WILKES-BARRE – If you look to your left when you walk into Steagles, a bar tucked into a working-class neighborhood in this Northeastern Pennsylvania town, one of the first things you see on the wall is a Terrible Towel.
OK. Pittsburgh Steelers bar.
But wait. You walk a few more feet, past a few Steelers jerseys hanging there (Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, et al.), and you come upon an Eagles jersey: Reggie White.
Also Charlie Garner. (Charlie Garner?) And LeSean McCoy. And Nick Foles.
Peaceful coexistence. Go figure.
It has happened before with these two franchises. While they will be combatants on the football field this Sunday, the Steelers and Eagles merged during the height of World War II to form a team unofficially known as the Steagles.
And it happens in this cozy little pub of the same name, located 265 miles from Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, but just 116 miles from Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles will host Pittsburgh this week. Yeah, regulars bust each other’s chops about their teams, said the owner, Jim Casterline. But as he told a visitor Thursday afternoon — three days before the two teams that gave this bar its name fight it out for in-state bragging rights — it never boils over. Everybody knows everybody else. Everybody knows it’s all part of standard operating procedure on an NFL Sunday.
Casterline and his wife Theresa bought the place from Jim’s Aunt Connie in July 2010, after his Uncle Stan died. For a while it remained Stan’s Café, as it had been during the 40 years Stan and Connie owned it. But about a year ago Jim and Theresa decided to change it to Steagles, since it was frequented by so many fans of the two teams.
The 56-year-old Casterline has some knowledge of that long-ago club, which was formed in 1943 because the NFL faced a manpower shortage, with so many players serving in the military. The squad was officially called the Phil-Pitt Eagles-Steelers Combine, according to Matthew Algeo’s 2006 book Last Team Standing, but a Pittsburgh Press editor dubbed it the Steagles, and that’s how the team will forever be remembered in football history.
From a 2007 Post-Gazette story on the Steagles:
The Steelers, coming off the first winning season in their existence, had only six players under contract. Rooney and Bell sought out Thompson, who was serving in the Army as a corporal. They got the NFL to approve a merger known as the Phil-Pitt Eagles-Steelers Combine. Within two weeks, however, sports editor Chet Smith of The Pittsburgh Press called them the Steagles.
All of the 25 players on the roster were required to keep full-time jobs in defense plants. One of Pittsburgh’s players, Ted Doyle, worked at Westinghouse and figured out later he was a small part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, according to Matthew Algeo’s book Last Team Standing.
The Steagles somehow went 5-4-1 in the only season they existed, even though co-coaches Greasy Neale and Walt Kiesling, two eventual Hall of Famers, couldn’t stand one another. There were also logistical nightmares, according to Algeo and others. The Steagles practiced at night in Philadelphia to give everyone, especially the players from Pittsburgh, travel time after their day jobs. And the team played home games in both cities, going 2-1-1 in Shibe Park and 2-0 in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.
In 1944, the Steelers merged with the Chicago Cardinals. The Eagles went back to being themselves, and everything that has entailed (the sometimes good and mostly bad) over the years.
Casterline knows all about it. He topped his cargo shorts with a green Eagles pullover as he stood behind the bar Thursday afternoon, taking care of the two regulars who wandered in: Shot and a Bud for one guy, Genesee for the other.
He said the Garner jersey is his, as he had been a fan of the long-forgotten running back during his time with the Eagles (1994-98). So too is the framed No. 5 Eagles jersey with “Big Jim” on the back, which hangs nearby. The guys in his dart league all pitched him to get him that one.
Truth be told, he started out as a Baltimore Colts fan, he admitted, then swore off the NFL when the Colts fled to Indianapolis in 1984. Only when his son, Jim Jr., began showing interest in the game was he drawn back in.
Wasn’t too long before the two of them were going to Eagles games, whether at the Vet or the Linc. Usually made it to one a year.
Funny thing about that: In 1999 they were driving to the Birds-Dallas game when they were involved in a chain-reaction crash on the Schuylkill, right near the Conshohocken exit. It was a big pileup, and their car was totaled. A cop was nice enough to give them a ride to the game, and when they arrived at the Vet in the cruiser, another officer spotted their would-be chauffeur.
“Usually you’re taking ‘em outta here, not bringing ‘em,” the guy yelled.
Jim Jr. — 17 then, 34 now — remembers it well.
“As we pulled up to the Vet, (Michael) Irvin got hurt,” he said, a reference to the career-ending neck injury suffered by the Cowboys wide receiver. That was just fine with the younger Casterline, by the way; he couldn’t stand Irvin. Fine with a great many fans in the Vet that day, judging by their reaction.
Jim Jr. can tick off the other landmark games he’s attended. The final game in the Vet, a loss to Tampa Bay in the 2002 NFC championship game. The Snow Bowl against Detroit three years ago. And he plans to make the trip down the Northeast Extension this year, too.
His dad, who wavered in his loyalty to the Birds when Chip Kelly was the coach, is on board with this edition of the club. He likes Carson Wentz; his command at the line of scrimmage, and the touch he shows on his throws. But Casterline, who played in a sandlot league in his younger years, cringes every time the rookie ventures out of the pocket.
“As an old defensive guy,” he said, “there’s nothing like hitting somebody and shaking their teeth out.”
Jim and his son have had some differences of opinion about the Birds over the years – the younger Casterline adored Donovan McNabb, the older man thought him a choker – but for the most part they have remained unified.
The youngest in the family, Alice, is another story. Somehow, she’s a Steelers fan.
“I think she did it to piss me off,” Jim said.
“I wanted to be different from my brother more than my dad,” she said.
Alice, a freelance photographer, contributed a photo of Heinz Field to the wall in Steagles, a favorite of hers.
“It’s, like, perfect,” she said.
Her mom also remembers her daughter sitting in the bar in February 2011 — it was still Stan’s then — for the Steelers-Packers Super Bowl. As the party welled around Alice, she didn’t eat. She didn’t drink anything stronger than water. She didn’t talk to anyone, and no one dared talk to her. She just agonized.
The Steelers lost that day, but have won an NFL-best six Super Bowls, a topic that might come up once or twice in the Lincoln Financial Field parking lots Sunday.
On Sunday, Steagles will fill up with fans of both teams. Or it won’t. Casterline explained that the bar business is really unpredictable nowadays. But certainly those who do show up, to watch the cross-state rivals who were once part of the same organization square off on Sunday, will give each other the business.
“It’s what we do,” Jim said.
Alice won’t be there. She’ll be up in New York with her boyfriend.
“I’m sure I’ll be getting text messages – from my brother, mostly,” she said. “Unless the Eagles lose. Then he won’t say anything.”
That’s the way things are when these two teams get together. Though, at least for one year more than 60 years ago, not always.