“Extra performances for the band!!!” the message’s enthusiastic subject said. Matthew Brunner, Temple’s director of athletic bands, concluded the email with a seemingly innocuous addendum: “Wing Bowl – Friday, Jan. 31. 3-9:30 a.m.”
Temple’s Diamond Marching Band is known to make appearances at events up and down the East Coast, from football team sendoffs to the set of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The fact that this “Wing Bowl” needed 20 or so people to march in an “entourage” for a competitor was not surprising. What shocked me was the ungodly time that we were required to arrive.
I soon learned that the time Brunner listed was, in fact, not a typo, and we were set to arrive at the Wells Fargo Center long before dawn.
The Wing Bowl was founded in 1993 by sports radio station 610 WIP as a way for Philadelphia to celebrate Super Bowl weekend despite traditionally dismal performances by the Eagles. This year would mark the 22nd Wing Bowl and many things had changed since its inauguration.
For example, instead of two local men competing, there were 25 experienced eaters. Instead of crowding in the lobby of the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel, wing enthusiasts filled the Wells Fargo Center.
Naturally, the one tradition that hadn’t changed was the contest’s early starting time. So, at around 4 a.m., I found myself at the Wells Fargo Center.
In hindsight, I should have left when I received my exclusive “Entourage” pass – it featured chickens with accentuated, human-like breasts, which confused me, because I thought this was a wing-eating contest.
The inspiration behind the enhanced chickens was revealed when I saw my first Wingette: a contestant in a beauty pageant as degrading as “contestant in a beauty pageant at an eating contest” sounds. She was tall, bronzed and held proportions that I had previously thought impossible for a human being. Awed, my friend and I took a photo with her.
By 6:30 a.m., we were in the bowels of both the Wells Fargo Center and American society itself. We were held in “Pit 7,” the waiting area for the entourage of “Big Z,” Temple’s competitor. The St. Joseph’s University and Villanova kids behind us heckled us as they chugged cans of Natural Lite.
We were shepherded through the tunnel and toward the entrance. The stands were packed. It was around 7 a.m., but I’m pretty sure the Wing Bowl is exempt from silly notions like time. Everyone was drunk.
The Jumbotron, normally reserved for scores and play-by-plays, became the “Miller Lite Can Cam,” and instead showed women in the audience. The stadium shouted at them to expose themselves, and most women complied, baring their breasts enthusiastically.
The ones who didn’t? A crowd of 20,000 or more booed them. The “Can Cam” returned to them periodically until they finally gave in. My stomach churned.
Men in black polo shirts and headsets ushered us forward, and too suddenly, it was Temple’s turn to take the floor.
Boos and hisses greeted us. Flushed, contorted faces pressed up against a protective layer of glass glared and shouted obscenities. One man would not put down his middle finger; I saw spittle fly from his mouth. Shaking, our small ensemble tried to play “Fight, Temple, Fight.” We weren’t together, but nobody noticed. We made our rounds.
It could have been seconds. It could have been hours. I felt naked, helpless among thousands of pigs that booed women who wouldn’t flash them. More men with their headsets appeared; we weren’t moving quickly enough. Our time was up. They shoved us back into the tunnel.
Thousands of years ago, ancient Romans found entertainment in putting armed combatants in the pit of an amphitheater and watching them fight to the death. Until the Wing Bowl, I was unable to imagine what it would feel like to appear in front of such a crazed and hateful audience.
The Wing Bowl made me – a transplant from Connecticut – question my love for the city of Philadelphia, a love that has grown with the passionate, illogical fury of a young romantic. Our fans are crude and angry. I am jaded now. Maybe that makes me a real Philadelphian.
Grace Holleran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @coupsdegrace.