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In 1984, These Two Men Told The Eagles Owner: “Go Birds”

Several photos of Eagles fans overlaid with a note to the Eagles owner, and under that is a screenshot of a newspaper
Re-creation of note by Oni Spumoni; photos courtesy Rob Vandetty

It was December of 1984. Barry Martin had just left the Spectrum, and he was despondent. His companions were, too. They had just watched the Sixers beat the Celtics by three, but that didn’t make them feel any better. Martin and friends were still attempting to deal with the awful truth: The Philadelphia Eagles were moving to Phoenix.

The team's owner at the time was Leonard Tose, a Philadelphia native who made a fortune in the family’s trucking business. People generally liked him; when he bought the team fully in 1969, he fired unpopular coach Joe Kuharich, which is generally a good way to win over fans. The Eagles turned around under Tose’s ownership. It was a big deal for the Eagles to just be winners at all; their 9-7 record in 1978 was the franchise's first winning season since 1966. The team went to its first Super Bowl under Tose’s ownership two seasons later; the 20-7 victory over the Cowboys in the NFC title game is the stuff of Philadelphia sports legend. It is still their only playoff victory over the Cowboys against three blowout losses.

But Tose had also racked up $42 million in debt, stemming from millions in gambling losses at Atlantic City casinos. The news originally broke in Arizona: Tose was selling a portion of the team to pay off those debts, and the Eagles were going to move to Phoenix.

This was shortly after the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis, a franchise relocation that happened basically overnight. Martin told me that he was friendly with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon, who told him that the move was basically done already. “I’d say the move is done,” an aide to Phoenix’s mayor told reporters. The agreement was verbal, but people were already calling them the Phoenix Eagles.

Everyone believed it was a done deal. The New York Times’ Russell Baker was very upset about the new name in a very Times-ian way: “Since the phoenix is also a bird (at least in legend), Phoenix Eagles would be a comic physical monstrosity, like pachyderm mice or whale dolphins. Worse, by retaining ‘Eagles,’ Phoenix would be filching some of the glamor that antique Philadelphia has bestowed on the Eagles over the years. Morally, if Phoenix wanted to keep the name ‘Eagles,’ it ought to call the team the Phoenix Philadelphiaeagles.” I do agree with that last sentence, at least.

“What about loyalty?” Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stan Hochman wrote. “What about allegiance? What about pride? Don’t ask. Leonard Tose probably blew it at a blackjack table.”

Everyone outside of Arizona was pretty angry and upset about the whole thing. But nobody, in my opinion, was more upset than Barry Martin. It’d been eating at him since he heard the news. “I couldn’t get it off my mind,” he tells Defector. “I couldn’t sleep. I was going nuts. I was very, very distraught.”

Outside the Spectrum that night, Martin was thinking about what he could possibly do. He had been to hundreds of Eagles games. He had season tickets. He could not imagine losing the Eagles. He decided that he’d really like to tell Tose what the team meant to fans in the Philadelphia region. But he didn’t know how he could possibly do it. He wondered aloud.

His brother-in-law, Robert Vandetty, was there that night as well. he had a silly idea. “Well,” he said. “I know where he lives.”

It was late, but they decided to do what needed doing. They would go to Tose’s house in Villanova, about a half hour away from the Spectrum. It was 11 p.m. by the time Martin and Vandetty got there. That did not deter them. Lights were on. “I figured he was just sitting down to watch Action News,” Vandetty tells Defector.

So they went up to the door and knocked. No answer. They knocked again. A third time, they heard some noise inside. They knew someone was home. So they went back to the car and talked it over. They decided to leave a note. Fortunately, there was a golf pencil in the car from a recent outing. They ripped a page out of the ‘notes’ part of the car's owner’s manual. And they wrote a little note for Tose. Martin went up and stuck it between the screen and storm doors.

“I’m about five, six steps from the car and cops came from both directions,” Martin says. “I watched Kojak all the time. And that’s what it reminded me of, a Kojak scene, cops just coming from everywhere.”

Tose had called police, saying “two big, brawny men” were on his front lawn. Recounting it now, Martin and Vandetty absolutely thought they were going to be arrested. Radnor Township Police told The Philadelphia Inquirer they’d already been patrolling the area since getting a complaint from Tose’s chauffeur, John Fitch, who said the Eagles owner had received threatening phone calls.

Martin said the cops treated him and Vandetty well enough: “A lot of them understood because they were hurting, too.” The cops separated the pair and interviewed them. It really was like an episode of Kojak! Their stories matched up. Martin and Vandetty recalled that the police officers said the two could be charged with a crime, and they basically accepted it.

“I said, ‘Hey, we know what we were doing,’” Martin says. “Whatever happens, happens. But this is the true story: We’re just here as fans. And I just wanted to sit down and honestly talk to the man and plead with him and ask him: ‘Why?’ Because I don't understand why he would do that—especially being a loyal Philadelphian all the years that he ran his truck company.”

The cops were going to go in and talk to Tose; maybe he wouldn’t want them charged. But Martin still wanted to see if he could get Tose’s ear. He wanted the cops to give Tose the note, and asked. He recalled what he said to the cop to Defector: “Charges can be made, and I’ll accept anything that comes my way. But please, please make sure Mr. Tose reads that note. I really want him to read the note. It's short and sweet. But it came from the heart. And we represent thousands and thousands of other people in this area. They feel exactly the same way we do. As long as he reads that note, everything we did was worthwhile.”

