Howard vs. Morehouse: Football again returns to RFK Stadium in Nation’s Football Classic

Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST - Gary Harrell’s Howard football team will take the field against Morehouse at RFK Stadium on Saturday.

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When the Howard University football team steps onto the field on Saturday afternoon, it won’t be for just another game. This one is going to be a little more meaningful, and not only because the Bison are resuming a heated rivalry against Morehouse College in the inaugural Nation’s Football Classic.

That the game — several years in the making — is taking place at history-rich but deteriorating RFK Stadium adds another layer of intrigue, not to mention a lot more elbow room for an event organizers hope draws tens of thousands and perhaps can become a fixture in the D.C. sports landscape.

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For the game to be viable beyond its current contract through 2013, Events DC, which owns and operates RFK Stadium, is set to infuse $3 million to $4 million for upgrades to the 50-year-old facility, according to Erik Moses, senior vice president and managing director of the rebranded organization, formerly known as the Washington Convention and Sports Authority.

“One thing I think is great about [the Nation’s Football Classic] in terms of an annual event is Events DC is going to put some money into this building,” Moses said. “The more events we can bring, especially annual events, the better argument you can make for continued investment in the stadium.”

Moses specifically mentioned enhanced premium seating and restroom improvements as possible upgrades.

RFK opened on Oct. 1, 1961, when the Washington Redskins played the New York Giants in the first game there. The Redskins called RFK home for the next 35 years, and Washington sports fans, at least those old enough to remember, unanimously refer to the NFC championship game victory over arch-rival Dallas following the 1982 season as the building’s defining moment.

The Redskins’ last game at RFK took place on Dec. 22, 1996, and appropriately enough, the result was a 37-10 dismantling of the Cowboys after which fans kept chunks of the turf and carried away some of the burgundy-and-gold seats. Since then, there have been a handful of college football games at RFK, including the Military Bowl, which last year saw Maryland beat East Carolina, 51-20, in Ralph Friedgen’s final game as the Terrapins’ coach.

“I think this is one of the loudest buildings I’d say pretty close to ever built,” said Troy Scott, Events DC’s director of operations who has handled field maintenance at RFK since 1996. “When you do get 20, 30 thousand people in this building, I mean, it rocks.”

The Washington Senators played at RFK until moving in 1971, and the Washington Nationals called the stadium home for three seasons before relocating to Nationals Park in 2008.

Major League Soccer’s D.C. United is the only current tenant. The club, though, has been seeking a new home field primarily because of RFK’s declining infrastructure that has included malfunctioning lights, falling concrete and raccoons inside the building.

Moses and Scott have been working feverishly to protect against further defects and to ensure RFK Stadium is at its most presentable for Saturday. Complicating matters has been this week’s torrential rain, which has created logistical hassles around the region from flooding and road closures.

The grass field at RFK is of special concern because of the high volume of water it has taken on. Howard, for instance, was supposed to have a walk-through at RFK on Friday, but those plans were scrapped to help preserve the integrity of the field for the game.

“You would like to get on the type of surface that you’re going to be playing on that day, to get a good feel for it” said Howard Coach Gary Harrell, whose team plays regular home games on an artificial surface at Greene Stadium. “That’s what we would like to do being a turf team. This is going to be the first time we play on grass this year.”

Howard and Morehouse haven’t played since 1997, much to the disappointment of alumni and supporters from both schools, and although the teams finally are tangling again, there’s no guarantee they will be participants next year. Other historically black colleges and universities could play in subsequent games.

The Nation’s Football Classic is being modeled after long-running HBCU games such as the Bayou Classicand the Atlanta Football Classic. The Bayou Classic annually matches Southern and Grambling. The Atlanta Football Classic, meantime, has matched Florida A&M and Tennessee State for the past 13 years but included Southern and South Carolina State in previous games.

Regardless of which teams are playing, Events DC officials said they are committed to preparing RFK down to the last detail in order to provide attendees, including the mayors of Atlanta and the District, with the finest game-day experience possible.

“The fact that we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary [of RFK] this year is a testament to this building, to what it’s meant to our city and to our region and frankly to our country,” Moses said. “I think games like this help to breathe new life into that old building. It’s a great place to watch a game. It’s a great place to go to an event. They don’t build them like this anymore.”

 
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