Tag Archives: sports

Sketches of Redskins Fandom

Football is a game of numbers, statistics, metrics, predictions, analysis, massive crowds, huge salaries, gigantic men.

My relationship to football, my personal connection to it, is far different – its basis in the intimate and not the organized – I never played for or cared about my junior or high school teams, but spent afternoons in the neighborhood, running post routes in the street, tackling my friends into piles of dog shit; and Sundays on the couch, shouting at the TV.

My perspective on the ‘big picture’ is ever evolving, during some seasons I get in such a disgusting funk over the whole thing I can’t bear to watch, other seasons it’s all I can do not to replay a game three times during week. I’ve at times been casual, meticulous, and absent in my fandom. I’ve been zealous, and then skeptical, and then angry, and then glad. It comes and goes.

I sometimes see it as a big scam. I rage at the huge sums of money, the off-field behavior of players, the incomplete promise it gives to young aspiring athletes, the get-out-of-jail-free passes it provides in schools, and universities.

At those times, I can’t offer my time or interest. But then occasionally, it feels like an old, strong glue – one of the few remaining things that can hold a transient, ever sprawling community together. Or it can feel like a badge, one only earned after staying put for a few decades. Yes, I remember that game from 1997. And if you do too, well, we’re probably going to get along just fine.

(Ironic, considering players virtually never suit up for their hometowns, and that they’ll be gone the moment someone offers them more cash elsewhere.)

Sketches of Fandom

Redskins Birthday Cake, Late 80's

Redskins (Jay Schroeder) Birthday Cake, Late 80’s

Four years old, basement with family, Skins v Falcons 1988

I’m maybe four or five, and it’s a basement party at my house with my parents and aunts and uncles, and I vaguely remember it being around the holidays, and the opponent being the Falcons, and someone explaining to me how evil they are, just the worst. Everyone is shouting like crazy and I think it’s great fun. We are all on the couch, with pizza and snacks.

Now I’m an adult with the internet, and I can find out this was probably December 17, 1988, and the Skins held on to win 31-30, finishing the season respectably at 10-6.

First game, bus ride

I’m something like six or seven years old, and my Dad and I are boarding a bus that will drive us to the stadium. I remember standing in the parking lot waiting, and then we’re on the bus and there are a lot of adults being loud, something I’m not used to.

We get to the game eventually and my memory of it is foggy, but I remember at some point two men in the bleachers arguing, one of them a fan of the opposing team, and one of them a fan of the Redskins, and I could sense my Dad getting tense, the protective instinct overtaking him.

I’ve never seen this many people in the same place before. I’ve never been in a crowd larger than the Moms who assemble at a grocery store on Saturday afternoon, pushing carts. I’ve never heard anyone scream in public. I’ve never seen so many people wearing Red.

Christmas, 1991(?)  Art Monk shirt

Christmas, 1991(?) Art Monk shirt

Skins Zubaz cap. Crosswords with Pata, 1990?

Skins Zubaz cap. Crosswords with Pata, 1990?

Church, Darrell Green

I’m in Junior High (or Middle School as we call it in my part of the country, in this generation) and I’m spending the weekend with a friend’s dad, who has moved away to another neighborhood following a divorce. We have a great time all weekend watching TV and playing with Nerf guns, and on Sunday, find ourselves in his Dad’s church, a big black gospel church with more singing and dancing and praising than I’ve ever witnessed in my life.

After the main worship takes place, small groups break away in to Sunday School groups, and all of a sudden my friend and I are in a group led by Darrell Green, Redskins Hall of Fame cornerback, and he’s patiently delivering stories of his faith to this group of assembled youngsters.

I don’t care much for church, in fact, the NFL has been a fine Sunday substitute for it for much of my life… but there we are, with number 28, and I have the feeling I’ve reached a new peak of social gratification in my young life.

Skins hat, in the mountains. 2001.

Skins hat, in the mountains. 2001.

Madden 2001, Stephen Davis

I’m in High School, and instead of studying, it’s much more interesting to play video games. The decision making required to navigate through any number of Playstation worlds is far more taxing than my homework, the telescoping logic trees of the games let my mind wander through states of complexity I can’t find in any classrooms.

So there was the game, a football simulation – Madden 2001 edition – and I had found the player – Stephen Davis, Redskins running back. A HB Toss left, cranking the D-pad as far as I could away from the defensive line, and then up the sideline, Davis was good for fifteen touchdowns a game. Was it a bug? A ghost in the machine? He wasn’t anywhere near as productive in real life. Such is the nature of games…. maybe that was the lesson.

