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Once More, With Feeling

By Michael Powell and Maryann Haggerty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 22 1996; Page A01
The Washington Post

Man, oh, man, Sterling Tucker can remember so many Redskins moments, the clips running past the mind's eye of this longtime District resident.

Potbellied Sonny Jurgensen fading back, ready to hurl his football 60, 70, 80 yards toward a receiver lost in the dank shadows of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. And John Riggins, legs a-churn like a plow horse's, hammering up the middle. And Art Monk, in that long-legged water-bug stride of his, dashing down the sideline with a touchdown catch. And always the roar of that crowd, the small, double-tiered stadium all but bouncing as 56,000 fans, some stripped to the waist and wearing plastic hog snouts on their faces, screamed, chanted and flat out hollered.

"Baby, it was a happening," said Tucker, a former D.C. Council chairman, of his 35 years as a season ticket holder at RFK Stadium. "We were the 12th man. They belonged to the District and, man, we belonged to them."

After today, after one final clash with those hated Dallas Cowboys, it's all in the past tense. Next year, the Redskins decamp 4.9 miles and an incalculable psychic distance away to Prince George's County. They take their 229 consecutive sellouts at RFK, their three Super Bowl triumphs and all that history to a new, multitiered, football-only, luxury-boxed, 75,000-seat arena in Landover.

Few fans in the District will forsake their season tickets, and none would consider an apostasy so extreme as to take up with the Cowboys. The Redskins have long belonged to the region -- the District, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware -- and the team will, after all, remain but a few miles from Washington.

Still, with the Redskins gone, the 35-year-old RFK Stadium will sit like some abandoned cathedral on the Anacostia River, a place whose football soul was lost to the contagions of history.

Groundskeeper Robert Medley came of age in Southeast Washington's Lincoln Park, within earshot of RFK. He's worked there for eight years, toiling on Sundays when it was "so loud I couldn't hear myself think." Last week, he helped unfurl a hose so that he and the grounds crew could spray paint yardage markers on the field one more time. Tall and rangy, a 54-year-old with two sons, he affects no nonchalance as he peers at names of the Redskins immortals -- Sammy Baugh, Vince Lombardi, Larry Brown, Billy Kilmer -- that girdle the stadium's upper deck.

It troubles him to see it end.

"I hate it," Medley said quietly. "The Redskins should be in Washington and nowhere else. The city is losing a lot, a real lot."

The Redskins leave in their wake two great debating points. Did District leaders "lose" the team, or did owner Jack Kent Cooke, a billionaire of formidable political gifts and inscrutable intent, toy with city officials in negotiations that stretched over six years? And will the loss of the Redskins deal a blow to the city's economy?

"It speaks volumes to what we can't do," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), opining for many who view the loss of the team as a metaphor for a diminished city. "We dropped the ball, and now we're trying to blame everyone else, which is the common theme."

Perhaps, though many economists argue, strictly on dollars and cents, that the Redskins offer a minor boost to the District's economy, about $4 million for the sports commission that operates RFK, and maybe a million or two for city coffers. And any jobs lost -- as many as 3,500 people worked at the stadium on game days -- are part-time and likely to be regained when Abe Pollin's new basketball-hockey arena opens in downtown Washington next year.

"For the region as a whole, I don't think it will have any real effect," said Jerry Ellig, a senior research fellow at George Mason University who studies sports economics. "It will redistribute some activity from the District to Prince George's."

But to put fact and figure in proper perspective, one must reckon first with the umbilical tie between the team and the District these last 50 years.

The Redskins, it has long been noted, offered common bread to a city often riven by race, geography and political ideology. Year after year, crime dropped and museum attendance plummeted on game day. A cloud seemed to lift or fall with each win or loss.

"My wife says I'm not fit to live with when they lose," said James Tubbs, a barrel-chested trucker who repairs to a bar in Brookland to watch his Skins each Sunday. "No matter our problems in this crazy city, the Redskins were our rallying cry every fall."

