The Oft Forgotten California Islands Are Cooler Than You Imagine

Yeah, yeah. The "Chucky Bowl" and all that. Blah, blah, blah de freaking blah.

You'll spend the next six days pondering the nuances of every Jon Gruden eyebrow arch, and the crinkle of every Al Davis sweatsuit.

Not at The Cooler today, dwellers.

Eagles fans

Just when you thought it was safe to visit Philly.

We traffic in the sentimental, and in the maudlin. We don't necessarily need to congregate at The Cooler to praise our winners. Oft times, we gather 'round to mourn our forgotten. Oft times, we dwell at The Cooler to pour out the last of our Sparkletts to the downtrodden, to the beaten, to the losers.

To, of course, the dwellers of The Vet.

The Cooler will, naturally, later this week take up residence in the sunny climes of America's Finest City -- a great San Diego Chamber of Commerce campaign from the late '80s, and really, who's to argue? -- but not before paying homage to the last NFL game at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.

We come today to pay tribute to the blue collar Philadelphian, to the guy whose breath smells like a combination of Cheese Whiz and Budweiser, heavy on the Cheese Whiz. We'd set up The Cooler at midfield, but a problem with the seams in the turf might cause it to topple, so we'll keep it in the parking lot. We'll dab at our tears with napkins from Art's CheeseSteaks, and leave globs of the 'Whiz on our upper cheeks. All the better.

The Vet, man -- the Vet!

The last great concrete bowl of the '60s to go down, proud to the end that it never carried a corporate name, because really -- what corporation in its right mind would lend its name to that hole? The last great concrete bowl of the '60s to go down, with the distinction of being the only one so lawless, so drunken, that it had to have its own criminal justice system installed in its bowels -- complete with a judge.

The Vet -- the hobo of the NFL. If it were a family relative, it would show up, unannounced and drunk, at Thanksgiving, and create all sorts of tension around the family living room -- sort of like Dennis Hopper's character of Shooter in "Hoosiers." After the Niners-Bucs NFC playoff game, I flew back to California, reading the Tampa Tribune, the St. Pete Times, the New York Times and USA Today. Each of the papers used the following adjectives at some point, in discussing Tampa's trip to the Vet:

"Grimy ... dingy ... dank ... musty.'' Man. I hadn't heard such talk since Jose Canseco evaluated Madonna, post-hookup.

I thought fondly of the Vet during the NFC title game and, quite frankly, was rooting for the Eagles. Here in San Francisco, where they're busy injecting the embalming fluid into a coaching corpse that could never reach a Super Bowl, there weren't many options. One option was an envious eye to the East Bay, where Raider Nation was on its fourth consecutive day of life off a grill in a parking lot, and with two days worth of deodorant.

The other option was a gander at the transplants who populate our fair burg -- in this case, a drive past the Kezar Lounge on Stanyan, near Golden Gate Park. I happened to wheel by at halftime, and saw spilling out of the pub a cluster of men and women clad in Eagles gear -- mostly No. 5 McNabb jerseys, with the odd No. 93 Douglas jersey.

Eagles fans

What's worse -- leaving The Vet, or the Iggles losing?

They were down, 17-10 -- and they were right pissed off.

Ultimately, this is our finale with the Vet, isn't it? Gloom and a roiling anger, with a healthy dose of simmering resentment. Damndest thing: When Brian Mitchell took that opening kickoff nearly all the way, and when Duce Staley scored two plays later, and when the Vet nearly crumbled from the waves of loving noise, I thought to myself: Hell, yeah. The Vet, baby. Last stand. The Eagles are going out on top. Tampa Bay has no chance in this historic hellhole, no chance against the ghosts of Harold Carmichael and Wilbert Montgomery and Ron Jaworski -- even if Jaws was up in the press box, killing a plate of ribs.

Then, as the Bucs inexplicably, yet totally, took control, I thought: Wow. This really is appropriate, isn't it? The Vet, so long the scene of Eagles and Phillies anguish -- setting aside the freakish, yet-to-be-deciphered year of 1980 -- would have to witness its final Birds game as a total disaster. That's the Vet: Leaving it forever with a feeling of pent-up hostility, and Lord forgive the guy whose car is blocking yours in the parking lot, 'cause you're in your Randall Cunningham gamer and you've got a full bladder.

As the clock ticked away on the final NFL moments in the Vet, I couldn't help but think of displaced Philadelphians everywhere. In the interest of full disclosure, the great-grandparents left County Cork for Philadelphia back around the turn of last century, so the City of Brotherly Love has always had a soft spot around The Cooler. That said, my thoughts turn to Paulie, my long-lost bartender pal from The Gold Cane on Haight Street. Paulie was a Philly sports nut, stuck in San Francisco. He always said he'd go back to Philly, to root on the Phils, Birds, Sixers and Flyers, and finally, last year, he did go back.

But he used to live in this apartment near Golden Gate Park, and he wallpapered his windows with flags flying the Eagles logos, facing out. He also flew an Eagles flag outside his door, year-round. It was the craziest thing: Nobody in San Francisco cared about Eagles football. They cared about the level of mercury in their store-bought seafood, and in the compassionate ways with which to deal with the city's homeless. But Paulie flew that flag, 24, 7 and 365. I'd drive by his pad on an April day. The Giants would be having an Opening Day series down at spectacular Pac Bell. Californians would be rollerblading through the Park. Tourists would roam the Haight, maps in hand, backpacks on their shoulders.

And there, in the distance, flew that Eagles flag.

Sad day for Paulie, dwellers. And for Birds fans, everywhere.

