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.