PHILADELPHIA -- The venomous contempt that Philadelphia Eagles fans have for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens is the type of animosity often reserved for the most vile and hurtful of sins: betrayal.
When a local sports talk show offered free tickets to tomorrow's game here to the fan who could be most creative if he had the chance to confront Owens, the vitriol was unbridled. "Maggot," "scumbag" and "malignant tumor" were just a few of the more printable epithets.
"If Owens and [Eagles quarterback] Donovan McNabb had gotten to play together for three or four years, they both would have been first-ballot Hall of Famers," said season-ticket holder Brian Roakes, who tends bar at Chickie & Pete's in South Philadelphia, within a long field goal of Lincoln Financial Field.
After the 2004 season, when Owens caught 77 passes for 14 touchdowns and the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, Roakes said, "T.O. had the city in the palm of his hand ... then he spit in that hand."
Fans blame Owens for the Eagles' miserable 2005, when the star receiver was sent packing in midseason after a contract holdout and public feud with McNabb, and the team finished 6-10.
Anticipation over Owens' return to Philadelphia has been swelling all week. As fans exited the stadium Monday after the Eagles' win over the Green Bay Packers, anti-Owens T-shirts were being hawked. Every sportscast has been dominated by the latest uttering out of either locker room. The price of tickets has soared - over $200 for standing room and more than $1,200 for end-zone, club-level seats as of yesterday. And as the game approaches, the city's passion is beginning to burn.
Ex-Eagles Pro Bowl linebacker Bill Bergey, asked what the mood was like, thought for a moment.
"The city is a ticking time bomb and it's set to explode at 4 o'clock Sunday," Bergey said without smiling.
The hype for the game has wavered between ominous and farcical.
Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who as New York Giants coach once called Philadelphia a "banana republic" but now says he has come to respect Eagles fans' passionate partisanship, expressed hope "that everyone would use good judgment and not take it too far."
"If you study crowd behavior around the world, you see soccer crowds in some places where it can get out of hand," he said.
Meanwhile, WIP-AM, the radio station that conducted the Owens insult contest, plans to match the game's carnival atmosphere with a real circus tomorrow, including clowns, jugglers and stilt walkers, at its broadcast site near the stadium.
The game is drawing so much media attention the Eagles' public relations department is issuing 750 credentials, akin to a playoff game, with news outlets coming from Canada and Europe.
Fox will show the game to 95 percent of the country as its doubleheader showcase. Likely adding fuel to the fans' ire is that former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman will be there to broadcast and ex-Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson, who was pelted with snowballs at Veterans Stadium years ago, will be part of the pre-game show at the Linc.
And Miller Lite held a charity auction on eBay in which former Eagles Keith Byars and Seth Joyner and ex-Cowboys Jay Novacek and Tony Dorsett will go to the top bidder's home to watch the game. The winner, who is paying more than $11,000, is an Eagles fan in Laguna Beach, Calif.
The players who will actually take the field tomorrow have been trying to focus on the X's and O's in pre-game interviews, but, eventually, even they succumbed to the obvious story line.
"These Philly fans are something else and I think [Owens] knows that, too," Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard said. "It's going to be exciting to see how creative they can get for this game."
On the radio, in the bars and at the cheese-steak stands, the more common suggestions regarding fan expression have involved Owens' accidental overdose of pain medication last week.
As the crowd exited Monday night's home game against the Packers, T-shirts were being sold that said, "Got pills?" Tomorrow, fans are expected to be dressed as nurses, pill bottles and prescription pads. Even Owens said that he expects the "ole" soccer chant that Eagles fans once sang in his support using his initials, "T.O.," will be replaced with a mocking version substituting the letters "O.D."
"We had high expectations of him and we go to one Super Bowl," said Fran Nolan, who sat at the bar at Chickie & Pete's wearing an Eagles shirt even though he was about to attend a Barbra Streisand concert. "Then he starts playing his little games and ruins our dream."
Security also will be on the lookout for fans trying to toss objects - pill bottles are most often mentioned - onto the field.
The Eagles have suggested it would be prudent for players on the other sideline to keep their helmets on. And Philadelphia players said some fans have even told them to try to harm Owens.
"[Fans say] hit him after the play, just take him out," Sheppard said. "But it's not that type of party."
The defenders that Eagles fans are most counting on to punish Owens are safety Brian Dawkins and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. Both said that a good lick on Owens will be more a matter of opportunity than premeditation.
"Whoever it is - it doesn't matter the number or the jersey or the person in the jersey - if you're on the opposite team, if I get a chance, that's what I do," Dawkins said.
Trotter, who felt the fans' wrath himself when he left Philadelphia in 2002 and played for the Washington Redskins before returning to the Eagles two years ago, has remained friendly with Owens.
"When somebody comes across the field, all I'm going to see is that star on their helmet," Trotter said "If you have a different color jersey on, you're going to get the same punishment as anybody else. I don't look at it as T.O. is coming to town; I look at it as the Dallas Cowboys are coming to town. I am going to try to knock out whoever is coming across the middle."