Tose had just wanted the guys out front of his house to leave, and Martin’s gambit paid off. The cops showed Tose the note. It read:


We were here to see you at 11 p.m. 12/12/84. We just wanted to talk about moving “OUR” team!!

Don’t do it—you know you couldn’t possibly sleep at night.

Go birds—Philadelphia Birds.


Barry Martin
Rob Vandetty
Broomall PA
22-year season ticket holder

Martin and Vandetty would not be charged. Martin tried to push his luck a little bit, and had one more request for the cops: “Is there any chance we can get the note back?” They were told to call Moe Hennessy, the chief police in Radnor, to get the note back. He held it for them, and Martin later met him to get the note. He has it framed, along with the Philadelphia Inquirer story a few days after their trip to Tose’s house.

I came across Martin and Vandetty’s story because of something that happened during the Eagles’ run to the Super Bowl. Basically every place in Philadelphia was selling Eagles stuff in early February. Much of the official merchandise was pretty weak, though. The official NFC Champions shirts were generic-looking crap, a template to be filled in and basically identical to the Kansas City shirts. Better gear was almost entirely unavailable. Super Bowl jerseys, even at the game, were only sold in a generic gray color. Fanatics controls all NFL apparel; it even produces Nike-branded gear. Many of the products sold on its website wouldn’t arrive until after the game.

But the demand was bottomless, and so fans turned to other avenues. I bought a Dallas Sucks shirt sold outside the stadium in 1998 from a dude selling vintage gear in the front window of a sneaker store. Lapstone & Hammer’s owner had seen the man selling his gear on Girard Ave. and offered him the spot. Prices skyrocketed on everything from old Randall Cunningham shirts to sharktooth Eagles hats.

Fans also bought up more unofficial merchandise. Bootleg Eagles merch was sold in bars, bakeries and even barbershops, many of which printed up their own Eagles shirts. Hustlers did their thing in gas station parking lots and anywhere else they could find. Some of the bootleg stuff was generic enough to avoid any sort of infringement; there was an abundance of "Philadelphia Football" and similar phrases. I saw a shirt advertising the “Desert Bowl.” Other bootleg gear had player names and images but did not say Eagles. I spent $10 on a shirt that spelled the quarterback's name “Jaylen Hurts” just for the comedy value. Some stuff simply swiped the Eagles trademarks and hoped that no one would notice. A lot of this stuff was pretty ugly, unsurprisingly, but that’s kind of the charm of it. I am a man who owns a shirt that says Ben Simmons stormed the capitol on January 6, though, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask.

As far as I know, no one selling phony Eagles gear was arrested for bootlegging. But some people did get shut down. At the request of the NFL, a number of Philadelphia artists had their accounts on Instagram removed. Etsy took down sellers’ items as well.

Some of those items were, in my opinion and also that of every lawyer who would talk to me on background, blatant violations of the Philadelphia Eagles’ trademarks. The shirts used the team name or Fly Eagles Fly. But one infringing trademark really caught my eye: “Go Birds.” I didn’t realize that phrase belonged to the team. It turns out that it hadn't been their property for long—the Eagles had just been granted a trademark for the term in December of last year.

It was rude enough for the team and the NFL to take down shirts that used a generic phrase that the organization had just gotten a trademark for. I wondered when Eagles fans started saying “Go Birds” and did some searching in Eagles history books and old newspapers. The first instance I could find of “Go Birds” in its Eagles-specific sense was the time Martin and Vandetty went to the old owner’s house and wrote it on a note that they risked arrest to deliver.

Which only made me angrier. “Go Birds” was a phrase Eagles fans used long before the Eagles trademarked it. Now you have to become an official partner of the Eagles if you want to put it on a t-shirt or billboard! Maybe the NFL will figure out a way to make Defector pay the Eagles for using it in this article. My point being that the Eagles have stolen “Go Birds” from the fans.

I love watching football, but what I really love about being an Eagles fan is the community. I’m not kidding. Most of my favorite memories of Philadelphia sports are not really about the Eagles, but about enjoying the Eagles with others. That experience of being a fan doesn’t have to be something as dramatic as knocking on the owner’s door at 11 p.m., either. After the Eagles won the NFC title this year, a guy told me I “deserved an award” for a vintage jacket I wore outside after the game. I will think about that every time I put it on. These memories stick in my brain; my dad and I can still get a chuckle about an Eagles fan behind us who was thrown two rows forward in celebration after a Barry Wilburn pick-six in the playoffs. He got up off the concrete instantly and went back to celebrating.

Whether the Eagles are giving fans anything to celebrate or not, those fans will celebrate it together. They insist on it. Amin Khalifa, the sign guy I wrote about before the Super Bowl, has made it clear that I am basically required to come to one of his parking lot tailgates next season. These kinds of gatherings create a real sense of community.

Here’s an example: I found Martin thru a Gofundme that a friend set up for him. He’d moved to Florida six years ago; last year Hurricane Ian destroyed his house. Insurance money takes forever to arrive, and he and his wife have lived in seven places since the storm. But when a group of Eagles fans in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area heard of his plight, they passed around the hat. They ended up giving Martin a thousand dollars. This was a guy they did not know. But they knew that he was an Eagles fan, so they helped him out.

The Eagles trademarking “Go Birds” won’t end this type of fan camaraderie, of course; the team commodifying and capitalizing upon a thing that fans have said to each other for years doesn't make the phrase mean less. But it is really fucking rude. Martin and Vandetty have way more of a right to that phrase than the Eagles do. The Eagles have denied my credential requests for 20 years, and I don’t know where Jeffrey Lurie lives. But if I ever see him, man, do I have a note to give him.

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