- The Washington Times
Thursday, September 22, 2022

The billboard went up in August.

For a month, roughly one mile from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, those driving along Interstate 95 saw a message that carried a warning to the town’s former quarterback who is now persona non grata in the City of Brotherly Love. 

“WE’RE COMING FOR YOU CARSON,” the sign read in all caps. “Sept. 25, 2022. #1000FanstoFedEx”

That date will finally be here Sunday. And Vince Rizzuto, the founder of Philly Sports Trips who was behind the billboard, accomplished his goal: The 34-year-old’s travel company indeed sold tickets to 1,000 fans for Sunday’s game at FedEx Field when the Washington Commanders host the Philadelphia Eagles

They’ll be at the stadium to boo, taunt and cheer against Carson Wentz, Washington’s quarterback who spent his first five seasons with Philadelphia — where the signal-caller went from a beloved icon to being so ridiculed that diehards were hardly sad when Wentz’s trade request was granted following the 2020 season.

Starting around 6 a.m. Sunday, Rizzuto’s business will charter 20 buses for fans from the Philadelphia area and make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Landover, Maryland. They’re far from alone. Representatives from Phans of Philly and The Green Legion — two other Philadelphia sports travel companies — said they have sold an additional 500 and 300 tickets for the showdown, equating to another 16 buses set to make the trek. 

That marks at least 1,800 Eagles fans that will be at Sunday’s game. And there will likely be thousands more. Invading FedEx Field has become an annual tradition for the Eagles‘ faithful as sections — and in the case of last season’s collapsed railing, literally — overflow with those dawned in green, white and black. 

Wentz adds another layer to the dynamic as he prepares to face his former team for the first time. 

“I’m sure the Eagles fans will travel well,” Wentz said with a smile. “But hopefully we’ll still be dominating the stands there. Either way, it’ll be fun.” 

Trolling Wentz

Michael Diaz is already picturing how the atmosphere will be when Wentz takes the field for Sunday’s game.

“It’s going to sound like South Philly,” said Diaz, The Green Legion’s social media coordinator. “Everyone is going to boo.” 

From his time with the Eagles, Wentz came to learn that Philadelphia had “quite the fan base.” That’s an understatement. 

The quarterback played in a city, after all, that famously booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus during an Eagles game in 1968. It’s a sports town willing to throw popcorn at an opposing player, as a 76ers fan did at Russell Westbrook last year. Even their exuberance can lead to incidents, such as when fans excited to high-five quarterback Jalen Hurts as he ran off the turf at FedEx Field last season nearly tumbled into the signal-caller after a railing collapsed. (Four fans have since sued the Commanders claiming they were injured.)

Now their angst will turn toward Wentz. Rizzuto said Sunday’s game is Philly Sports Trips’ biggest event in the six-year history of his company, adding he sold out of the tickets he purchased from the Commanders. The Wentz showdown was a driving force behind the sales — and Rizzuto leaned heavily into the angle. 

In addition to the billboard, which Rizzuto said the cost can run anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, the ad copy on Philly Sports Trips’ website teased the quarterback even further. Rizzuto encouraged fans to “get on the Wentz Wagon ASAP” because “there is NO guarantee” Wentz would still be the Commanders’ starter when the two teams play again in mid-November. 

Rizzuto, asked about the blurb over the phone, laughed.

“We like to be clever with some of the things we put out there,” he said. 

Joe DiBiaggio, the owner of Phans of Philly, has his own plan to troll Wentz and the Commanders faithful now rooting for the passer. DiBiaggio said the company plans to have a truck circling the stadium Sunday with a mobile billboard that will especially resonate with anyone who cheers for the Eagles.

What will be on the billboard? DiBiaggio said there will be an image of Nick Foles — the quarterback who replaced an injured Wentz in 2017 and led the Eagles to a championship — hoisting the Super Bowl trophy.

“He’ll be looping around,” DiBiaggio said of the truck driver, “and making sure all fans see it.”

To understand why Eagles diehards soured on Wentz, Foles’ championship run might have a large part to do with it. After that, Wentz was unable to reach the same level of stardom — when he looked like a legitimate MVP candidate before tearing his ACL. 

As Wentz’s performance dipped, more injuries followed. Reports then emerged questioning Wentz’s leadership in the locker room, which divided the fanbase further. The final turning point came in December 2020 when Wentz, amid an awful season, was benched for Hurts. Wentz was traded to Indianapolis months later. 

“When he played like crap, and the stories are coming in that he’s not taking to coaching, he’s not listening to his coordinators anymore, that he’s doing his own thing and it kept piling up, he was like, ‘I don’t want to play here,’” Diaz said.

“The fans do not like someone who doesn’t accept the criticism, deflects blame and then runs away.”

Becoming PhedEx Phield

Sunday’s game projects to be a near sellout for the Commanders. This season, though, Washington’s brass has again reduced capacity at FedEx Field — narrowing the figure from 67,617 to around 62,000 to 63,000, a team spokesperson said. 

The official added the organization was still working with the league to determine the final number, but said the reduction was made because of seating changes in the club section and to turn some suites into offices after the team’s business side moved from Ashburn to Landover.

Yet, Philadelphia’s fans will make up a good chunk of this weekend’s crowd — possibly the majority, if past games are any indication. Beyond Wentz, the close proximity between the two cities makes it an appealing option for Eagles fans, as do the cheaper prices compared to home games. With the Commanders struggling —and attendance falling — an opportunity has been created for others to fill the void. 

If it weren’t for FedEx Field, then perhaps Rizzuto wouldn’t have started Philly Sports Trips in the first place. The Pennsylvania native said he got the idea after traveling with family and friends to the stadium, taking it from a “passion project” to a full-time business.

Washington was the birthplace of the company,” he said. 

To arrange the trips, companies like Philly Sports Trips and Phans of Philly worked directly with the Commanders’ ticket office. Each travel company purchased an allocation of tickets from Washington’s group sales team, a practice common around the league. 

A team spokesperson said the Commanders “aggressively” tried to sell group tickets for Sunday’s showdown, and not just to Eagles fans. This weekend’s contest will honor Hispanic Heritage Month, the team’s second annual “Pride Night Out” and HBCU Night Out — an attempt to draw out others not from Philadelphia.

But the reality is most will be there for Wentz. This week, Wentz called his time in Philadelphia a “wild ride.” The 29-year-old was evasive when asked where it all went wrong with the Eagles, but added he was happy to be with the Commanders (1-1) now.

Things turned out just fine for Philadelphia, too. The Eagles (2-0) look like they have one of the best offenses in football and appear to be a Super Bowl contender once again.

On Sunday, Eagles fans may be even happy to see Wentz once again. Even if they express it in a different way. 

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think he was going to be the quarterback for the future,” Rizzuto said. “I thought he’d be in Philadelphia a lot longer than he was.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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