May the Vet rest in peace.

On, then, to the Weekend List of Five:

1. The greatness of the Raiders

You live in Northern California long enough, and you can't even remember when the Raiders were any good. Seriously -- the Oakland Raiders being any good was ancient history, along with Watergate, Vietnam and the Iran hostage crisis.


Wait, when were the Raiders good?

Now, it's the year 2003 and dammit -- look at those Raiders go. Never mind that their best players are old enough to offer full, healthy discourse on Watergate, Vietnam and the Iran hostage crisis.

The Raiders in the Super Bowl: Are you kidding me? Next thing you know, you're going to tell me that Jerry Rice has the hairline of Gene Keady -- only with cornrows. Never mind.

While on the topic: Jerry Rice, a modern day Jim Thorpe, mixed with a splash of Babe Ruth, a dash of Michael Jordan and a heavy dosing of George Blanda? I am on this serious kick that of all the epic chapters of Jerry Rice's football career, this Raiders chapter is the one with the most flourish. Seriously. Dude is 40. I'm 35, and after 18 holes of golf in a cart, my legs feel like I've just left the floor from a mid-'50s

Dance-A-Thon. J.R. at 40 is running slants, catching balls, and taking hits from guys so young, that when they derisively ask: "Who's your Daddy?," Rice can answer: "Theoretically, I could be."

And then there's Bill Callahan, the most anonymous Super Bowl coach ever. His only claim to fame came during the AFC championship, when a sideline shot of Callahan produced my babe making the Callahan-as-Simon-the-American-Idol-Judge call. Gave her a 6, by the way. Strong effort.

The Raiders: Back in the Super Bowl! Damn. Imagine the Sunday night phone call Al Davis made to the dry cleaner: "I need seven white sweatsuits, seven black sweatsuits -- and step on it! I've got a Super Bowl week of ducking media in my immediate future!"

2. Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl ... chew on that

For those of us who remember the incarnation of the Bucs in 1976, this is a thought almost impossible to digest. Sort of like the Cubs in the World Series. Or the Clippers, in the NBA Finals. Or the guy from "Joe Millionaire" as a Rhodes Scholar finalist.

Tampa Bay Bucs

Only six more signs to the apocalypse.

Fair play to the Bucs. Their whole identity as late '90s contenders hinged on that epic defense, so a tip of the pirate cap to Brad Johnson and the offense, for actually showing up and winning the game against both the 49ers and the Eagles. Tampa Bay, with an offense and a defense? Man, next thing you know you're going to tell me you can go to Mons Venus and touch whatever you want.

And it looks like Jon Gruden is switching the "On" button when it comes to the media. He can shut it down with the best, but his triumph in Philadelphia produced two gems: (1) Still on the turf at the Vet, he blurted out to Fox's Pam Oliver that Ronde Barber was "one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world ... next to me"; and (2) he told CBS's Jerry Glanville that he spent Saturday night watching "The Outlaw Josey Wales," and likened the Bucs to Josey Wales. They were two totally unconnected thoughts, highly dubious in their verity, yet entertaining on a Super Bowl scale.

Let it rip, Chucky. We'll eat it up for the next six days.

3. Steve McNair: an homage

Can't hang 'round the Sparkletts today without a massive Dixie Cup pour for the toughest No. 9 since Teddy Ballgame, Tennessee's Steve McNair.

Steve McNair

The McNair Bandwagon derailed on Sunday.

You go coast-to-coast, and talk best QBs in the game, and all you hear is the obvious: Favre (yes), Warner (uh, maybe not so much anymore), Gannon (sure, why not?) and Vick (absolutely). But when do you hear McNair? Dude didn't make the Pro Bowl, when he's probably the biggest gamer in the bunch. This is a crime due to equal parts McNair's small-school background, and McNair's professional life being played out in Nashville. Sad day when Alan Jackson is bigger than S. McNair.

All aboard the McNair Bandwagon!

Anybody? Anybody?

4. Yao-Shaq: just when you thought it was all NFL

We can't let the weekend pass without a pour of the Sparkletts for the first showdown between Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming. Great stuff, Yao stuffed Shaq, Shaq got off, Yao's team won, awesome theatre -- except for this nagging thought: Where was the bearded lady? The dog-faced boy? What we all dropped our jaws for was a 7-foot-1, 330-pound man from LSU going against a 7-foot-5 guy from China. When you sit back and think -- who can relate to this, man? These guys are absolute freaks. Pituitary freaks.

Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal

We know, you're tall! Enough already!

Wake me for the showdown between Baron Davis and Gary Payton, two guys who could show up in my corner tavern, and not raise an eyebrow -- excepting for their mink coats and diamond pinky rings.

5. The Big Easy: 2-for-2

Yo, Tiger. You might want to call in a new doctor -- say, the James Woods character from "Any Given Sunday," who will block any pain for any gain so you can get back on Tour, pronto. Before your knee heals up, Ernie Els may be done counting cash for the season. Two events in, two Big Easy wins, $1.8 million headstart on the money list. That's exactly what golf needs. A guy with Ernie Els' game to get a $1.8 million jump on Tiger on the money list.

Great bar bet: I give you Ernie Els and $1.8 million before the Tour hits California -- do you still take Tiger to win the money list?

Ponder it. And while you do, take a moment to send a sympathy card to Judge Smails -- apparently, Aaron Baddeley raided Smails' closet when the Judge was sleeping. Purple plaid trousers: The kid has stones, I'll give that to him.

Wonder how those pants would play at the Vet.

Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes the "Weekend Water Cooler" every Monday for Page 2.

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