Giants' Joe Judge, from Philly area, has converted some Eagles fans

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. That might not be the case for Joe Judge when he returns home to Philadelphia on Thursday.

He will be coaching the rival New York Giants against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox). The Giants' first-year coach is coming back to face his childhood team for the first time in his current role.

Judge, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, will have a large group of friends and family in the building. They aren't going to miss this one. The total count is expected to exceed the 30 tickets Judge originally requested.

They're all welcome -- with one caveat.

"My only rule with everybody that shows up that I either grew up with or [have] blood ties with: They've got to wear blue," Judge said. "I respect their love for the Eagles, for being from the town. But, hey, look, man, you ain't showing up and cheering against my kids' Christmas now. So you better put on some blue and cheer for us."

Make no mistake: Even in a stadium with a limited number of fans (about 7,000) because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Philadelphia native and Giants coach doesn't expect a friendly welcome.

The decimated Eagles (1-4-1) are desperate for a victory, and their fans are unhappy with the state of the team heading into the matchup with the Giants (1-5), who won their first game against the Washington Football Team on Sunday.

"I'll probably buy a helmet, too, because my in-laws are already buying batteries," Judge joked during a conference call Monday.

The Giants weren't all that popular to the Judge family and most of their friends until he was hired on Jan. 8. They are die-hard Philadelphia fans, and Sundays were about the Eagles when Judge was growing up, even if his favorite player was Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.

"In the house, it was definitely the Eagles," said childhood friend Frank Panariello, who went by "second-string Joey" when he lived at the Judges' house while Joe was in college. "We were all around. Even when I was there, it was football. Saturday was football because of college -- especially when we were in college, with Joe at Mississippi State and everything -- and the NFL days, even [when Joe was] with the Patriots, his brother [Jimmy] was still an Eagles fan. He's a Patriot, but you still root for the Eagles.

"The Super Bowl was a tough one. Rooted for the Patriots, though," he said of the Eagles' 41-33 win against New England in Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, 2018.

Making the switch to the Patriots, with whom Judge worked as an assistant for eight years, was natural. But for the most part, his friends could still cheer the hometown Eagles without guilt.

Inheriting Giants fandom has been a more arduous task, even if Judge's family have done it without hesitation for their favorite coach. The division rivals are located some 90 miles apart.

"I told him I hope that [Giants] contract includes witness protection from Eagles fans," high school teammate Matt Stairiker said of Judge being hired.

This surely wasn't the way friends and family envisioned this unfolding. Anybody but the Giants, Dallas Cowboys or Washington Football Team would've been more palatable. Twenty years or so ago, Judge coaching the Giants would have been blasphemous.

"She would've probably said, 'Can you try for the Eagles?'" Panariello said of Judge's mom, Denise, a school principal. "I know his dad would've had some words. That's for sure."

Judge's wife and kids are expected to make the trip, assuming they can figure it out with school Friday morning. Panariello and Stairiker will be among the crew of close friends in the building Thursday.

At this point, the Big Blue mandate is easy for them. Judge's friends are full converts and plan to support their pal at the expense of their former obsession.

Panariello had arranged to get tickets for a crew of six, but that plan wasn't going to fly. There are perks that come with this job.

"Joe was like, 'Wait a minute. Why don't you just have me do this for you guys?' He was like, 'I'd love to have you there as a group.'

"My reason for it was we just wanted to be there to support him. We'd get there somehow for him, and he was like, 'Nah, absolutely not!'"

All that matters is that friends will be there -- as will Judge's family, including uncles, cousins and more.

This will be the fourth time Judge has coached against the hometown Eagles. The first was in 2015, when a group of his friends made the trip to New England to witness a 35-28 Eagles victory that included a pair of special-teams touchdowns against Judge's unit. If that didn't make for some awkward postgame conversation, Super Bowl LII certainly did.

Panariello made the trip to Minnesota for that game, in which the Eagles won their first Super Bowl. He not only rooted for New England but also turned down the opportunity to attend the Eagles' postgame celebration party to spend time with his friend.

"He was like, 'Hey, you a little happy?'" Panariello recalled after seeing the team he rooted for most of his life win its first Super Bowl. "I was like, 'Can I say it? Yeah. You already won a couple.'"

Judge then returned to Philadelphia when the Patriots beat the Eagles 17-10 in November 2019 at Lincoln Financial Field.

That was special. But this is different, even if Judge downplays it all in his self-deprecating way.

"To be honest with you, it's not my first time going back to Philly as an opposing coach," he said Monday. "It's a great city. It has great, passionate fans. It's an excellent team. It's obviously a great rivalry. I grew up watching these games. They were always tough games, blue-collar-type games when the Eagles and the Giants were playing when I was growing up watching the games.

"Again, you're so focused on the opponent, the emotion doesn't really get tied into it. We just know we have a heckuva team we have to match up against."

The Patriots (and Eagles) are in the past for Judge now, but Thursday's game won't be the first time he has seen family or friends in Giants blue.

"My brother walked around in a [Lawrence Taylor] jersey his entire life, I think, mostly to make us mad because we were all rooting for the Eagles," Judge said. "Eventually you get used to seeing it, and you understand why he was wearing it."

Now the Giants jerseys worn by family members have a much different meaning.