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Philadelphia Sports Weekend – Part 1: The Nostalgic Quest for Gritty and the Perfect Cheesesteak

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Philadelphia skyline from the Camden, NJ side of the Delaware River.

Parenting can bring unanticipated advantages as I distinctily realized during a recent trip to Philadelphia. Despite being about four decades older than my two sons (10 and 13), I am often the most immature of the trio of Smoller boys. As a result, one of the best advantages about being a dad to boys is that it provides a perfect excuse to perpetuate my own childhood passions.

For example, which it may be dodgy for a single guy in his 30s to hound a sports mascot for a selfie, it is somehow endearing to do the same act with kids in tow. That said, I may have pushed my obsession a bit too far in my relentless pursuit of the Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot, Gritty, during our trip to the City of Brotherly Love. While I may have been slightly abashed by my overzealous effort, the boys’ sports weekend to a city where I used to live provided a perfect bridge from my past to my kids’ future.

As I approached middle age, stalking mascots for a photo was starting to seem a bit sketchy without kids in tow.

Left: Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals) mascot Youppi.

Middle: Yokohama BayStars old mascot Hosshey and its random mascot friend.

Right: The Brat of the Famous Racing Sausages of the Milwaukee Brewers.

I attended grad school (ok…I’ll admit it…law school) at the University of Pennsylvania in West Philly in the mid-’90s. During those days, I had no financial means besides the HUGE credit card(s) debt that I was amassing. Despite being economically challenged, I could still partake in the Philadelphia sports scene via nosebleed seats at the Pro stadiums and student tickets on campus. Luckily, Penn had a NCAA tournament-caliber basketball team and their football team dominated the Ivy League. While I may have been racking up six-figure school loan balances, at least Penn student season tickets were cheap. As an added bonus, the Phillies played in the cavernous Veterans Stadium and sold $4 upper deck tickets.

The University of Pennsylvania’s campus is movie-set beautiful and features artwork celebrating its founder Ben Franklin.

At one point, Ivy League athletics were top tier and had magnificent stadiums to house crowds of their throngs of rabid fans. The University of Pennsylvania was no exception and the Penn still has two gems. Franklin Field opened in 1895 and is the oldest continually used football stadium in the U.S. In addition to Quaker football, the intimate stadium regularly crammed over sixty thousand fans into its bleachers when it was the Philadelphia Eagles’ home from 1958-1970.

It was at Franklin Field where “Iggles” fans ignominiously booed and threw West Philly snowballs at Santa in 1968. Penn students have a bit more benign throwing tradition dating back to the ’70s. After the 3rd quarter ends, the cheeky kids sing the song “Drink a Highball“. When belting out the lyric “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn,” they throw toast onto the field. Naturally, there’s a “toast Zamboni” to clean up the sideline crumbs.

Top L to R: Penn students tearing down the goalposts after winning the 1993 Ivy League; the “Toast Zamboni” sweeps up tossed toast. Bottom: Panoramic view of Franklin Field.

In addition to football, Franklin Field also is home to one of the most-important annual track and field events. The Penn Relays date back to the opening of the stadium in 1895 and the event is the nation’s largest amateur track meet. Each year, almost 100,000 fans come to watch many future Olympians compete in venerable Franklin Field.

Since 1895, Franklin Field has hosted tens of thousands of track and field fans at Franklin Field.

In addition to having a classic football stadium, next door to Franklin Field is the equally magical home of Penn’s basketball teams – the Palestra. Built in 1927, the oldest major college basketball arena still in use can squeeze in 8,700 Philly hoops fans. Not only does the Palestra function as Penn’s home, but it is also the historic venue for the round robin Philly hoops tourney known as the Big 5. During most years since 1955, the basketball teams of LaSalle, Penn, St. Joe’s, Temple and Villanova (Sorry Drexel) have played in double and tripleheaders at the Palestra for basketball bragging rights for the City of Brotherly Love.

The Palestra on Penn’s campus also is the historic home of the Big 5 tournament games for Philly’s other major college hoops teams.

