship and the world-famous 17th hole -- Island Green -- was the Eagles’ home for eight days in late January and early February 2005.

And it was home also for about a dozen Philly beat writers, who spent virtually every minute of Super Bowl week with the Eagles.

I don’t golf, and, honestly, one of the only reasons I decided to stay at Sawgrass -- aside from the cheap rate -- was to see the place again, nearly nine years after the Eagles’ only Super Bowl appearance in the last 30 years.

I was convinced the Eagles were going to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. I thought they could throw all day on the Pats’ dilapidated secondary. I was convinced.

Alas. It wasn’t meant to be, and nearly a decade later the Eagles are still searching for their first NFL title in more than half a century.

But for those eight days at Sawgrass, I got an unforgettable glimpse inside a team about to embark on one of the most historic games in its history.

There are no players left on the roster from that year. Jamaal Jackson, who was here through 2011, was the last guy from the Super Bowl team with the Eagles, but he was on IR in 2004. David Akers and Quintin Mikell were the last guys who played in the game who were with the Eagles, both through 2010.

Only a handful of football people who were on the Eagles' sideline are still associated with the team -- Ted Williams is still coaching, Tra Thomas is back with the team as a coach, trainer Chris Peduzzi was Rick Burkholder’s assistant back then.

The whole franchise has turned over, but it seems like yesterday, and the memories walking the grounds of Sawgrass are clear as ever.

That said, here are 10 random memories of Super Bowl week at Sawgrass:

1) Arriving at Sawgrass for the first time was like walking into a little slice of South Philly. The generally stately golf resort was was jammed by jubilant Eagles fans who had jammed a coned-off area of the lobby and stood there taking pictures and holding up signs and doing E-A-G-L-E-S chants as the players walked through. That was the first time it really hit me that the Eagles were in the Super Bowl. Eagles fans have always traveled well, but that week was incredible. It was like Philly just transported itself to Jacksonville.

2) Walking through the Sawgrass lobby on Friday afternoon, I passed the giant ballrooms where we did all the player interviews Wednesday and Thursday of Super Bowl week. Always affable Chad Lewis – out for the Super Bowl because of a foot injury he suffered while catching the clinching touchdown in the NFC Championship game -- spent his time riding around that lobby on one of those medical scooters that keeps your foot immobilized. I remember peeking out into the lobby once and Chad was off in the corner by himself doing wheelies with a big smile on his face.

3) I was working for a suburban newspaper back in 2004, and we were filling our pages with as many Super Bowl stories as we could squeeze in. So I was writing till midnight or later every night. By the time I was done, I was too wound up to sleep, so I always wandered down to the hotel lobby, where I invariably found Corey Simon sitting on a couch doing nothing. “Can’t sleep, Roob. Can’t sleep.” Corey was pretty guarded in interviews, didn’t say a lot. But that week, I hung out in the lobby two or three times till 2 a.m. with Corey and Eagles director of community relations Julie Hirshey, just talking about life, politics, movies -- everything but football. Really developed a new appreciation for Corey Simon the person that week.

4) Andy Reid didn’t let the writers interview his position coaches, but Super Bowl media rules say assistant coaches must be available for interviews, so I decided to write about Juan Castillo, who hadn’t been interviewed since before Reid replaced Ray Rhodes. Juan and I sat at a round table in “Players Ballroom B,” and he spoke for 45 minutes about the extreme poverty he experienced as a kid in Port Sanibel, Texas. “I wanted to give my family all the things I never had,” he told me that day. “It's nice to go out to dinner and not worry about how much the bill is. To not have to eat at McDonald's breakfast, lunch and dinner because that's all I could afford. To be able to go into the store when you see a pair of shoes you like and go buy those shoes. It may not seem like a big deal to a lot of people, but it's a big deal to me. I never got that pair of shoes when I was a kid. My mom was a great lady, and she did the best she could, but that's why I'm always buying my boys tennis shoes. They don't even want them and I buy them because I never had them.” Eight years later, Castillo got his Super Bowl ring with the Ravens, and I couldn’t help think of that conversation down at Sawgrass nearly a decade ago.

5) I was amazed how relaxed Donovan McNabb was all week. Very loose. One day, in a sit-down with the beat guys in one of the smaller conference rooms, Andy Reid revealed a bombshell. Turns out, in 1997, while he was still with the Packers, then-Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni contacted him and told him he wanted to learn some concepts of a pro-style passing offense because of a young quarterback he had. Reid invited Pasqualoni out to Green Bay, where he spent a week teaching him some of the principles of the system Brett Favre was running with the Packers. So Reid was essentially telling us that the offense McNabb ran at Syracuse was essentially Reid’s offense and that McNabb was on his radar before he had even thrown a pass for the Orange. I thought this would make a terrific story, but McNabb had already done his interview for the day. So I simply called Donovan in his hotel room, and he was happy to chat about it. “That's kind of our little secret. We were running a lot of different things, but coach (Pasqualoni) came back from Green Bay with a lot of new ideas as far as the passing game went, and he put in a lot of the elements of the West Coast Offense, and that was my first exposure to a lot of those things.”

6) Early one morning I was in the gym chugging along on a treadmill when Reid poked his head through the door and asked how I was doing. I asked if he needed to get on the treadmill, and he paused and then said, “Nah, I don’t want to show you up.”

7) Late in the week, I ran into Jim Johnson near the lobby, and I made the mistake of trying to make small talk. “This is an amazing place, isn’t it?” I said. Jim stared at me and made it clear he hadn’t spent a moment of his week enjoying the amenities of the Sawgrass Resort: “I’ve got Tom Brady on Sunday.”

8) Lito Sheppard, a Jacksonville native, had a blast Super Bowl week. He always had a smile on his face and seemed to be relishing every moment, every meeting, every practice, every interview. I remember running into him in the lobby and commenting on it. “Man, it’s the Super Bowl, it’s what every football player dreams of. You think about how many guys never get this opportunity. I’m going to enjoy every minute of it, because you never know if you’ll get back here.”

9) It was several hours after the game ended, the post-game party was over, and once again, there was Corey Simon in the lobby. Only this time, he was exhausted, beat up and locked out of his room. “I just need a room key,” he sighed to the front-desk clerk, who insisted that she couldn’t give him a key unless he had ID -- which was locked in his room. I scrambled through my computer bag for the official Super Bowl program, showed the clerk Simon’s picture and told her, “He just played in the Super Bowl, just give him a key.” And she did.

10) The next morning, Reid met the media one last time in the “Championship B” conference room at Sawgrass. For a guy who generally did a great job hiding his emotions, Reid looked shattered. ”You can't have those turnovers,” he said. “We eliminate those turnovers, then we become the best team in football. The reason I think we can get back is that we have a great young nucleus of young players. We have the top quarterback in the NFL and we're strong on the offensive and defensive lines. We were in it. We had a shot there. But we'll get over it, learn from it and come back.”