By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 3, 2007
For generations of Washingtonians, "Hail to the Redskins" has always been played up-tempo, making your step quicker, your heart dance a bit more on a crisp football afternoon. The first notes alone are enough to start you humming.
But 20 minutes before kickoff yesterday at FedEx Field, as tens of thousands of fans stood in silence, the team's band stood at midfield and played "Hail to the Redskins" as a dirge, slow and mournful. Then, as quickly as the music had started, it stopped short in a version that was abbreviated, like the life of Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins' 24-year-old safety who was murdered this week.
If anyone in the full house had not cried yet, that "Hail" -- played as a farewell -- probably did the trick.
However, the tears to be shed yesterday afternoon were not over. On a day when sadness and tributes, enormous effort and utter disappointment were both on display in full measure, the Redskins ended the day with a 17-16 defeat as bitter to swallow in every respect as a mere game can be. Nobody said life had to be fair, but this is getting to be ridiculous.
At what may have been the saddest game in Redskins history, when 85,831 fans and the entire franchise tried to pay its best possible tribute to a slain teammate, perhaps the most respected person in team history -- Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs -- blundered in the final seconds, coming as close to losing a game as a coach ever will. After returning from retirement to help a staggering franchise, after his composure in leading his grieving team all week, this is what he gets?
By calling an illegal second consecutive timeout to ice the Buffalo place kicker -- a mandatory 15-yard penalty when the kicker is on the field -- Gibbs provided Rian Lindell with a manageable 36-yard game-winning field goal with four seconds left instead of a 51-yard attempt which, in a drizzle on a grass field on a chilly day, might have been a 50-50 proposition.
Of course, in character, he took the blame entirely. "To be quite truthful, I made a decision there at the end that very likely cost us the game," Gibbs said. "That's on me."
Unfortunately, Gibbs is completely correct.
"Coach Gibbs is a stand-up guy," said linebacker London Fletcher. "But for him to take responsibility isn't necessary. We all played a part in it." Many other Redskins generously covered their coach's back as well. But it doesn't change the facts.
Now, the Redskins will fly to Taylor's funeral today in Miami, then return to Washington to prepare for the next game which, diabolically enough, is Thursday night at FedEx Field.
All week, people throughout the NFL said that Taylor's death "put things in perspective." Perhaps this is the time for the Redskins to truly live by those words. They probably weren't going to the playoffs this season, much less the Super Bowl. After this disappointing season of narrow defeats is done, one loss, more or less, won't be remembered very long. So, instead of bitterness, maybe this depleted team, which gave its best after days of emotional duress, should cut itself some slack. What mattered most on this day -- the tribute the franchise organized and the effort Taylor's teammates gave -- was exemplary.
Ceremonies and symbols don't unravel death or turn back the clock. But paying sincere respects, in every possible form, is the best partial medicine that man has found for an incurable pain. To that end, the Redskins handled an eight-minute pregame tribute with restrained yet powerful confidence, helping the crowd and team come together in their mourning. A team that has often been criticized for crass over-production on game day somehow found the perfect tone when it mattered most.
Throughout the crowd were thousands of fans in No. 21 jerseys. However, sprinkled among all the 21s were hundreds of older jerseys, some frayed with wear, with the No. 36 on them -- the number Taylor wore as a rookie in '04. Those were the fans who had fallen in love with the hard-hitting Pro Bowl safety immediately and wore the "wrong" number as a badge of honor.
"How many 21s are there? And 36s?" asked Dave Weetman, a Redskins fan since the '70s, who was wearing 36. "We're all walking in here together today, all with heads hung low, all walking in with the same heart.
"Then we're all going to be right back here [at FedEx] on Thursday night for the Bears game. We'll feel wiped out. And we don't even have to play the game," added Weetman, standing with two friends from South Riding. All had looked at their tickets for that Chicago game and shared a shiver. "Taylor's funeral is the same week his picture is on the game ticket," said Weetman. "I'm keeping that ticket [stub] forever."
Sean Jones of Fort Washington wore his No. 36 with equal pride. "All of my family is Redskin fans. I've had to leave my phone alone all week. That's all anybody wants to talk about," said Jones.
"The way some people have portrayed him has upset me, like the way he lived his life had something to do with what happened to him. It's not just losing him that makes people sad, it's how he was turning it around in his life. He was only 24. I'm 32 now. I look back at how I still acted when I was 25, like I knew everything. 'Who you talkin' to? I'm a man.' Just because you're rich and famous doesn't mean it's any easier to grow up. He was doing a good job."
The Redskins tried to do their job as well, pulling a quiet crowd into the game, waving their arms for noise at crucial moments. "I done cried so much on the field during the game I think I'm dehydrated," said cornerback Fred Smoot. "We let my man down."
For the Redskins, it is time to let go of victories and defeats, coaching mistakes and blame. Today is not a time for that. Sometimes, perhaps, fans know best.
Weetman, proud of his 36, spent last week buying three No. 21 jerseys. "I bought them for all three of my girls," he said. "They'll wear them to school next week."
Wear them with pride, final score aside.