Don't Mess With Philly

Let me start by clearing something up real quick.

Last year was screwed up. I got suspended last season for testing positive for a supplement I thought was approved. I have serious issues with the NFL and the NFL Players Association for the way my sample was handled and processed, but the end result was that the league suspended me for 10 games.

That’s a lot.

Ten games, between Week 6 to Week 16, in which our offense was undermanned. Ten games, during the heart of the regular season, watching my teammates battle without me. Ten games thinking about this entire mess.

The entire situation was awful — but it also taught me a thing or two.

That experience of being on the sidelines — and the humiliation of being asked about it on a daily basis (and I’m still hearing about it from fans on Twitter) — hasn’t been for nothing. It forced me to reevaluate not just my suspension, but also how I carried myself in general. At times in my career I’ve lost focus. Well, I’m done with that.

In other words, this situation has lit a fire under my ass.

And now, heading into this season, I just feel excited. I’m excited because I’m going to have a chance to get out on the field and show people what I can do, but I’m even more excited because I know I’m not alone. We have a really damn good football team here in Philly.

That’s a good thing, because you do not want to be a bad football team in Philly.

Hunter Martin/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty

I’ll never forget one game day in particular during my rookie season. I was on the team bus and we were heading to Lincoln Financial.

My head was still kind of spinning after being the No. 4 pick in the draft out of Oklahoma, via Grovetown, Texas.

There are a few notable differences between Philadelphia and Grovetown.

For starters, Grovetown has about 1.5 million fewer people than Philly (but somehow more pickup trucks). And we like our steak on a plate by itself, not on a hoagie roll smothered in Cheez Whiz.

But here’s where Philly and Grovetown are similar. In both places, everybody practices the exact same religion: football.

I’d already heard all the stories about Philly fans before I was ever drafted by the Eagles — how they threw snowballs at Santa Claus, and how St. Nick got off easy because, hey, at least it hadn’t been batteries. When I finally got here I realized a lot of that stuff is entirely overblown.

But I also learned there’s also a little bit of truth to it.

I still vividly remember being on that bus, as we got closer to the stadium, all these Eagles fans were lining the streets — hundreds, maybe even thousands of them — and they were all flipping us off.

Every fan basically went through the same sequence. They’d start by flipping us the bird and then they’d do a double take when they realized that it was in fact our bus and not the other team’s. Then they’d suddenly stop what they were doing, put on a huge smile and wave to us. It was frickin’ hilarious.

That’s Philly, man. This is a place with an edge. That’s the culture — and when you play for the Eagles, there’s no getting around it.

There was another time my rookie year when I flew my mom and my aunt up to Philly for our game against Dallas. I come from a football family, so I really wanted them to come away impressed by the atmosphere. I wanted to make sure that they got the full experience, so I told them to check out the tailgating scene outside of the stadium. So they did.

Anyway, several hours later, after the game is over, I leave the stadium, walk out of the players entrance and my mom and my aunt were nowhere to be found. I was half confused, half worried. Then I call my mom and I hear all this noise in the background.

They were still at the tailgate, more than a few drinks in. The game might have been over, but the party was not — even though we lost.

So I finally find them, slightly worse for wear, and as we start walking towards my car this random Cowboys fan starts mouthing off about how Philly sucks and the Eagles are trash — this and that. Now, fans are naturally entitled to their opinion, I respect that. But this guy clearly didn’t have a good sense of his surroundings. He continued to talk as we were walking away, and then out of nowhere, he gets clocked by someone wearing a McNabb jersey.

At least I think it was McNabb. Maybe Westbrook. But yeah, that happened.

I realized that if you want to be a Cowboys fan, that that’s something between you and your maker. But never be a Cowboys fan dumb enough to mouth off at an Eagles tailgate in Philly.

Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire

What you realize pretty quickly after spending some time in Philly is that if you’re looking for praise just for being on the team, this isn’t the town for you.

If you think of yourself as a fan just because you put on a team’s jersey a few times a year, this isn’t the franchise for you.

Philadelphia’s relationship with the Eagles is based on passion, emotion and, perhaps most of all, honesty. These people will let you know how you’re doing if you’re playing well and if you’re not — especially if you’re not. I gotta admit that I find that somewhat refreshing. They make you earn their respect. And you eventually learn is that it’s all worth it, because when you are accepted by the fans, man, it’s real. And that’s why this is a place that appeals to a certain kind of player.

Fortunately, the roster we have now is filled with guys on both sides of the ball who play Eagles football — not least of which is our quarterback, Bear Grylls … uh, Carson Wentz.

Here’s the deal with Carson: The kid is tough as s*** and North Dakotan as hell.

He’ll always show up in the locker room looking like he’s ready to scale Kilimanjaro — camo hat,  boots, backpack with a bunch of hooks on it — which is why I’ve taken to calling him Bear Grylls.