Clockwise from Top Left: LaSalle’s Tom Gola Arena in Northwest Philadelphia near Germantown; Temple University’s Liacouras Center in North Philly; St. Joseph’s Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse before it was reconstructed and redubbed Michael J. Hagan Arena in West Philly; and Villanova’s William B. Finneran Pavilion in the suburban Main Line town of the same name. Not pictured – Drexel.

My one big sports splurge during my Philly days was for a single ticket to the 1996 Major League Baseball All Star Game. On a whim, I decided to take the Broad Street subway to Veterans Stadium during a study break for the bar exam and scored a $75 ticket for the last row of the upper deck in the outfield. While it may have been far from the action, it was a thrill being at the Vet for the game’s pageantry and the Home Run Derby the day before. Given that it was the height of the chemically enhanced slugger, homers by such puffy stars as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire nearly reached my seat in the deep upper deck during the Derby.

Starting Top Left: The National Anthem before the 1996 All Star Game at Veterans Stadium; My $50 ticket stub that I scored for only $75; Sand sculpture replicas of Shibe Park and the Vet at Liberty Place in Center City in honor of the game; the view from my distant seat during the All Star Game (I barely sat there and roamed around the Stadium); the lineup for the Home Run Derby the day before the main event.

Like Philadelphia the city, I have changed a lot since I first visited in 1989 and when I started law school there in 1993. Since departing, I moved to NYC and then Boston, got married, had two kids and practiced law for over 25 years and started a blog about sports related travel. While my waste line and bank account may have “matured” since I left Philadelphia, I still remain that curious kid toting my camera to games and searching for big fuzzy mascots. Luckily, my old town now has the most mesmerizing of the those fuzzy mascots.

Philadelphia from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art during my first ever trip to Philly in 1989 and during my 2021 sports weekend.

When the Flyers first introduced Gritty to the sports world in 2018, I immediately became obsessed with the odd looking orange menace that came in like a “wrecking ball” . Unlike most mascots which are intended to look cute and cuddly, Gritty was designed to embrace Philadelphia’s gruff personality. Despite his demonic googly eyes, devilish spirit, and lack of grace, Gritty quickly captured the hearts and minds of sports fans across the spectrum and became an internet sensation. When we arrived in Philadelphia, we were tickled to see Gritty’s aesthetically suspect visage leering out of storefront windows throughout Center City.

Gritty’s menacing mug was visible throughout Philadelphia. The store Philadelphia Independents in Old City has amazing Gritty trinkets.

Despite the trend towards locating sporting venues in urban cores, Philadelphia’s sports owners and civic leaders opted for a stadium “campus” in the South Philadelphia Sports Complex on the edge of the City. Starting with the construction of Philadelphia Municipal Stadium (later named John F. Kennedy Stadium) in 1926, Philly’s pro teams have constructed, demolished and constructed again a series of stadiums near the major highways, airport and terminus of the Broad Street SEPTA orange subway line. My boys and I took the train well before faceoff in the hopes of finding our new orange best friend as he warmed up. We got in a full lap around the arena concourse, but Gritty was nowhere to be found.

Top L to R: Outside and Inside the Wells Fargo Center; A great hat trick display on the concourse; Gritty’s “tagging” at the arena; Arriving at PHL with a perfect Eagles-eye (cute, no?) view of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex.

While we were unsuccessful in finding the so-called “down on his luck” orange cousin of the former Montreal Expos’ and current Montreal Canadien’s mascot Youppi, we found more Gritty merch than we ever dreamed possible. It took us quite a while to exit through the Gritty giftshop as we carefully evaluated which fuzzy orange souvenirs we could not live without. After spending waaaay too much time in the shop, our wallets and allowance accounts were much lighter and our suitcases would be much fuller.

We returned to Boston with our wallets a lot lighter and our suitcases a lot fuller after we visited the Flyer’s giftshop.

During the pregame festivities, Gritty made his grand entrance and did not disappoint. With aggressive glee, he taunted the Toronto Maple Leafs and a smattering of their visiting fans. His insults were punctuated with a multimedia show that ended with him smashing the Leaf’s logo with his Flyer’s flagpole. Gritty’s demeanor may have detracted from the solemnity of Veteran’s Day remembrances, but fans were delighted nonetheless.

