Party Animal

Party Animal
(Veronika Lukasova)
By Christina Ianzito
Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Rev. Bob Cilinski mans the bar on this fall Sunday afternoon, standing behind a table laden with bottles of vodka, gin and whiskey, next to large coolers of Miller Lite and Yuengling. The Roman Catholic priest hands his friend Mike Holupka, 64, a bloody mary in a massive mug. "It's bloody holy water!" Mike says, lifting his glass, and "Father Bob," as everyone here calls him, laughs at their old joke.

They're surrounded by acres of asphalt in one of the sprawling parking lots that circle FedEx Field. Mike, who lives in Woodbridge and co-owns a construction company, has been the host of this regular tailgate party since the stadium opened in 1997. The ritual's culinary ambitions have risen steadily through the years. Grills have given way to bigger grills. A deep fryer was added, and a mini-fridge is now lodged in the back of the Holupkas' maroon SUV.

The force behind the party is Mike's "pit crew," which includes his former parish priest and his current priest, the Rev. Mike Bazan. They're here with the relatives and friends who have been chosen to help set up, cook and take down all the tailgate trappings in exchange for free tickets to home games.

The pit crew concept was born a few years ago, says Mike Holupka's daughter Tracey, when other tailgaters watched the group unloading and were amazed by their efficiency: "We all pull in, and there's this setup -- a kind of ballet. The grills are already going in five minutes. They said, 'You look like a pit crew at a NASCAR race.' "

On this day, four hours before game time, three SUVs and a small car are parked in a row, Redskins flags flying. Their rear ends face several folding tables loaded with chili, shrimp cocktail, cake, cookies and, of course, liquid refreshments. Mike's buddy and pit-crew member Dan Evans is sitting behind a deep fryer, cooking wings, shrimp and fries that he later seasons with Old Bay. The pit crew cooks enough food to feed themselves, along with friends and work colleagues who also have Redskins tickets. About 35 people come and go during the three-hour tailgate, including neighboring tailgaters who stop in for a slice of the group's renowned rum cake. (There are occasional special guests. Earlier this season, former Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien spotted Father Bob's bar and stopped by for some Crown Royal.)

Tracey, who lives in Reston and says she has been a Redskins fan "since the day I was born," was invited to be the first female pit-crew member two years ago. "The first year, you're on probation," she explains. "You have to show up on time and have a job to do. I had to make sure everyone had a drink."

Mike says his brother-in-law Pete Marinoff is still on probation: "We have to have a vote on him at the end of the season." Pete's job is to cut the potatoes for the fries, which he's doing with deep concentration.

Their labor is a small price to pay their benefactor, Mike, who is now turning a row of sausages on a large portable grill with a thick cigar gripped in his mouth. He is no casual Redskins fan. This is a guy who has been a season ticket holder since 1963 (he now has 14 seats, most near the 40-yard line), whose hulking Yukon has gold detailing punctuated by the Redskins logo, and who used to wake his kids in the morning with a rousing "Hail to the Redskins." He declines to reveal "what a ridiculous amount of money I spend on tickets."

His reverence for the team is matched by that of the pit crew members. They include Father Bob, who has been going to games with Mike since 1982 and arranges his Sunday work schedule around the team's. (He celebrated two early Masses this morning before heading to the stadium.)

"I do pray for the Redskins," the priest says, though he is careful to first give thanks "for our three Super Bowl victories . . . the inspiration this team has given our city these many years . . . Joe Gibbs's return and his example of leadership . . . and on game days, I add, 'And dear God, a Redskin victory today wouldn't hurt.' "

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