Fondly remembering the era when the Redskins dominated

Redskins fan Anthony McNeill of Caroline County, wearing an Art Monk jersey, cheers NFL Hall of Fame inductee Russ Grimm.
Redskins fan Anthony McNeill of Caroline County, wearing an Art Monk jersey, cheers NFL Hall of Fame inductee Russ Grimm. (John Mcdonnell)
By Dan Steinberg
Sunday, August 8, 2010

CANTON, OHIO - The first Washington Redskins season Jeff Clarke can remember was 1981, Russ Grimm's rookie year. Drew Tong's first football memory came the following season, during Grimm's first trip to the Super Bowl. Ditto for Brian Robins, whose license plate still reads "70 Chip," the famous play call on John Riggins's game-turning Super Bowl XVII run that was blocked in part by Grimm.

The three fans, all in their mid-30s, traveled separately to Canton this weekend to celebrate Grimm's enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They did so as lifelong Redskins supporters backing their team, but they also did so out of a sense of nostalgia for childhoods when the Redskins dominated both opponents and life in Washington.

"We're kind of living in the past," Robins said of his generation. "I remember what it was like back then to be a fan. It was exciting, phenomenal. I think you kind of took it for granted."

Grimm's career almost perfectly mirrored the Redskins' glory years. During the guard's 11 seasons in Washington, from 1981 to 1991, the Redskins played in 19 playoff games and went 15-4 in the postseason, playing in four Super Bowls and winning three. In the 18 seasons since his retirement, the Redskins have played in just seven playoff games, going 3-4.

His induction into the Hall of Fame allowed fans to revisit that golden era for the second time in three years.

In 2008, when Darrell Green and Art Monk were both inducted and the Redskins played in the next day's Hall of Fame game, Washington fans invaded this town in remarkable numbers. There was nothing close to that this year, but there was still a solid ribbon of burgundy-and-gold nostalgia snaking through the weekend.

Many of Grimm's teammates filed into Canton's Memorial Civic Center on Friday night for the Enshrinement Dinner, including offensive linemen Fred Dean, Jeff Bostic, George Starke, Joe Jacoby and Donnie Warren. They sat with Bobby Beathard - the architect of Washington's glory days - and watched as Grimm was fitted with his jacket by longtime offensive line coach Joe Bugel. Asked about their enduring popularity in Washington, the men pointed both to their success and the drought that followed.

"Until something happens, that's the best era of Redskins football that city's ever known," Bostic said.

"No one's replaced the lore," Starke agreed. "There's no recent lore, so you have to live in the past. Every time the Redskins lose, we become more famous. Every time they have a fourth and one and get stuffed, people think about John Riggins and the Hogs. You create your own history. We created it, and no one's replaced it."

Of course, the induction weekend prompts nostalgia for many fan bases. There were hundreds or thousands of Dallas fans wearing Emmitt Smith jerseys and San Francisco fans in Jerry Rice apparel.

But Redskins fans, in many cases, seemed to be celebrating the entire offensive line from the 1980s, nicknamed "the Hogs," and even that entire era of football.

Clarke and his childhood friend George Stebbing, both 34, were wearing jerseys of Grimm's teammates, Jacoby and Riggins.

"When my buddies go out and buy jerseys, they buy throwback jerseys," Clarke said. "I wouldn't buy the jersey of anyone who's on the team right now."

Many more fans came wearing the jersey of Joe Theismann, Monk and Green. Mike Burton, who used to work Redskins games at RFK stadium as a teenager, brought a Grimm jersey he's owned for more than 20 years. Joe Gibbs did an autograph session. Both Washington sports-talk radio stations were on-site, with programs hosted by Gibbs-era stars: Rick "Doc" Walker on WTEM (980 AM) and Brian Mitchell on WJFK (106.7 FM).

The Hogettes - the fan group formed in 1983 to pay honor to the Hogs - brought eight members to Canton, including two of the founders, who were busy signing autographs and posing for photos.

"Did I think we'd still be doing this in 2010? No, no," said Michael Torbert, the 65-year-old nuclear energy engineer from Fairfax who came up with the Hogettes idea. "I've heard some people say we want to return to the '80s. That's not it. We're in 2010. We want to return to winning ways."

Still, the franchise has explicitly pointed to the past in recent months, since Bruce Allen - the son of legendary coach George Allen - was hired as general manager. Promotional mailings use his father's "The Future is Now" slogan; the team's new Virginia instant lottery ticket is called "Redskins Legacy"; Redskins alumni have been invited to practices and events; and Allen frequently refers to the glory years during his meetings with fans.

"We are so proud of our history," Allen told the crowd that descended on training camp for Saturday's Fan Appreciation Day at Redskins Park. "And this year we are trying to create our own."

When - or whether - there will be another celebration like this is unclear. Fans and teammates have said more Gibbs-era Redskins deserve Hall of Fame consideration, commonly mentioning Jacoby, Mitchell and wide receiver Gary Clark, who was at Redskins practice on Saturday.

In the meantime, fans in search of positive memories still hearken back to the 1980s, using words like "old-school," "blue-collar" and "snot-nosed" to describe the style Grimm represented.

"The Redskins, they're about history," said Tong, 35. "We've gotten to the point where we like to look back to when they were really dominant."

"Look at the stats of the Hogs, how impressive they were, and then look at the last 10 years or so," said Mark McPherson of Hopewell, Va. "There's no comparison."

Staff Writer Jorge Castillo contributed to this report from Ashburn.

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