All Sports Roads Lead to Hershey: The Philadelphia Eagles in Hershey
Over its history, Hershey has played host to professional golfers and figure skaters, tennis stars, midget auto races, basketball teams, ice hockey teams and professional football.
From 1951 to 1967*, the Philadelphia Eagles came to Hershey for their summer training camp. The team would arrive in late July or early August for three weeks of pre-season conditioning. The football players were housed in rooms on the third and fourth floors of the Community Building.
Each summer the Eagles really did become part of the community. In addition to living at the Community Building, the players used its recreational facilities to relax in the evenings. Many local boys remember playing pool or handball with the football players.
The Arena locker rooms and showers were also used by the team each day. There was usually ice in the Arena which made it a nice place to cool down after each practice. Team members ate many meals at the Cocoa Inn, and were generally a presence in town.
Many people have fond memories of the Eagles players and their annual visits.
During the hot August days, my friend and I would mount our bicycles and ride along busy Rt. 743 from Elizabethtown to Hershey to see the Philadelphia Eagles, who made Hershey their preseason home back then. We would pack some tomato sandwiches (growing fresh in the garden at the time) and a piece of fruit for our lunch, and take a two-hour trip (one way) to see “our team.”
After enjoying our lunch in some shade near the stadium, we would line up with other fans to welcome the Eagles back from their mid-day workouts. As they headed for the locker rooms in the Arena, they would graciously stop to sign autographs for us; no grumbling could be heard as they did so! The players were hot and very dirty… looking to an early-teen boy as giant Oak Trees in uniform!
Practices were not closed and both children and adults would enjoy watching practice. As many people remembered, the team members were always very gracious and stopped to sign autographs for the boys who viewed the Eagles as their heroes.
For several years, the Eagles also hosted an “Open House” or Family Day for the public. Visitors could watch practice, have photos taken with their favorite players and get autographs. For a few years, there was also a contest to select an honorary “water boy.” 8 to 12 year old boys competed in throwing and catching competitions to win the honor of sitting with the team during a season home game.
Hershey also provided medical support to the team trainer. Dr. Lee Backenstose, a local family physician who also served as the Bears doctor, served as the local team doctor when the Eagles were in town. Usually the medical complaints were simple: muscle strains of the legs and back, sprains of ankles, knees, shoulders, fluid in knee joints, sore throats, etc. One of Dr. Backenstose’s most striking memories was the image of several football players in his waiting room. As he described it: “Imagine four Philadelphia Eagles in the office at one time–each large enough to fill a doorway.”
Pre-season practice always concluded with a pre-season game played in Hershey Stadium. Most frequently the Eagles played the Baltimore Colts. In many years the Eagles played a second game in the stadium later in the pre-season. These two games brought several other football teams to Hershey, including the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and the St. Louis Cardinals.
1967 marked the Eagles’ final year of practice in Hershey. In 1968 the Eagles moved their pre-season training camp to Albright College.
*In 1964 the Eagles training camp was held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.