Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

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It was breakfast time at the the Veterans Multi-Service Center at Fourth and Race in Old City, but one man had three Wawa hoagies stacked next to his chair. The fellow next to him had two stuffed in each pocket of his cargo shorts, plus another three under his arm. A woman nearby had already peeled back the wrapper and was digging into hers, despite the early hour.

Across the room, another man shouted for a Sharpie. He’d come up with the idea to use his hoagie as an autograph book, and have it signed by second-year Philadelphia Eagle Anthony Denham.

Eagles tight end Anthony Denham autographs a hoagie Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The 6′ 4″, 235-lb. tight end was happy to oblige. Denham come to the center to help deliver the 1,000 free hoagies to homeless vets, and appeared to be having a blast, smiling and chatting as he tossed dozens and dozens of Italian and turkey-cheese Shortis to hungry Philadelphians.

Originally from Los Angeles and a college player at Utah, Denham had never even heard of a “hoagie” before being traded here in 2016. “We called them ‘subs,’” he explained. The first time he ran into the word was by accident.

“My first cheesesteak, when I ordered it, I asked for lettuce and tomato,” he recalled. “The guy said, ‘So you want a cheesesteak hoagie?’ I said sure. Big mistake. I’m never eating that again.” He shook his head at the memory.

Denham shows off the first two hoagies he’s ever made. He still hasn’t eaten one…yet. Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

“I’ve had lots more cheesesteaks since then, but never a real hoagie,” he admitted, grinning. “But now I’d definitely like to try one.” (He would probably choose turkey, he said, with both American and Swiss, plus mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion.)

Denham couldn’t help but be in a good mood. The upbeat cheer that pervaded the 25th annual Wawa Hoagie Day was infectious.

Matching hoagie hats, signed by Denham Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

It had all kicked off at 5 a.m., when 150 Wawa associates (the company’s term for employees, most of whom are stockholders) poured into the ground floor of the Constitution Center to begin construction of six tons of hoagie. Resident DJ Marc Maiolino — whose official title is Wawa Manager of Workforce Planning and Performance Management but who’s been spinning at corporate events for the past three decades — sparked up the turntables.

Music began blasting, hips began shaking, and as they danced and sang, associates’ hands began moving in lunch-rush speed. Cheese. Meat. Lettuce. Onion. Dressing. Tomato. Whip out a wrapper, roll the whole thing up, tape it closed and onto the next.

As boxes of hoagies began to fill up, the party only got more lively. Wawa mascot Wally Goose showed up, along with his pal, the Walking Shorti, and they got into the dance game. News cameras poured down the stairs, capturing imagery of the loading of the day’s first truckload, which contained 5,000 hoagies destined for local hunger nonprofit Philabundance. The rest of the sandwiches would be given away to the general public on Independence Mall, part of a salute to the troops honoring Wawa’s longstanding partnership with the USO.

An Italian Shorti, one of thousands served free today Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Among the sandwich makers, no one appeared to be having more fun than the table staffed by the Wawa Hoagie Heroes.

While the rest of the workers were made up of Philly-area employees who’d volunteered to participate, this crew within a crew were specially chosen. Representing each of Wawa’s six states, they were the folks deemed best at making the convenience store’s signature sandwiches.

“There was a regional competition,” said Pam Laspina, who’s been with the company 14 years and was sporting a temporary Wawa tattoo on each cheek. “We had to build hoagies and give out samples, and also answer questions. They asked what our favorite condiment was, and I said hot peppers, because they’re hot like me! I think that’s why they picked me.”

When you love your workplace so much you wear it on your face Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Two-and-a-half-year employee Eric Hoolihan from Orlando was pretty sure why he’d been chose as a Hero. “I’m just good at what I do.”

As for Alysha Rimby from Atco, NJ, it was her dedication to the cause that landed her in the Hero lineup. “I volunteer to do taxes for veterans, and when I heard this was a volunteer thing that would help vets, I wanted to do it.”

She added a warning: “You probably don’t want to talk to me if you’re covering the Eagles player. I’m a Dallas fan. We’re a better team. We have way more rings.”

Still, when Denham showed up, Rimby had him sign her stuffed Wawa hoagie hat. “It’s for my son,” she explained. “Plus, this day is worth remembering.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...