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Eagles fans find nest in Tampa

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2002

TAMPA -- Eric "Conan the Barbarian" Vaihinger searched far and wide for salvation.

TAMPA -- Eric "Conan the Barbarian" Vaihinger searched far and wide for salvation.

"I was lost," said the Philadelphia Eagles fan who sports a shaved head and topknot reminiscent of the old-time professional wrestler known as the Mongolian Stomper. "Now my life is complete."

Vaihinger had heard rumors of a bar in Carrollwood where the green and silver flew as proudly as the red, white and blue.

"Finally, I can cheer for my team in peace," Vaihinger said. "Here, you are among friends."

Bill Connell, a New York Giants fan before he moved to Tampa to open a sports bar at the corner of Dale Mabry and Fletcher, said he had his doubts when the Tampadelphia Eagles Fan Club asked if it could use his back room to watch football games.

"That was back before the Bucs were any good, and Sunday afternoons were dead," said Connell, owner of Bilmar Station. "I said, "If you can fill the room, be my guest.' "

On Saturday, as 200 screaming Eagles fans cheered a few feet from 50 solemn Bucs backers, Connell kept a watchful eye over his customers.

"Everybody is well behaved," he said. "I get a little nervous with all that high-fiving going on."

Vaihinger and fellow Doylestown, Pa., C.B. West High graduate Darrell Ganner call themselves the "bookends" and watch the door for any Buc fans who may stray into the Philadelphia red zone.

"They can come in as long as they don't stay too long," Ganner joked. "But we cut them a little slack ... the Bucs are still our second-favorite football team."

Ganner and Vaihinger stand in the back of the room, they said, because if they were back home in Philly, they would be sitting in the cheap seats with the riff raff.

"This is for all the boys in the 700 (level) seats," Ganner said, toasting a beer with his friends."E-A-G-L-E-S. Eagles!"

Ganner said he lives in Tampa, but he left his heart in the City of Brotherly Love.

"I can't change my colors," he said. "I can't change who I am."

The Tampadelphia fan club started small. "There (were) just three or four of us," said Mike Kline, who co-founded the club with Paul Parone in 1994. "Now we have more than 300 members."

The Eagles fans come from all over -- Orlando, Brandon, Inverness and St. Petersburg -- and all walks of life.

"We have white-collar workers and truck drivers," Parone said. "We all may have given up the snow and ice, but not the silver and green."

Kline said he we was rooting for the Eagles long before the Bucs started playing. "I've got underwear older than that franchise," Kline said.

Jim Silbert, born in Philly but raised in Florida, said he sometimes has mixed emotions when the Bucs play the Eagles.

"I have been rooting for the Eagles since 1964 and the Bucs since 1976," Silbert said. "So I guess you can say the Eagles override in terms of loyalty."

Vaihinger said that while children and the elderly are welcome at gatherings of the Tampadelphia Eagles fan clubs, they should have thick skins.

"This is not a PG-13 crowd," he said. "We are NC-17 all the way baby. We root hard and we root loud."

And that is what Joe Roseto likes about football games at the Bilmar Station. A career in the army took him away from Philly in 1970, but he always kept tabs on his beloved Eagles. When he retired to Tampa, he also started following the Bucs.

"It is all good," Roseto said. "It doesn't matter who wins today. I'll still have somebody to cheer for next week."

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