I infuriated any opponent who dared wander into my room and throw down a challenge, until they found my defensive weaknesses, and tossed hail mary’s just in time to even out the score before overtime.

The Fake Punt

Two days before Christmas, 2001. My Dad and I take advantage of the winter break and make our way to FedEx Field, the Redskins’ new home. It’s bigger than RFK, everything new and shiny, but the team feels further away, like they’re in another room of a very large house. The team started 0-5 this year, then followed up going 5-0. The crowd is hopeful.

We’re up 13-10 with ten minutes left, and feeling pretty good as the Bears line up to punt. The snap goes back to Brad Maynard, the punter, and he pulls up, draws a line on Urlacher, tosses for 27 yards, touchdown. ‘Da Bears walk off with the win.

The long drive home, and then I’m back in the neighborhood. I see a few kids playing across the street and run out to throw a few balls. Looking around, the suburbs, the quiet streets, the kids playing football just because it’s fun. I struggle to connect it to the giant stadium I was in a few hours earlier. I tell someone I went to the game today, and a look of precaution takes him over, like I’m some visitor from another world.

Christmas, 2001. Grandma, the Redskins' Greatest Fan Ever

Christmas, 2001. Grandma, the Redskins’ Greatest Fan Ever

Tampa, Traveling

The next time my Dad and I decide to go to a game, it’s 2006 and we fly to Tampa. We have amazing seats, close enough to hear the players talking to each other. At one point, Clinton Portis, Redskins HB, walks down the stairs right next to our seats, failing to find the proper entryway to the field. Someone directs him appropriately.

In Florida even November games are warm. My Dad spent younger years in Tampa, before I was born, and this is the first time I’ve visited. It’s a dual purpose trip. I don’t remember much of the game, other than both of us drawing the conclusion that watching the players from this close makes evident how little emotional investment they put into their duties. Many of them looked very bored.

Skins vs Bucks, 11/06, Tampa

Skins vs Bucks, 11/06, Tampa

Cooley Wedding

When I was in kindergarten, I got married. She was a pretty blue eyed blonde girl, whom I had spoken to only to propose. Our arrangement was to sit at the same lunch table, and otherwise stay far away. Somehow… we drifted apart after a few days. It nearly broke me.  And when I was eighteen, her name blipped back up on my radar – she had gotten married again. But this time, she married a Redskin.

He was easily one of the most popular players on the team and remains a strong voice in the organization today, even after his playing days are over. I saw him once publicly, in 2011, he was making an appearance at a race I was running. I stopped by to say hello after finishing – “Hey, man, Hail to the Redskins! I used to know your wife, in Kindergarten!”

He paused for a beat – the usual meet & greet shimmer rippling for a split second, as he took in this strange, sweating person, offering him this vague connection – and he said, “Cool, man. Cool. Thanks.”

Snow game

It gets more and more difficult to stay positive, when the team has only been to the Super Bowl once in over twenty years. But I keep watching, reading, listening. Keep buying the damn hats.

It’s December 8, 2013, almost exactly 25 years after I was first instructed on how to conduct myself as a fan of the Redskins. The team is having an awful season, and the game last week was so terrible that a few friends and I decide to get ourselves to the stadium, to try and right the ship. They are practically giving tickets away.

It’s freezing, and snowing. The Visiting team has 38 points before halftime. We’re miserable, but unwavering in our support. By the fourth quarter, as only a few stragglers remain, it is evident that things aren’t going to be better any time soon. Chiefs 45, Redskins 10.

The record is set for lowest attendance in stadium history. I’m not sure if that makes me feel proud or ashamed, to be one of those resilient Burgundy & Gold souls.

Lowest Attended Game in History, 12/8/13

Lowest Attendance in Stadium History, 12/8/13

on the Simpsons, and Keeping Score

In a short news promo before last night’s rerun of the Simpsons, something caught my attention about an upcoming hockey game. The sportscaster said, in her spiel about why the game was worth watching – “Every point counts!”

It was a typical phrase, probably used daily in a sports broadcast somewhere around the world, a rhetorical statement not really specific to the game, but a general excitement builder. It made me pause and think, though – Does every point count?

In hockey and soccer, yes. Goals are worth a point. In Baseball, yes, runs are worth a point. They matter.

