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RFK Stadium: After 50 years, it’s still personal

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RFK Stadium never got the love it deserved. The stadium was in
the wrong part of town. (Mine.) It never entirely beat the rap. That didn’t keep it from being, over a lifetime, my favorite structure in Washington.

For me, it even tops the Capitol. If you were a kid growing up in Northeast Washington in the ’50s, that is a mountainously high hurdle because, back then, the Capitol grounds were perhaps the biggest, best playground in the world.

Fifty years ago this Sunday, when RFK opened for its first Redskins game, the west side of the Capitol, looking down the Mall at the Lincoln Memorial, was a scene that cannot be imagined today, or perhaps even dreamed of as part of our future. Families spread beach towels
for picnics. My parents would come with a jug of ice tea
and sandwiches, and my
friends and I would have the
run of the place (until we
couldn’t run another step).

For a kid who lived just a 10-block walk away, it was like having access to the backyard of a billionaire. You could play hide-and-seek amid groves of huge trees so dense that, from a few feet away, you might be invisible.

Then, when you got a little older, you could rocket down the steep sidewalk on the Constitution Avenue side on bicycles or skates, scattering adults who might have been senators. It really is Capitol Hill. None of us could even coast our bikes all the way to the bottom. At some point, you flew so fast (usually standing on the pedals) that you got scared and just had to tap the brakes.

Cops? They only chased you if you played ball in the alleys. The Capitol grounds belonged to America. How could you deny kids?

And when it snowed, my God — go on, tell me all about your hill.

That’s the astronomically high “emotional investment hurdle” that any new destination had to surpass to get top billing in the Kid World of my youth.

Then, miraculously, the unseen but suddenly benevolent forces of the adult universe opened that huge snow-white spaceship of a stadium with the wavy architectural lines that still make almost every other design in town look old-fashioned. Yes, you can call it a formative experience. In fact, it’s possible that I still haven’t overcome it. I’m lucky it wasn’t a pool hall.

* * *

To grasp what having a big-time stadium just a bike ride from your house meant in those days, consider this: When RFK (then named D.C. Stadium) opened, the NFL and major league baseball had as much “mind-share” among me and my peers as all forms of entertainment combined would hold now for a teenager. We had rock ’n’ roll. We had the Redskins and Senators. And we had any game we could invent, such as “chase” across the roofs of a block of row houses with gaps between some of them.

Yes, as longtime Washingtonians know, basketball was always hot at the grass roots in the whole region. But in a town with no NBA or NHL teams, and where college basketball was still dormant, the glamour was condensed in the Redskins and Nats — separate, but pretty darn equal in our hearts.

Both teams had been great once — Sammy Baugh, Walter Johnson — but both had been lousy long enough that “bad” was their identity. These days, with a thousand amusement choices, losing matters. Then, they were yours, and you absolutely loved them regardless. The snide child hadn’t been invented.

So to us, the new stadium didn’t provide proximity to rotten teams. It put our heroes in our laps.

However, though I grasped it slowly, I eventually realized that ballparks and stadiums are also among our most personal places. Our memories may be of teams, games or rock concerts, but they are also, perhaps primarily, about those who went with us. And what it meant to watch together.

For example, I didn’t realize that baseball on summer nights was an emotional sanctuary. Then one night my mother, who had a stressful job as a congressional speechwriter, said, as a full moon rose over yet another awful Senators team, “This feels like being in church: the ritual, the peace.”

My father was the Redskins fan. He also had helped found the union at the Library of Congress. For my birthday, he took me to a Redskins game. Strikers surrounded the front gate with “Unfair” signs. My father, I’m certain, never crossed a picket line.

I said, “Let’s go home.” He said, “Go in.” So we did.

Even stadiums that get bad-mouthed as much as RFK for being out-of-date and insufficient cash machines for team owners last for decades and span generations.

When my son was the same age that I was when RFK opened, I took him, and his best buddy, there for a symbolic occasion — but not a game. It was his first rock concert — an all-day festival, with a huge mosh pit in front of the stage. We sat in the upper deck behind high schoolers passing their joints. My rule was: Come back every hour. They did. But in the end, we did more talking about all the things they’d seen than any music played.

* * *

My favorite RFK memory isn’t the return of baseball in ’05, or any World Cup game or U2 concert. It is, as it should be, an instant of Redskins glory, but with a personal twist.

On Dec. 31, 1972, for the first time in my life, a Washington team had a chance, with one more victory, to play in its sport’s ultimate game — in this case, the NFC championship against the Hated Cowboys. (Little known fact: That is the official name of the Dallas franchise.)

The Post’s Dick Darcey, the best newspaper sports photographer of his time, knew the Redskins so well that they sometimes swore him to secrecy, then told him parts of their game plan so he could be in the best position to get shots of key plays. For Dallas, they had scripted a bomb up the right sideline from Billy Kilmer to Hall of Famer Charley Taylor but wanted to save it for a pivotal moment. When the time came, Dick had a tipster.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Redskins led, 10-3, at the Dallas 45-yard line. A score for a 17-3 lead would be a Cowboy crusher. In the press box, one of our writers said: “Look at Darcey. Here it comes.”

Carrying equipment that seemed to weigh as much as he did, Dick was sprinting from midfield, where all the other photogs were, toward the north end zone. He got to the goal line just in time. Kilmer threw it about as far as he could. Taylor beat his man by a stride. And Darcey snapped one of the best Washington sports shots ever taken, with the ball on Taylor’s fingertips just as he’s about to run straight off the page and into your breakfast cereal bowl.

When a stadium stands for 50 years and hosts several teams in various sports, and even has a pope drop in for visit, there are a multitude of memories that we hold in common.

And we grip them as passionately as Joe Gibbs, who loved the raucous place so much I thought he would cry when Jack Kent Cooke built a much bigger but less advantageous home for his team. What are we going to do without those sections of lower-deck seats that bounce up and down, he’d ask “Mr. Cooke.” And how can we duplicate the volume that rumbles out of an upper deck that sometimes seems to move like a minor earthquake as the crowd stomps and sways?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. The past is gone. And it wasn’t better. Just different. Besides, come on, be honest: By the time the 21st century arrived, the place was often a dump compared to modern norms.

What remains unique — but entirely personal to each of us who remembers RFK — is the people with whom we shared the place, the stories that belong only to us, not merely to the public record.

As athletes often say when a world title is won: “They can never take this moment away from us.”

We get to say the same, except it felt like we had a million of ’em.

© The Washington Post Company