On the field, he runs like a damn deer, but he also has remarkable poise in the pocket. Even though he was just a rookie last year, he always seems to be in control. That’s not a coincidence, it’s by design. If you happen to show up to the team facility at 5:30 in the morning, there’s a good chance you’ll see Carson watching film. He doesn’t make a big display of it. The kid just loves football, and he’s only getting better.

We got a few weapons for him in the off-season that are going to add a dynamic to our offense that we haven’t had since I’ve been here. Alshon and Torrey have nothing to prove to anyone in this league. They can ball. And then there’s LeGarrette Blount, who’s bringing 18 rushing touchdowns and a Super Bowl ring with him from New England.

Then, there’s the offensive line — the funniest, most vulgar, smelliest group of guys I’ve ever been around. Every meeting is basically like recess, except every kid is the class bully.

For us, it all starts with Jason Peters — JP. I’m not sure I’ve ever been around a player quite like him. Even in a room full of guys pushing 320 pounds, he has his own sort of presence. He’s been so good for so long that he can sit at the back of the room with his arms crossed like a big bear surveying everyone. At this point, there’s nothing a coach could ever teach him. He’s just got it. And even though we all know he’s a good guy, I think everyone is still half scared of him. When you see the way he handles defensive linemen like they’re preschoolers, you understand why.

Then there’s my man Jason Kelce. He’s probably one of the smartest football players I’ve ever met. The guy is quick on his feet in just about every way, whether he’s staying in front of defensive tackles or devastating you with a snide comeback in the locker room. Our offensive-line scheme is essentially organized chaos, and he’s the conductor that keeps it all on the rails. He has to make multiple calls on every play, and if even one thing goes wrong everything gets blown up. He’s the kind of guy you’re happy is on your team to take on that challenge.

I don’t even need to get into our defense. I have to block those guys every day in practice, and, well … it sucks — which, for our purposes is great news.

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Like I said earlier, this is a big season for our team. But I also think it’s a huge year for me. There are several reasons for that, but to fully explain it I think you need to understand my evolution as a football player.

I first started playing on the offensive line during the spring going into my junior year at OU. At that point, I wasn’t hoping to reach the NFL so much as I was just hoping to keep my scholarship — because things were looking kind of bleak. I grew up playing quarterback all the way through high school. That was my football identity. I was about 6′ 6″ and 220 pounds by the time I graduated, and went to community college for a year before signing to play at Oklahoma.

My first couple of years I bounced around between tight end and defensive end without much success. It was looking like my next stop might be Division II, until one day when I was walking around the athletics facility in Norman. Josh Heupel, our offensive coordinator (and an Oklahoma football legend), stopped me. He kind of looked me up and down and asked how much I weighed. I told him 280. He promptly responded, “Holy s***!” And the next practice I got moved to offensive tackle, where I’ve been ever since.

It took me some time to adjust to the idea that I could be a dominant player. Even if I was there physically, I had spent my whole life playing quarterback and it had never occurred to me that I was actually a NFL-caliber tackle. When I first got to Philly, I did my best to play the part, but I definitely needed some work.

I’ll never forget the third game of my career. We were playing the Chiefs and I had to block Justin Houston. I held my own for most of the game, but then in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter I allowed two sacks to him. It was a disaster. When I got off the field, I looked around like, Man, what the hell did I do wrong? And Evan Mathis just turned to me and said, “Well, you could try blocking someone longer than 1.5 f***ing seconds.”

He had a point.

Those early years I leaned on guys like Evan, JP and especially Todd Herremans. I played next to Todd, him at guard and me at tackle, and if I was a blind guy early in my career, he was my Seeing Eye dog. He knew the answer to every question, every call, every play — and he was entirely willing to pass on his knowledge. Just a true professional. Over time, all the vets helped me grow. They helped build me to this point in my career, where I feel ready to step in as a leader for this franchise.

I wasn’t raised with any brothers or sisters, so those guys in this locker room are family to me. They’ve seen me succeed and struggle, but they’ve always had my back no matter what. Last year, I was away from that family, and it was absolutely excruciating.

And that’s why when I suit up this year, I want my presence felt. Once we hit the regular season, I want Philadelphia to see that this is a better football team with me on the field.

Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players

Let me tell you what’s going to happen in a couple of weeks: This team is going to go down to D.C. and whup some ass against the Redskins. We’re going to surprise some people.

That’s where the momentum is going to begin, and then the hype train is just going to get bigger as the league realizes that the Eagles are back. The NFC East is the toughest division in all of football and it’s going to get even tougher this season because nobody is going to want to face us. I’m not saying this just to blow smoke, I’m telling you guys this is how it’s going to go down.

So Philly, here’s what we’re gonna need from you: Fly with us and just be you.  

Come out to the games, drink some beers and raise some hell. Make this a place where our team loves to play and everybody else hates — especially Cowboys fans.

We’ll take care of the rest.

Man, is it September 10 yet?