After his initial appearance, Gritty largely disappeared from our view. Instead, we focused on the Flyer’s anemic performance on the Wells Fargo Center ice.

After Gritty’s initial appearance on the ice, he was rather scarce throughout the first and second periods. Every now and then he would pop up whack-a-mole-style to tease a bald man or taunt a child after scoring on him during a timeout goal shootout. Yet despite my catlike readiness with multiple cameras in hand, we could not get a whiff of the likely malodorous Gritty. While Flyers fans became increasingly disgruntled with the Broad Street (not-so) Bullies performance, I was increasingly concerned our Gritty pilgrimage would be fruitless.

The game dragged on and the most compelling part was when the arena crew had to reinstall glass while seven obviously impatient Flyers glared at them. With my eyes repeatedly drifting from the ice to the Wells Fargo Center stands in search of Gritty, I finally spotted him with about six minutes left in the 2nd period. I barked out to my sons that it was go time and we sprinted from our second level corner seats to the first level seats behind the Leaf’s bench half an arena away. We anxiously waited for a stoppage of play while blocking off Gritty’s exit routes. When the whistle blew, we pounced. The whole interaction took only a few seconds and was a blur, but the deed was done. We met our antihero.

In the 2nd period we finally got our money shot of Gritty. Before that good fortune, the main excitement was watching the arena crew fix the fallen glass and partaking in Flyer’s labeled “Canadian champagne”.

As I returned to our seats with my t-shirt dripping with sweat from our Vai Sikahema-sprint, I was content. Sure, I may have knocked over some innocent Philadelphians along the way (at least I hope that I didn’t), but the mission was accomplished. I reminded myself that this moment may not have covered me in glory, it will certainly be a memorable one for my sons. If nothing else, they can tell their kids and grandkids (or perhaps a therapist or two or three) that their dad was uniquely nutso during their childhood.

With the Gritty meeting out of the way, we were far more content than most of the hostile Flyer’s faithful. After the game, we gleefully rode the subway to our hotel and wrapped ourselves in our fuzzy orange souvenirs.

After meeting Gritty, I moved on to introducing my boys to another Philly classic – the cheesesteak. Like deep dish pizza is to Chicago and the po’ boy is to New Orleans, you have to go to the source to have a truly magical cheesesteak. Some people say it is the bread that is key, which is typically an Amoroso’s bakery roll. Others swear by the cooking technique of blending all of the ingredients on the griddle.

Whatever one’s reason, Philadelphians all have strong opinions about the best cheesesteak. Personally, I steer clear of the three most famous spots – Pat’s and Geno’s (neighbors in South Philly) and Jim’s on South Street. If you go the wrong time of the day, the meat at these touristy shops can be piled up on the grill and dried out. If you do opt for the Pat’s/Geno’s corner, split one from each shop with a companion so you can taste the subtle differences.

Top L to R: Pat’s and Geno’s are dueling cheesesteak neighbors in South Philly. The Wells Fargo has a serviceable cheesesteak at best. Jim’s on South Street is another famous spot catering to tourists more than locals.

Instead of going to the big name options, there are hundreds of smaller shops that make a “steak” to order. While a cheesesteak at a Sixers’ game might be serviceable, my nostalgic spot is Abner’s near Penn’s West Philly campus. I took my boys there and was teary eyed as they eagerly watched the “chef” melt the provolone over the shredded ribeye. If you want to pretend to be health conscious, you can downshift to a chicken cheesesteak.

Taking my sons to my old cheesesteak shop Abner’s in West Philly was a semi-religious experience.

With cheesy meat in our bellies, we returned to the Wells Fargo Center for a Sixers game against the Toronto Raptors (it was a sporting Canadian invasion that weekend). Compared to the night before, the experience was a bit less exhilarating. Instead of a beautifully flawed orange googly eyed mascot, the 76ers had some meh blue dog named Franklin (for Ben) vying for fans’ attention. I personally found Sixers’ coach Doc Rivers sideline antics more entertaining than Franklin. At least the game featured an epic t-shirt canon to delight my family. With such weaponry on display, it is no wonder the Colonists from William Penn’s territory defeated the British Red Coats.

