Fans were already finding their cars in the parking lot, eager to get as far from the misery as possible. But Ted Abela couldn’t leave either. Hours earlier, he was surrounded by 400 friends and fellow fans at one of FedEx Field’s largest tailgate parties. Suddenly he was alone, still in his seat in Section 105, still shell-shocked.
The Redskins were knocked out of the playoffs Sunday, 24-14 losers to the Seattle Seahawks in an afternoon that featured a swing of emotions that Washington sports fans rarely experience: a morning filled with revelry and hope, cruelly followed by an afternoon of heartbreak, pain both physical and emotional.
Their hero, rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, hobbled on an injured knee for much of the day and finished the game on the sidelines. Washington Coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to send him on the field despite his obvious limitations was debated in the stands and surely will be a popular water-cooler topic throughout the offseason.
“You know he’s a warrior,” said Abela, 33, “but it comes to a certain point where he was hurting us, he was limiting us. When he scrambled down the sideline for that nine-yard gain and pulled up, I think at that point Shanahan should’ve made a decision to switch him. He couldn’t step into his throws.”
Throughout an exciting first quarter, as the Redskins’ offense rolled and their defense roared, the announced crowd of 84,235 chanted in unison: “R-G-3! R-G-3!” Midway through the fourth quarter, the Washington lead already erased from the scoreboard, Griffin’s knee buckled. So did the hopes of the burgundy and gold-clad Redskins Nation. Trainers sprinted onto the field to tend to the star, and when he finally rose to his feet, the chant began again.
It was a lot to process for a fan base that was experiencing its first home playoff game since the 1999 season. Judy Derberry drove five hours from her West Virginia home Sunday. When she arrived at the giant stadium earlier in the afternoon, she cried. When she walked out of it later in the evening, she was in tears again.
“I wish we would have won,” said Derberry, “but I’m just so glad that we got this far.”
Fans began gathering more than four hours before the game in the FedEx Field parking lot, where tailgaters ate, drank, sang and couldn’t conceive of the disastrous result awaiting them. The postseason excitement that had captivated the nation’s capital reached a fever pitch as kickoff grew closer.
Milling through the stands were Rob Brown, his brother, Michael, and friend Adam Bays. They were dressed as an American Indian, a turkey and a Christmas tree. The three met for lunch before the game and discovered the costume shop next door had marked all its holiday-themed inventory half-off.
“So we figured we might as well get some outfits for the game,” said Brown, 28, of Annapolis.
Other characters are regulars. Big Georgette is one of the original Hogettes, the famous fans decked out in dresses, hats, wigs and pig snouts. Also known as George Maxfield, Big Georgette was wearing the same outfit Sunday that he’s been wearing since 1983. The dress had seen better days, but not many better teams.
“And it’s not just this year,” he said. “They’re going to be something to watch for a while.”
Excitement for Sunday’s game began percolating long before the gates to the stadium opened. Neno Mejid, 67, of Fairfax, bought his Land Rover in 2000 and decorated it from bumper to bumper in burgundy and gold.
“I made the mistake of driving it to the grocery store last night because I was out of potatoes,” said Mejid, a Redskins season ticket-holder for 46 years. “I got stopped every five minutes. People were honking and waving. It took me forever just to get potatoes.”
Across the parking lot, Abela runs one of the biggest tailgates at FedEx Field, “Hail BBQ.” He arrived at the Landover stadium several hours before kickoff. Abela tailors the menu for each opponent. Sunday’s offerings included “Clipped Seahawk Wings” and “Brussell Wilson Sprouts,” a reference to Seattle’s rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
“All we had was the tailgate for those lean years,” said Abela. “All we had to look forward to was the tailgate. Obviously, that’s not the case now.”
The Redskins’ faithful won’t gather again for more than half a year, a difficult reality for fans to swallow after they finally experienced a season where the highs outnumbered the lows.
The skies above FedEx Field were dark as Grace Gutrich, from nearby Cheltenham, walked out of the stadium, swathed in a Redskins blanket.
“We’re not going to give up,” she said. “We’re going to keep our heads held high and wait for next season.”