Life goes on at Lehigh without Eagles camp

LES BOWEN/DAILY NEWS STAFF 'Seventeen years went really fast,' says Jeff Vaclavik, owner of Deja Brew, the South Bethlehem coffee and sandwich shop where Eagles media and some team figures often gathered.
LES BOWEN/DAILY NEWS STAFF 'Seventeen years went really fast,' says Jeff Vaclavik, owner of Deja Brew, the South Bethlehem coffee and sandwich shop where Eagles media and some team figures often gathered.
Posted: July 19, 2013

BETHLEHEM - The field area looks so much smaller, somehow, without the grandstands, the tents, the cranes with the video platforms or the Eagles logo etched on the grassy bank that rises behind the area where for 17 years, fans flocked to training camp.

There were no barriers, no security, and no people in sight Wednesday afternoon at Lehigh's Goodman campus. The school seemed to have planted new shrubs on the traffic island where it used to anchor the big digital sign that welcomed fans to camp and listed practice times. The only noise under the blazing sun came from sprinklers watering the still-immaculate playing surface.

With so many familiar landmarks missing, it took a few minutes to pinpoint the spot where the interview tent always stood, where Andy Reid annually intoned lists of injuries, Donovan McNabb tried to joke his way through the early days of the Terrell Owens controversy, and Vince Young observed that the group he was joining seemed like "a dream team." That tent also was the place where Eagles general manager Howie Roseman barely kept his composure on an awful Sunday morning last August, as Roseman announced the death of Reid's eldest son, Garrett.

Up the hill at the Sayre Village dorms, where TV trucks always clustered as Eagles players and coaches rolled their belongings to their rooms, a skinny doe clambered across the empty parking lot and bounded down an embankment before pausing to sample some greenery.

"Seventeen years went really fast," observed Jeff Vaclavik, owner of Deja Brew, the South Bethlehem coffee and sandwich shop where Eagles media and some team figures often gathered.

The Eagles will welcome rookies to training camp Monday, but they will do so at their NovaCare practice facility, not at Lehigh. Veterans report next Thursday, as the Birds hold camp in Philadelphia for the first time since 1943. The switch was a long time coming - it has loomed in the background since the Eagles finished their new practice facility in 2001 - as teams across the NFL trended toward staying at home instead of taking a 2- to 3-week sojourn to a college campus. (Twenty-one of the league's 32 teams now hold camp at their in-season facility.) The Eagles' move, announced in March, probably became inevitable when Chip Kelly succeeded Reid in January. Reid was emphatic about the benefits of getting away; Kelly saw trying to pack everything up and move it 65 miles away as an unneeded distraction.

"I just think we have everything here. The fact that we would pack everything up and move, that didn't make sense to me," Kelly told reporters last month. "All our video stuff is here. Our servers are here. So you're dealing with portable laptops and hoping you get practice on it. You have issues when it rains . Where do you go? Our training facility, in terms of how we want to lift, how we want to do this, why would you move everything to go somewhere else?"

Kelly plans to house the team in an airport hotel the first week or so. After that, the veterans will be allowed to go home at night.

Lehigh athletic director Joe Sterrett said he sees the Eagles' decision as part of "the evolution of the technologies that support the sport" - video, medical equipment, IT servers.

"As much as we would have tried, we couldn't replicate what Kelly needed," said Mary Kay Baker, Lehigh's director of conference and special housing services. For 17 years, Baker was in charge of many camp logistics, including feeding and housing the Birds.

"I think about it every day," Baker said. "It was 17 years of relationships with all those people . . . It's just different."

Sterrett also chose "different" as his characterization of this week, which he said normally would feature about 50 people from Lehigh preparing the facilities for the Eagles.

"I won't say 'empty,' " he said. "Some of our staff are getting a little more of a break . . . It's a lot quieter. In some ways, that's nice. In other ways, it doesn't feel normal."

Of course, neither Lehigh nor Bethlehem has closed down because the Eagles aren't coming. Hosting a football team for 2 to 3 weeks is an economic boost - Vaclivik estimated his business increased at least 25 percent during camp - but this isn't quite like when Bethlehem Steel died. The locals who worked at camp did so to pick up a little extra money, not to feed their families.

"For the fans up in this area, it's disappointing. It's very much disappointing," said Dave Rank, who operates two Starters Pub locations in the Bethlehem area, including one on Route 378 near camp that was a popular nighttime hangout for players. Rank has an Eagles helmet flag that he contends has been signed by every Eagle who attended camp since 2001. Autographed Eagles photos adorn the walls.

"With the economy in the state it's been in the last several years, Eagles camp became a destination point for vacations for a lot of people," he said. "The ability to have a connection with the players, you'd see them and talk to them, you saw 'em in a real-life setting - those are the things that you're going to miss."

Rank and Vaclavik said they'll miss the buzz as much as they'll miss the extra business - national media often made their way to Bethlehem; you'd see ESPN broadcasting from a stage behind the fields.

"That was a big deal," Rank said. "The phone calls you would get - 'is anybody there tonight?' - Those are the things that you're gonna miss."

Vaclavik's Deja Brew was often touted in the Monday Morning Quarterback column written by Sports Illustrated's Peter King. "Not just during camp, all year long I get people coming in saying, 'I heard about you from Peter King,' " Vaclavik said. "One time these guys came in that toured minor league ball parks and Civil War battlefields every summer. They'd read about us ."

This week, if she were preparing to host camp - the Eagles, not the 300 high school lacrosse players Lehigh now expects next week - Baker said she'd be working until 8 or 8:30 every night, instead of leaving the office by 5:30 or 6. During camp "my phone would be ringing from 6:30 in the morning until 11 at night," she said. "I can't say I'll miss that."

Baker and some of the Lehigh personnel who worked with the Eagles have set a date to visit NovaCare this year, to see what the new setup looks like. She has something new to track on this summer's sports scene, though, something Rank also mentioned - the Lehigh Valley is closely following the Summer League adventures of recent Lehigh grad C.J. McCollum, the 10th player taken in the NBA Draft, by the Portland Trail Blazers.

"This kid's for real," Baker said. "We'll all be watching" his NBA progress.

McCollum's NBA games are unlikely to pack Starters Pub, though, or give Rank the thrill he recalled from one night a decade or so ago.

"I walked in one night and Donovan McNabb, Duce Staley and Jon Runyan were here," Rank said. "I said to myself, 'There's $100 million at that bar.' "


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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