PHILADELPHIA – As Byron Velvick, who’s been in front of a camera or two in his time, walked the weigh-in stage on Day 4 of the Elite Series event on the Delaware River, he turned the lens of his phone on the screaming fans.
“This is a memory I’ll never forget,” said the former Bachelor, who finished 10th with 14 bass for 31 pounds 8 ounces.
Even if Velvick wanted to forget it, that might not be possible. The ringing in his ears will be a constant reminder.
This may not have been the largest crowd in Elite Series history, but it was probably the loudest, certainly on a per capita basis. Just as Philly sports fans legendarily booed Santa Claus, today they booed the in-absentia crowds of Elite Series events gone by, laying down the gauntlet for the people of towns like Shreveport, Waddington, Pittsburgh and Orange, Texas. They wore their emotions on their sleeves, some of them permanently, as plenty of fish-themed tattoos were in evidence.
Some of these pros hail from places where the only events that get cheers this loud are SEC football games. Kevin Short said his hometown of Mayflower, Arkansas probably doesn’t hold as many people as attended today’s final weigh-in. “Some places we go, the crowds may be just as big, but they’re dead sticks,” he said. “These people are excited for us to be here. That tells you that Philly fans are freaks.”
Jennifer Lowen, wife of 7th place finisher Bill Lowen, is normally the loudest person at an Elite Series event. When her hubby ascends the stage she normally emits an eardrum-piercing scream that can be heard two states away. Here, she wouldn’t have even made the JV squad. Jackie DiBruno from South Philadelphia, standing three tiers above the lower level seats, could be heard above just about everyone else. If Mrs. Lowen wants to keep her crown, she’ll need to go on a strict training regimen.
“I just started to fish but this makes me want to do it more,” DiBruno said. “This is what Philly fans are all about. They’re just so passionate about anything sports-related.”
While the overflow crowd was ethnically and economically diverse, like the city itself they gave off a blue-collar charm. There were of course plenty of baseball hats in evidence, but a hard hat with some industrial hearing protection might have been more useful. This ethos was best epitomized by BJ Silcox, a member of the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19, who was standing front and center, screaming his lungs out, three beers in and by his own admission on his way to 40.
“That’s how we do,” said the resident of Pennsauken, New Jersey, summing up the feelings of a cast of thousands in four simple words.
Why was he there? Like just about everyone, the express purpose was to cheer for champion Mike Iaconelli.
One exception to that rule was Philadelphia resident Shawn Fisher, gathering autographs while wearing a Flyers Hat and a camouflage Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt. He admitted that he’s a KVD fan and doesn’t like the Eagles, but concurred with the rest of those in attendance that the locals are passionate about all sports. “It doesn’t matter what sport it is,” he said. “It doesn’t even have to be a major sport. They’re just as passionate for the Phantoms and the Soul as they are for the Eagles and the Phillies.”
Fisher’s passion fit the stereotype, but his tastes were definitely outside the norm. Five-year-old Alexia Surplus from Delaware County, Pa., held up a sign proclaiming herself the “Number One Ike Fan.” If she’d wanted to make an issue of it, the rowdy crowd might’ve booed her, too. They had a response and a chant for everything, serenading Velvick with repeated cries of “Hollywood” that were half-taunting, half-adulation. The loudest noise was reserved for Ike, though. They chanted his name. They cheered. They wolf-whistled. They made noises at pitches only audible to our canine friends. If there was a way to salute him in an auditory fashion, someone in the crowd found a way to get the job done.
Sitting amidst the masses was Iaconelli’s uncle Don Fort, his mentor, father figure and former traveling partner. Fort could have been sitting down front in reserved seating, away from the screaming, pulsing masses of human noise, but he chose to be in the heart of the scrum.
“I wanted to sit with my family,” he said. It was unclear if he was talking about the various Iaconelli family members surrounding him or the Philly Phanatics stretching hundreds of yards in each direction.
It wouldn’t have helped to ask because it would’ve been impossible to hear his answer.