The Sixers game paled in comparison to the excitement of the Flyer’s contest the night before. While Franklin the Dog tried to rev up the crowd, it was Sixers coach Doc Rivers who really was the most compelling sideline entertainment.

Across the street from the Wells Fargo Center is Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles and Temple University Owls football team. The Linc is one of the better football stadiums constructed in the recent construction boom. It has great sightlines and a compact feel. The Linc is a HUGE upgrade over the Vet experience. I had been twice for soccer games, including on opening night in 2003 for a FC Barcelona vs Manchester United exhibition game. For our sports weekend, I treated my boys to a very easy get of Temple Owls tickets, which enabled us to snag club seats for below face value. Long before the Owls landed in South Philly, they used to play at Temple Stadium (opened 1928, demolished 1997) near their North Philly campus.

Top L to R: Lincoln Financial Field during its debut for a FC Barcelona vs Manchester United friendly in 2003; a 2016 US Soccer Copa America match against Paraguay; US Soccer fans line up to enter the Linq in 2016; the Temple Owl mascot leads the team onto the field; Philly skyline viewed from the Linq; the now-demolished Temple Stadium in North Philly.

Like the Eagles, the Philadelphia Phillies massively improved their home when they moved out of the Vet and into Citizen’s Bank Park in 2004. While their ballpark is not particularly distinctive from the other retro ballparks built during the stadium construction boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, it does have a great skyline view and is home to Gritty’s distant relative the Phillie Phanatic.

Scenes of the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park during its first year, which was built across the street from Veterans Stadium. Traditions are evident everywhere at the park including, the Phanatic, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt’s statute greeting fans or the real live Greg “the Bull” Luzinski signing autographs at Bulls BBQ in Centerfield.

Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union is the only area major pro sports team that does not call South Philly its home. Instead, the Union and their “Sons of Ben” supporters group rowdily chant in Chester, PA along the banks of the Delaware River. The Commodore Barry Bridge to New Jersey lurks over the pitch and provides a spectacular backdrop. Suburu Park is one of the finest in the MLS and well worth the detour out of Center City.

The Philadelphia Union play their home games at Suburu Park in Chester, PA along the Delaware River.

Although not a stadium, one of the great Philadelphia sports traditions takes place each year on the Schuylkill River. The Dad Vail Regatta started in 1953 and, per their website, “is the largest collegiate regatta in North America, with over 100 colleges and Universities from the U.S. and Canada participating.” Throughout the year, local rowers train on the river and base their operations out of Boat House Row near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Boat House Row and nearby rowers training on the Schuylkill River.

Gone, but not Forgetten

The City of Brotherly Love boasts top quality stadia for each of its major pro sports teams, most located near the end of the SEPTA Broad Street subway orange line on the southern edge of the City. There was a very different set of stadiums occupying the South Philadelphia Sports Complex in the early ’90s before the stadium construction boom.

The first venue to meet the wrecking ball in South Philly was the ancient John F. Kennedy Stadium (originally named Philadelphia Municipal Stadium), which is best known as the long-time home of the annual Army-Navy college football clash and the American site for the epic two-continent 1985 Live Aid hunger benefit concert (old Wembley Stadium in London held the other half of the charity benefit). The Wells Fargo Center now occupies the spot where Lionel Richie, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Harry Belafonte, Kenny Loggins and many more artists belted out “We Are the World” in front of 89,484 Live Aid concert goers on that historic night.

Left: A plane’s eye view of Philadelphia showing Center City and the South Philadlephia Sports Complex. Right: JFK Stadium in 1989, which is best known as the site of the 1984 Live Aid concert and the Army-Navy football game for over four decades.

The ostensible replacement for JFK Stadium was Veteran’s Stadium, a concrete behemoth that was the disco-era crown jewel of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex. The Vet opened in 1971 and was the largest of the so-called cookie cutter donut stadiums built in that era, holding over 65,000 rabid Eagles fans and a staggering 62,000 for Phillies games. During its controversial four plus decade life, it was known for its ligament destroying AstroTurf, the 1980 Phillies World Series championship, and a jail and in-stadium courtroom to process an overflow of rowdy Eagles fans. The Vet was imploded in March 2004 and is now a parking lot.