By Amy Gardner and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 2, 2006
The crowd at Caddies on Cordell was uneasy but hopeful, even the young woman in the burgundy-and-gold, floor-length Washington Redskins skirt. Their team was playing what could be the final quarter of its season against the hated, lackluster Philadelphia Eagles, who had the ball and the lead, 20-17. All eyes at the Bethesda sports bar were on the TV screens.
Eagles quarterback Koy Detmer, fleeing Redskins defenders, fired off a pass. Washington linebacker Lemar Marshall stretched to the sky, batted the ball, then grabbed it and held on for the interception. Redskins' ball on Philadelphia's 22. On the next play, running back Clinton Portis scampered to the left and dived across the goal line.
The Redskins were ahead to stay and into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. How sweet it was.
"Way to go, boys!" bellowed Hosea Summers, 47, a District native and lifelong Redskins loyalist who was among at least 100 fans in various hues of burgundy at Caddies. He bear-hugged his friend Jill Fischer, 32, of Laurel, jabbed at the television with his finger and then turned to a stranger and high-fived him.
"That's what we do. That's what we do!" answered Aaron Houghton, 31, of Silver Spring, jumping up and down nearby. Houghton and a high-school buddy, Jon Nachtsheim, 31, had been quietly nursing glasses of Miller Lite -- an exercise in caution, they said, the day after New Year's Eve -- until the game turned. After that, they hardly took their seats.
The folks at the bar and most other fans across the region had been nervous leading up to that play. Summers grasped his head and groaned at every missed first down. He and Fischer regularly shouted at the TV.
Several fans sounded a common theme: that they, and the Redskins, deserved a little glory after years in darkness.
"We all grew up in the Joe Gibbs glory years, then we had to suck it up for a lot of years," said Nachtsheim, who is such a die-hard fan that he follows 2005 NASCAR champion Tony Stewart because Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs owns the driver's team.
"Now, in the last game of the season, the playoffs are on the line," Nachtsheim said. "It's like a dream come true."
Going into the Redskins' final regular-season game, all the numbers seemed to favor them. They had a 9-6 record and needed a win to ensure a playoff berth.
But if the numbers favored the Redskins, someone had forgotten to tell the Eagles. Quarterback Mike McMahon's passing and the strong running of University of Maryland product Bruce Perry gave Philadelphia a 17-10 halftime lead. Meanwhile, Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell struggled the entire game.
At Lucky Bar in Dupont Circle, the Redskins crowd was thin. But that was no matter for a table of five friends who have been gathering at the bar for eight years to watch Redskins games, commiserating over losses while remaining steadfast in their loyalty.
Shortly after halftime, it looked as though there would be more commiseration. The Redskins were playing tentatively, and their defense looked lousy, the men said.
"I can't handle this," said Pete Smeltzer, 41, a bar manager from the District.
Aaron Lovett, 33, of Garrett Park has been a Redskins fan since he knew how to watch TV, he said, and somehow it felt like all those years were leading up to this game. "It's been real bleak," he said, "So it's nice to have something to cheer for."
Suddenly, a tackle by Cornelius Griffin gave them another reason to cheer. The table erupted in high fives, but the team was still down. "For us to lose this would be horrible," Lovett said. "Terrible. It would ruin the next couple months for me."
Soon, the room went electric as Portis scored the go-ahead touchdown. At least two fans ran laps around the tables in celebration.
Another touchdown soon followed. "Happy new year!" shouted Oxon Hill resident Marcio Campos, seeming to refer more to the football season than to the calendar year. "This game is over."
Ian McGee, 28, of the District summed up the feeling for everyone: "Sweet redemption for those of us who have been suffering for 12 years."
Even the most faithful Redskins followers were put to the test this season as the team started impressively, slumped horribly midway through and then finished with five straight victories.
It was classic Joe Gibbs, late-season, smash-mouth football, what so many expected when the Hall of Fame coach returned to the team after a 12-year layoff.
An initial high erupted after Gibbs's team defeated the arch rival Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field, 35-7, two weeks ago, and suddenly the Redskins were in the hunt for a playoff spot. They rolled over the New York Giants last week, and Philadelphia was the last stop on the road to the postseason.
The Eagles had self-destructed in midseason and were out of playoff contention. But the game was still in Philadelphia, where the Redskins had not won since 2001. Only a few years ago, so many Washington players were injured in a game that Eagles fans snickered that Redskins were being hauled off in "body bags."
But this time, it was the Redskins and their fans who left the stadium grinning.
An hour after the game, Mark Ennes of Brookeville was still celebrating with friends in the Eagles' parking lot, even though Philadelphia fans had stolen the sentimental Redskins cap off his head and had pelted his white Brunell jersey with soy sauce. (Apparently rival fans in his section weren't pleased with how he stood and gave an extravagant first-down sign each time the Redskins moved the chains.)
"But hey, we won," Ennes said. "That's all that matters."
Staff writer Joe Holley contributed to this report from Philadelphia.