When the Birds Fly Into Town

Every summer, the pride of eastern Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Eagles, migrate north to make Bethlehem their home for three weeks. An annual tradition since 1996, training camp attracts more fans each year to the Lehigh University Mountaintop Campus, where scrimmages and practice sessions are held on two separate fields. Held in late July, and into early August, hot weather and blazing sun do nothing to deter faithful Eagles fans from flocking to Lehigh to see their team take shape before each NFL season.

Training camp affords the football fan unrivaled access to their team, and the Eagles’ camp is one of the most popular in the entire league. Admission is free to all, as is parking, with plenty of lots close to the facilities. Follow signs for Rauch Fieldhouse or Stabler Arena for some of the best parking spots. Tailgating is permitted, while alcohol is not, adding to the family-friendly flavor of the proceedings.

The timeline for training camp varies slightly each year, but the order in which players arrive remains static each summer – rookies and quarterbacks arrive first, with veteran players appearing later in the first week of camp. Practices are typically held twice a day, 8:15AM, and 2:15PM, with the earlier session being the best place to see a favorite player, as most of the team is on the field then, going over blocking, tackling, and other football fundamentals. The afternoon practice usually sees special teams drills, and runs shorter, due to the intense heat of Pennsylvania’s late summer.

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Most football fans come to training camp to see their favorite players, or maybe a highly-touted draft pick or free agent signing. However, while the fans are marveling at the star power on the field, coaches are making some very important decisions for the upcoming season – which players will make the preseason roster, and which will be released, or “cut,” during camp.

Photography is encouraged, and bringing along a camera is the reason many fans make the trek to Lehigh each summer. Shots are sometimes hard to get, as the amount of fans can be overwhelming. Plan to show up early if you plan on taking pictures, to stake out prime real estate along the fence, before most of the other fans arrive. While taking pictures is a popular reason to attend training camp, some just come to watch. Bleachers are plentiful, and give you a bird’s eye view of the field.

Souvenirs are available at the entrance to the training facility, and feature merchandise not only for the Eagles themselves, but also items specific to training camp, giving fans the opportunity to prove just how “green” they are, by taking home something to prove they were there. To many, however, the ultimate souvenir remains the elusive autograph. The Eagles make all their players available for autographs throughout the course of training camp, though getting the autograph of a favorite player can be a little tricky.

Autograph sessions occur once daily, and fans are selected through a lottery system to have the opportunity to participate. Only 200 attendees are chosen each day, through tickets handed out between 7AM and 9AM. Arrive early for your best chance to get one of these tickets. That’s not the only way to get an autograph, though – many fans find luck by waiting along the fence where the players enter and exit the field. This is also a great way to see your favorite players up close, even if autograph seeking isn’t the end goal.

The Eagles’ players, coaches, and staff all stay in dorms at Lehigh’s Goodman Campus, and can oftentimes be seen driving around Bethlehem when not practicing. The team’s curfew isn’t until 1AM, so there is plenty of time for players to explore the city. Some local sites to see visiting Eagles include the Tally Ho Tavern, Lehigh Pizza, and Starter’s Riverport – all of which are but a short walk or drive from Lehigh’s campus on the South Side.

For the ultimate chance to rub elbows with the Birds, your best bet is Anna Bella Ristorante, just across town on Center St. (Bath Pike). Owner Ralph Caiazzo has been serving Eagles’ coaches and staff for more than a decade – Head Coach Andy Reid is said to be a big fan of the chicken parmesan and filet mignon. Though Coach Reid and his entourage typically only give short notice of when they’ll arrive at Anna Bella, it’s a great place to check out if you want to eat your meal at the same place as the guy who calls the shots on the field.

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