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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.