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The Philadelphia Eagles in Bethlehem: After three years without them, why residents want the NFL team back

When Jamey Hodgin was 25, he stepped out of the kitchen of the Tally Ho Tavern, the oldest bar in Bethlehem, Pa., to see a 6-foot-2 Philadelphia Eagles rookie sitting casually at the bar. His name was Donovan McNabb — a quarterback — and he was there with first-year fullback and fellow 1999 draftee Cecil Martin.

Hodgin poured the would-be Eagles two sodas and whipped them up some bar food. They made small talk at the bar, and then the players were on their way.

These small interactions with professional football players at local bars, restaurants and hotels once dotted the summers for residents in Bethlehem, home to Lehigh University, where the Eagles held free, open training camp every year for 17 years.

That ended in 2013, when Chip Kelly came in from Oregon and suddenly the Eagles were moving training camp onto Philadelphia turf. The announcement came down in March of that year that the Eagles would hold a closed training camp at the NovaCare Complex in South Philly and would host only a few open practices at Lincoln Financial Field. This year, there are two open practices. This would be nothing like the entirely open training camps held in the Lehigh Valley.

For the last three years, summers on the sleepy southside of Bethlehem near the college have been slow and quiet without the estimated tens of thousands of fans who would make the trek to this town of 75,000 every July to watch the Eagles warm up for the season.

The memory of the players, fans and media members scattered across town are just that now — memories. Nothing on the practice fields indicates it was once used by an NFL team. The bar that players once frequented, Starters Pub, closed down last year.

“It was like Christmas for people around here,” Hodgin, now 41, said last week at a table at the Tally Ho. “We’d look forward to it all year ‘round.”

Jamey Hodgin, of Tally Ho Tavern, stands outside the bar in Bethlehem.

Jamey Hodgin, of Tally Ho Tavern, stands outside the bar in Bethlehem.

Anna Orso/ Billy Penn

Here in die-hard Eagles fans country, the people want the team back. But not largely because of the million dollars or so it pumped into the local economy each year from people buying food, gas and lodging. Many of these people in Bethlehem want them back because of what the Eagles brought along with them: a sense of community and chance to see your idol up close and personal. For free.

“People relied on it every summer,” Hodgin said, “especially people who can’t afford game tickets.”

The economic impact on the town was certainly there because it played host to thousands of fans. But it wasn’t anything the bars couldn’t live without. Hodgin actually said losing the Allentown Fair would be a much deeper financial cut for the bar. Losing the Eagles is about the immeasurable impacts.

“There’s no question that having the Eagles here gave us a swagger. It brought people here, showcased the Valley,” Tony Ianelli, president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, once told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “As for any economic spin-off, it was welcome but it certainly wasn’t tremendous. The impact was reasonably narrow.”

The summertime tradition of waking up before dawn to trek to the Lehigh Valley for the best seats to see the Eagles practice had apparently hit its peak in 2004 — that’s when adding Terrell Owens and Javon Kearse got fans excited and brought more than 25,000 people to camp on opening day alone.

From there, the economy took a nose dive and gas prices skyrocketed. People say open practices weren’t the same in the late 2000s.

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But the residents still tell stories of what used to go down in their part of town. Some remember wild birthday parties for LeSean McCoy, whose birthday fell on July 12, at Starters Pub and then the nearby Sands Casino. Others say the players were, for the most part, well behaved and stuck to the dorms they were relegated to at night.

Chaz Patrick, owner of Molly’s Pub on the southside of Bethlehem, said the bar was only in operation for the last several years of the Eagles summertime occupation of the Lehigh Valley, but said when they left, “it sucked.” Not only for business, but for what they used to see. Players swung by; fullback Leonard Weaver had frequented the place.

“They got around town, and they had fun and people dug it,” Patrick said. “Everybody looked forward to it.”

Jeff Vaclavik used to take his son Brady — named after Tom Brady because of a lost Super Bowl bet in 2004 — up and over the huge hill that the college sits atop to see the Eagles practice. But what Vaclavik liked the most were the people he got to know over the years who frequented his corner shop.

Vaclavik, 51, has owned Deja Brew Coffee House and Deli for 20 years on the southside of Bethlehem, and his little shop played host to a few players and coaches here and there, as well as a few retired players — Mike Quick and Trevor Laws — who wandered into the shop one year. But the big draw at this coffee house was media members who would post up for the day and escape the heat of the areas near the fields on the other side of the mountain.

Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King loved Vaclavik’s peanut butter balls, which were once featured in King’s magazine feature “What’s On the Menu,” that he ran alongside his coverage of training camps from across the country. Comcast Sports Net’s Reuben Frank was known to down fresh iced tea and operate as the unofficial juke box guy.

For the last two years, Deja Brew has made special deliveries of peanut butter balls and sandwiches to media members at the NovaCare Complex and the Linc who are craving the cooking of one of Bethlehem’s most popular coffee shops. This year, Vaclavik hasn’t yet heard whether or not he’ll be catering the media again in Philly.

But the general sense around Bethlehem is that even if the Eagles’ departure from the Lehigh Valley left a void for a few weeks each July, there will still be uncompromising Eagles fans in this town to say “trust the system” and go along with Kelly’s vision. It’s the one that doesn’t include Bethlehem, but has the high-tech capabilities of a place live NovaCare.

Dean Kuhar, a local bartender, said the one-time summer tradition is gone and people would like to see it back. But he’ll go with Kelly.

“If it gets us a championship,” Kuhar said, “then I’m stoked about it.”

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