In other sports, the singular point is only incidental. There is a possibility that a single point (not several points at once) cannot be scored in basketball, football, and tennis.

The ‘extra’ point in football is the only instance in which a team can add 1 to their tally, and theoretically, they could play a game and score points without ever having the opportunity to add just ‘1’. Likewise in basketball, the commonest number of points scored with a goal is 2, with the ‘free throw’ single point only taking place after a foul. If no fouls occur in a game there may never be a single-point opportunity.

Why isn’t ‘one’ the base number for a goal in basketball and football? Does the adding of several points for every score make the game somehow more exciting? Do spectators get a greater thrill from larger numbers representing the team’s effort at the end of a match?

If you can relate to Homer Simpson, the answer is yes. In episode 5FO1 – “The Cartridge Family,” the Simpsons attend a soccer match between Mexico and Portugal in which neither team scores, and the game ends 0-0. The scoreless event infuriates the crowd and spawns a riot, eventually leading Homer to purchase a gun for his family’s protection.

Perhaps the NFL and NBA, in an attempt to avoid crowd anger over low scoring games, decided adding all the extraneous points was the best way to keep guns out of the hands of Homers around the country.

The episode is particularly relevant this week as states around the country enact new gun control laws – Maryland is expected to sign some of the strictest measures in the United States next week.

The Simpsons episode originally aired almost 20 years ago, but hasn’t lost a bit of its humor in two decades.

“A gun is not a weapon, Marge, it’s a tool. Like a butcher knife or a harpoon, or, uh… or an alligator. You just need more education on the subject. Tell you what – you come with me to an NRA meeting, and if you still don’t think guns are great, we’ll argue some more.”

http://www.simpsoncrazy.com/scripts/cartridge-family

on Basketball

Among the Egyptian students, the American students, the Japanese and African students, the bright students and the wild students, Carmelo Anthony stood out as the most visible student on the tiny campus of Oak Hill Academy, tucked away in microscopic Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.Now on the worldwide stage, he stands out in the news media, on NBA basketball courts, and in the Olympic Games.

I don’t remember the first time I met him.I might even venture to say I never actually met him, merely shared space with him, sitting in the same classrooms, chapels, library, gym, and cafeteria that he did during our senior year in high school.For a brief time, in a rural town plumb in the middle of Appalachia, our very different lives intersected.Yet, and such is true of all successful athletes, there remained a barrier between him and the rest of us.As his career has propelled him to world fame, that barrier has stuck around.

Carmelo came to Oak Hill Academy via Towson Catholic in Maryland, where he was already being touted as a standout player.At 6’8”, 230 pounds, he towered over the rest of our senior class, which consisted only of a few dozen students.Athletic talent aside, Carmelo blended in fairly well with the myriad of personalities our group contained – drop outs, rich kids, internationals, nerds, and partiers.But he was the only one of us named to the McDonald’s All-American Basketball team.

Every morning at Oak Hill, before the school day commenced, all the students filed into the chapel for our morning “devotional” speech and administrative announcements.We sat in tiny wooden chairs, organized alphabetically, seniors in the front.Carmelo sat directly in front of me, just a few inches away.He could frequently get away with putting the hood from his jacket up, and dozing off while the principal rattled on about whatever pestered him.A lucky student would often be forced to write his own “devotional,” and present it to the entire student body in the morning.I gave mine a month after September 11th 2001, and asked everyone to never forget.I can’t remember if Carmelo ever spoke to the students during the morning announcements – he did most of his talking in the gym.

Sometimes when I’m walking through the mall, or driving in my neighborhood, I spot young kids wearing a replica of Carmelo’s jersey.This never ceases to interest me.I sometimes want to tell the kid, “Hey, I used to see him every day.”I hold back, realizing the kid would then have all kinds of questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer.Or they would dismiss me, disbelieving, because I am far too short and nerdy-looking to have anything to do with an NBA superstar.I get the same feeling when I walk past a shoe store and see a life-size cardboard cutout of him, in his trademark pose: a grin on his face, mid-stride, head and shoulder tilted slightly down, one leg bent at the knee and a basketball attached to his giant hand.

For nine or ten games, during the freezing cold winter of 2001-02, I had a front row seat to basketball magic.In a miniscule gym, hundreds of miles away from the nearest airport, towering talents sprinted up and down a brown and burgundy wooden floor to the excitement of thirty or forty dedicated fans, plus the hundred or so students of Oak Hill.The non-student crowd that showed up was mostly local folks, old-timers who had been in the area for generations and had nothing else to do with their nights.Occasionally a big-time college coach would show up, scoping out the talent and trying to recruit for UNC, Duke, or somewhere.We students could suppose that eventually we would see these same athletes on television, but there was no real evidence to prepare us for what that would be like.

