ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA – As the iconic theme song from Rocky blasted through loudspeakers late Monday night at the Xcel Energy Center here, the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles took the stage on opening night of Super Bowl week. For this edition of the team, however, rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” would have been a more appropriate musical selection.
The incarcerated Philadelphia native – whose situation typifies problems with sentencing guidelines, criminal justice reform advocates say – has helped fuel the Eagles’ first Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons, providing the team’s unofficial anthem. And in turn, the Eagles have bolstered Mill’s spirits while he serves his sentence for violating probation stemming from a 2008 gun and drug case.
Mill is still confined to a medium-security prison in Chester, Pennsylvania. But he was with the Eagles in spirit, players said.
“With Meek, man, it’s a Philly vibe,” Eagles rookie wide receiver Rashard Davis said. “Philly is his hometown. That’s where his people reside. We’re just bringing that culture, that hype, to our football field.
“Before each game, Meek is getting us riled up for the game. You can’t help but get riled up. You just feel that energy. And our crowd feels that energy. Just play Meek, get the crowd riled up and just go ball out.”
Interesting formula. So far, it has worked spectacularly.
After earning home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Eagles defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 15-10, in the divisional round. Then in the championship game, the Eagles dismantled the Minnesota Vikings, 38-7.
During pregame warm-ups each week, Lincoln Financial Field has been transformed briefly into a Meek Mill concert venue. The Eagles bounce to the beat – and they definitely put a beatdown on the Vikings. Postgame, the lyrics from the title track of the rapper’s 2012 album filled the locker room, which pleased wideout Torrey Smith.
“Meek is an icon in every NFL locker room,” Smith said. “And he’s definitely an icon to folk like me, who know what it’s like to come from struggle, know what it’s like to grind and just know what it’s like to overcome obstacles. He’s a perfect example of all of that. He’s also a person like me who, while I haven’t committed any crimes myself or fell victim to the [criminal justice] system, I have seen it.
“I’ve seen what can happen. It has affected friends of mine. It has affected my family members. And sentencing like this, what Meek is living with right now, is part of the reason why I was a criminal justice major. Things like this flat-out don’t make sense. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. We’re aware of all of that, what he’s going through is important to us, and we also definitely get energy off of his music.”
Meek Mill derives strength partly from the Eagles’ success.
“It really lifted my spirit to hear the team rally around my songs because that’s why I make music — to inspire others and bring people together,” Mill, 30, said in a statement released to Bleacher Report and NBC Sports Philadelphia.
“The Eagles have also motivated me with the way they’ve overcome tough situations and injuries to succeed this year. I’m so proud of my Eagles for making the Super Bowl and representing the city of Philadelphia. I’m confident my guys are going to beat the [New England] Patriots and bring the Super Bowl trophy to Philly.”
Smith, safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long have championed criminal justice reform. They’re among many current and former professional athletes – NBA superstar James Harden recently visited Meek Mill in prison – who have spoken out about the rapper, who in November was sentenced to two to four years for a probation violation. This week, Meek Mill matched Colin Kaepernick’s $10,000 donation to Youth Services Inc. of Philadelphia, part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Pledge.
Day 9 of my #10for10! Thank you @meekmill for choosing Youth Services Inc to be part of the #MillionDollarPledge! We’re donating $10k each to them for a total of $20k! See where the funds go on https://t.co/xr8M9w1cTQ! And stay strong brother! $990k donated, $10k to go!!!! pic.twitter.com/lMPRQa7UBL
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) January 29, 2018
“The Meek Mill situation is one that represents the stuff that happens every day when you talk about people being victimized by the criminal justice system,” Jenkins said. “Once you get a record and once you have a rap sheet, it allows the system to really do with you how it sees fit. And oftentimes, that’s a burden that’s carried [disproportionately] by people of color. We’ve seen this repeatedly.
“Because Meek is such a prominent figure, now everybody sees what’s really happening out there. People see this is happening to Americans every day. And unfortunately, he’s still behind bars. But he has a lot of people who are supporting him. His music has been something that this team has rallied around. It’s something that is near and dear to the city of Philadelphia. We’ll continue to support him and ride his music throughout the Super Bowl.”
Have the Eagles moved on from the Rocky theme song for good?
“Rocky is always going to be Rocky in Philly. But that’s the older generation,” Davis said. “Meek has brought something new to the table. You always have to pay respect to Rocky. But Meek is important. Especially with what’s going on.”