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Doug’s Impact
Appreciating the coach who gave us so much
By Sal Paolantonio

Photo: David Michael Howarth

 

SPECIAL TO SJ MAGAZINE from ESPN’s SalPal

 

You will be telling your grandchildren about Doug Pederson.

You will tell them about how he did the best coaching job in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles franchise, a history that goes back to when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House, a history that includes some of the most bittersweet moments in all of sports.

SalPal interviews Doug Pederson minutes after winning Super Bowl LII Photo: Brian Franey

You will tell them about how Pederson re-wrote that star-crossed story with one improbable and unforgettable ride through the NFL in 2017, bringing the first Super Bowl championship to Philadelphia by beating the greatest dynasty in pro football history, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at a parade that lined Broad Street and beyond with Eagles fans from Harrisburg to Hammonton, from Plymouth Meeting to Pennsauken, from Malvern to Moorestown.

The snapshots of Pederson’s legacy start on his first day on the sidelines as head coach of the Eagles, Sunday Sept. 11, 2016 in South Philadelphia. The Eagles, with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz about to start his first game, were to play the Cleveland Browns. Pederson had other family matters on his mind. He had just returned from burying his father, Gordon, who taught him the game of football.

I asked the Eagles public relations department if I could interview Pederson live on national TV before the game, in the hallway outside the coaches locker room at Lincoln Financial Field. In more than 2 decades of covering the NFL for ESPN, I had never been granted such an interview on game day. Pederson, still grieving and preparing for one of the biggest days of his professional career, said yes. I was advised leading up to the interview not to ask Pederson about his father. I ignored that. And Pederson, to his credit, knew I was going to ask. Right then, it was obvious that Pederson was going to be different from any other head coach I had covered, including Pederson’s rather uptight predecessors, Chip Kelly and Andy Reid. Pederson was comfortable with who he was. He would be open, honest and available – to the press and the fans.

“If your father were alive today, what advice do you think he would give you in your first game as an NFL head coach?” I asked. “Be aggressive,” Pederson said without missing a beat.

“Be aggressive and stay aggressive.”

Pederson carried that advice all the way to Super Bowl LII, when he never took his foot off the pedal in attacking Bill Belichick’s defense – going for it again and again on fourth down, including the most famous play in Super Bowl history: Philly Special, Nick Foles catching a touchdown pass from Trey Burton, shocking a national TV audience.

“They brought it out in the Super Bowl!” former Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins could be heard hollering on the sideline into an NFL Films mic. “Unbelievable.”

And fearless. But that was Pederson. He beat the mighty New England Patriots in the Super Bowl with a back-up quarterback, a back-up left tackle, a back-up middle linebacker, without his best special teams player on a day when Tom Brady threw for 505 yards.

But the snapshots of Pederson’s legacy go beyond the field of play. He devoted much of his time to local charities, including riding a bike for 30 miles in the Eagles Autism Challenge, raising thousands for team owner Jeffrey Lurie’s favorite cause. He partnered with former Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil for the Coaches Challenge to raise funds for sick children and their families. He gave time and money to the charities of Vince Papale, Ron Jaworski and Urban Promise – the list is endless.

SalPal, SJ Magazine’s Marianne Aleardi and Pederson spoke in front of a sold-out crowd a few months after the Super Bowl win Photo: David Michael Howarth

“Doug’s paramount achievement was winning the Super Bowl,” Jaworski says, “but his commitment to charity work all over South Jersey was incredible.”

Back home in Moorestown, his impact will never fade. After winning Super Bowl LII, after making a breathtaking national tour of gratitude and appreciation, and putting the finishing touches on his moving memoir, “Fearless,” Pederson and his wife Jeannie finally got to spend a few days at home in Moorestown, where friends and family celebrated his unique accomplishment with a Doug Pederson Day on Main Street.

It was a cold day in February, but it seemed like the whole town turned out. Wearing a No. 20 Brian Dawkins jersey, former Mayor Stacey Jordan read the proclamation that said February 24th will be Doug Pederson day in a town where many have accomplished many wonderful things – but only one man brought that Super Bowl title home.

When Pederson was an Eagles assistant coach in 2012, his family lived in Moorestown. When he was named head coach 4 years later, he brought his family back. “It was because of you,” Pederson told the crowd that day, “the people in this town, around this community that show not only love and support but a sense of family, a sense of pride.”

That’s Doug, in public and in private. Pre-covid, my wife Lynn and I had dinner with Doug and Jeannie at a restaurant in Moorestown. There was a Sweet 16 party going on in the back room. Once word got out that Pederson was in the house, that party quickly migrated to our table. And one by one, teenagers lined up to get a photo with the Eagles head coach. And Pederson got out of his window booth seat and took a photo – with every last one. He wouldn’t say no. He didn’t want to. He took a photo with the sushi chefs, too, that still hangs on the restaurant wall.

And that’s the thing: Pederson may have inexplicably parted ways with the Eagles – who the hell gets rid of the guy who gave them a coveted Super Bowl title after only missing the playoffs for one year? – but his impact will always be there: snapshots on the wall, an indelible part of the lives of all those who suffered all those years with a team that gave back only one time with a Super Bowl championship, a moment that Doug Pederson created and will never go away.

Sal Paolantonio, a national correspondent for ESPN, is the author of “Philly Special: The Inside Story of How the Philadelphia Eagles Won Their First Super Bowl Championship.” He has lived in SJ since 1985.

March 2021
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