Although I knew what kind of sports talent I was watching, I was caught up in a young romance; to me the basketball games were just an excuse for some rare close contact with my girlfriend, a break from the rigid rules that separated genders for the majority of the day.I didn’t have the privilege of being on the basketball team, which frequently traveled out of state to play in tournaments. I envied that they didn’t suffer the monotony of campus food on their weekends away, and no doubt squeezed in some R&R.When they would come back on Sunday evenings, their hair would be braided and goatees spotted their chins, all of which had to be undone by the next morning before school.Although he followed the dress code, Carmelo and the rest of the team had a loophole – they could wear their warmup jackets, which sported the Oak Hill logo, while the rest of us trudged along in our solid colored polo shirts, tucked in at the waist.

After a number of national championships, Oak Hill’s reputation became a magnet for star players who are looking for the spotlight, coming from all over the world to join the Warriors.Coach Steve Smith steadily built a basketball powerhouse over the past few decades, frequently turning down high-profile professional and college job offers to stay in a place that guarantees the most talented players, year after year.

In my first year at college, Carmelo was a freshman at Syracuse University where he racked up school records and won the NCAA tournament MVP award.The burgundy and gold uniform I knew from Oak Hill had been transformed into bright orange, and he added a signature headband.I would sit in my smoky dorm room at Appalachian State, next to my roommate on a pair of folding chairs, watching an old classmate entertaining thousands of fans, millions of TV viewers.I had lost my spot courtside, and now I watched from afar.Whatever bar or party I walked into, there was Carmelo, glowing from a TV tucked away in a corner, winning 35 games and taking his team to the championship.

When Carmelo was drafted into the NBA, that’s when the jealousy kicked in.In college I just had pride.But when I started reading the news reports about the size of his contracts, those millions of dollars made my mind reel.I was a dedicated fan during that rookie year.I would stay up late to watch the west coast games, and even sometimes wanted my local Wizards to lose if they were playing the Nuggets.I also developed a dislike for LeBron James, who the rest of the sports world was so infatuated with, and who went first in the draft that year, before Carmelo’s third pick.

I tried getting in touch with Carmelo once after high school, to no avail.He was in town to play the Wizards, and the day before the game, I emailed his agent.“Any chance of getting some complimentary tickets for an Oak Hill alum?”I got a response that my information would be passed on to “Melo,” but never heard from him.Maybe I was ignored because I waited until the last minute.I don’t know.After that, my interest waned.I stopped paying attention to his seasonal percentages, his wins and losses, and only noticed when he was in the news for marijuana possession or some other controversy.

The times I have seen him on TV, in magazines and newspapers, and on the jerseys of kids in the mall, far outnumber the times I have seen him in person since our graduation day.I’ve only seen him twice.In November 2006, he was in town to play the Wizards and I bought some pricey seats so I would have a good view.I took my girlfriend along, who didn’t really know what to expect from this celebrity I kept claiming to know.As the game went on, Carmelo outscored everyone else on the floor, and the Nuggets walked off with a convincing win.A few times throughout the game I thought I saw him looking up at me, maybe in a flash of recognition.I’ll probably never know.

I can be fairly sure that I won’t ever have a fifteen million dollar advertising contract with Nike or a salary twice that amount to play professional sports.I’ll never be in the Olympics, and I won’t have little plastic action-figures made in my likeness. But I will have a college degree – something Carmelo skipped over on his path to stardom – and I’ll always be able to pass unnoticed through the supermarket or shopping mall.I wonder if Carmelo ever wishes he could go to the movie theater without having to sign autographs, or take his fiancée out without having to fend off hangers-on and admirers.Being a regular guy has benefits, after all.

Last year I traveled to Charlotte where Nike was hosting an Oak Hill Alumni game.Jerry Stackhouse and many others all got together to shoot hoops in their old Oak Hill uniforms, casually entertaining a modest crowd.Carmelo was present but sat the game out, reserving his health for the NBA season.Still deprived of an NBA championship title, he has a lot to plan for.And when it comes (which I count on) I’ll be cracking a smile and thinking about how I (kind of) knew him when he wasn’t even allowed to put his hair in braids.