PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The fill-in Santa whose downfield jaunt at a Philadelphia Eagles game in 1968 lives on in sports history for the hail of snowballs and shower of boos that rained down on him has died. Frank Olivo was 66.
Olivo died early Thursday at a suburban hospital after a long battle with heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, said his cousin, Richard Monastra.
The story of Olivo's misfortune has long been held up as a symbol of Philly sports fans' ferocity, but far from minding his moment in sports history, Olivo "gloried in it," Monastra said.
"It was his 15 minutes of fame," he said. "He kind of liked it, actually."
The snowy onslaught began with the real Santa Claus stuck in New Jersey and unable to make it to the final game of the season between the Minnesota Vikings and a moribund Eagles team that started the year with 11 straight losses.
Olivo, who was in the stands wearing a Santa suit and fake white beard, was asked to fill in. But when he ran downfield past a row of elf-costumed "Eaglettes" and the team's 50-person brass band playing "Here Comes Santa Claus," thunderous boos erupted from the crowd of 54,535 and snowballs began raining down.
The halftime behavior during the team's final home game, broadcast around the country on Howard Cosell's national sports show, helped cement Philadelphia's reputation for rowdy sports fans.
Monastra, who was at the game that night, said he believes the fans were unhappy with the team, which lost the game to finish 2-12, and coach Joe Kuharich.
"They were ticked off at the team, they were ticked off at the coach," he said. "This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back."
But he said his cousin had a great sense of humor and took it in stride, even telling one nearby fan who pelted him that he could expect coal in his stocking on Christmas morning.
Olivo was a barber by trade and had his own shop for a while, then spent two decades in the casino industry in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Monastra said. He later sold cars and worked in the mortgage industry before ill health forced him to retire.
"He was a very nice man, very generous, helped out everybody whenever he could," Monastra said. "Just a very sweet guy, gregarious as hell, always had a story."
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who was also at the game, called Olivo "a good sport and a great Eagles fan" who is "indelibly etched in Philadelphia sports history."
"For as long as there is professional football," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer, "the story of the Eagles fans pelting Santa Claus will always be told."