RICHMOND – There’s an art to collecting autographs among the masses at Redskins training camp and a large part of it depends on location.
“This is the prime spot,” 18-year-old Austin Walls told me from the 50-yard line Saturday — his hat covered in dozens of mostly illegible signatures — as the Washington Redskins Marching Band performed before a festive practice on Fan Appreciation Day.
Walls and friend Kenny Staton scored their ideal position on a cool, overcast morning by virtue of being the first two of 20,477 fans through the gates at 8 a.m. They had arrived at the gate from Powhatan a full six hours earlier, greasy sustenance from Hardee’s in hand.
And how did the Redskins’ two most sleep-deprived fans pass the time while waiting for the sunrise and team staffers to admit them?
“Redskins talk,” Walls said. “We can talk about that all day. I’m more excited this year than I’ve probably ever been.”
Walls and Staton weren’t alone in line for long.
Rajesh Goel and his 13-year-old son, Sahil, made the drive to Richmond from Gaithersburg on Friday night. They hung out in a parking lot near the training camp facility for three hours before arriving at the entrance around 3. They watched practice next to Walls and Staton after bonding over their willingness to forego sleep for the love of their football team.
The Goels have done crazier things in the name of fandom before, such as the time they stayed until the bitter end of the Redskins’ 45-10 loss to the Chiefs at frigid, snowy December day at FedEx Field last season.
“It’s been all downhill since I was born,” Sahil said of the Redskins’ performance during his lifetime. He was attending his first training camp and is optimistic – like seemingly everyone I talked to Saturday – about the team’s prospects.
Richmond native Melissa Stinnett’s key to collecting autographs at training camp is timing. As in, standing on the sideline, memorabilia in hand, every time the Redskins hold a practice. Stinnett, who works at Lowe’s, scheduled her vacation during training camp and hasn’t missed a session this year. She’s been rewarded with several autographs, including one from Robert Griffin III.
Stinnett, who enjoys taking her niece and nephew to training camp, arrived at 7 a.m. on Saturday and had no problem securing a good vantage point near the field. She said that was a far cry from last year’s Fan Appreciation Day, when temperatures in the 90s and an overflow crowd of more than 25,000 made for a miserable experience for some fans.
“We ended up leaving after 20 or 30 minutes last year,” said Stinnett, who received one of the 12,000 guaranteed tickets to Saturday’s event via a lottery that the team introduced this season in an effort to control the crowd. “This year has been so much better.”
Ashlie Beavers of Greensboro, N.C., who was attending her first training camp with her young son, Culley, stood out among the large crowd thanks to a large cutout of her husband, Jeremy. Ashlie had the cutout, nicknamed ‘Flat Daddy,’ created at a Greensboro sign shop after Jeremy, a member of the Navy, deployed nine months ago.
“‘Flat Daddy’ comes on vacations with us and to family events,” said Beavers, who sends photos of the cutout to her husband and posts them on Facebook for other friends and family members to enjoy. “It would be awesome if we could get him some signatures, get him all signed up. We gotta preserve the face, though.”
Regina and Marcus Banks from Lynchburg arrived with two
begs bags of memorabilia, including jerseys and footballs, and a strategy to get autographs.
“We’re actually going to work opposite ends of the field and meet in the middle at a certain time,” Marcus said.
Rodney and Nikee Goffigan of Woodbridge walked through the gates around 8:30 with kids Sean and Nia. It was their first trip to training camp, and yes, they were hoping to get some autographs.
“I was trying to scan the area to find the best spot,” Rodney said. “You’ve gotta be up near the front, though.”
The Goffigans ended up near the 50-yard line, a few feet from Walls and Staton. They couldn’t have picked a better spot.