As the nation's capital defines itself by power, pecking order and politics, so the Redskins teams and coaches seem to have mirrored those preoccupations. Consider legendary coach George Allen, a control freak who found a soul mate in President Richard M. Nixon. Within months, Nixon was scratching out plays for Allen.

One could measure the prominence of politicians by where, and with whom, they sat at RFK Stadium. Cooke, too, was ever generous, handing out dozens of tickets to television anchors, members of Congress, newspaper columnists, cabinet secretaries and vice presidents. His personal box was an ecumenical chapel, its guests ranging from conservative columnist George Will and former vice president Dan Quayle to liberal columnist Carl Rowan and former senator George McGovern.

Nor did local politicians suffer neglect. In a little-publicized perk, the city council maintained its own box at RFK, handing out tickets to favored constituents. "We would have all preferred they stay," said D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4). "No one wants to lose a source of local pride . . . and as a councilwoman, it's been great to get those tickets. We'll miss them."

Some waggish council members privately note a correlation between the behavior of the football team and D.C. government, from their shared sleepiness of the 1950s through the free-spending 1970s and 1980s, to their straitened circumstances of the present. In 1971, a Redskins official offered an assessment that, says a current council member, might aptly be extended to District government: "I gave George Allen an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it."

The Redskins' climb from the muck of a segregationist past offers a broader metaphor, reflecting, in its own way, the city's march toward black political empowerment.

The team's founder and owner, George Preston Marshall, never hid his agenda when the team came to Washington from Boston in 1937. The Redskins would be the team of the South, with all that implied at the time. He constructed a web of radio networks, from Richmond to Chapel Hill, N.C., to Atlanta to Gainesville, Fla. "Fight for Old Dixie" was the team's theme song, and each August, the players barnstormed south to packed houses.

"My father was an ardent Redskins fan, but he listened to the games on the radio," recalled Dwight Cropp, a former top aide to Mayor Marion Barry and now a professor at George Washington University. "Blacks weren't particularly welcome."

The Redskins employed no black ballplayers or employees during their 24-year tenure at the old, 25,000-seat Griffith Stadium, which they shared with the Washington Senators baseball team. Nor did Marshall intend to desegregate his team when he moved into the 56,000-seat D.C. Stadium at East Capitol and 22nd streets NE.

But changing times cornered him. The D.C. chapter of the NAACP picketed the Redskins' first game at the new stadium. President John F. Kennedy voiced displeasure and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall threatened to evict the team from its new quarters unless it drafted or traded for a black player.

In 1962, Marshall traded for Bobby Mitchell, a well-regarded receiver and halfback. His white teammates ignored and hazed him, and patrons at white restaurants spat at him. But Mitchell endured through a storied career that led to a place in professional football's Hall of Fame.

Tucker vividly recalls those days and his efforts to desegregate the Redskinnettes cheerleading squad. Each day, he would drive to Howard University and chauffeur black cheerleaders to the team's suburban Virginia practice fields.

By 1965, the lyrics to "Fight for Old Dixie" had given way to "Fight for Old D.C." The stadium, renamed in 1969 to honor the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, still hosts a predominantly white crowd, reflecting the reality that holders of Redskins tickets rarely yield to anything but death. But black fans fill living rooms and restaurants across the region to watch their team.

"It's like the rest of America: We had to work to create it," Tucker said. "We helped, and now they were ours."

Which raises another question: Why are the Redskins leaving? Or, to better capture the aggrieved tone of the debate in the District: Who lost the Redskins?

Some might view their move as inevitable, another scrap of urban America yanked loose by the migration to the suburbs. In 1961, the District was ringed by a loose collection of small towns. Today, the region is a vast megalopolis, peopled in part by the children of former D.C. residents.

"It symbolizes the suburbanization of the D.C. metropolitan area," said Jamin Raskin, a professor and dean at American University. The loss of the team "comes as a blow to municipal self-esteem, but this is really just a move to another part of the Redskins territory."

Still, District officials often thought they were on the cusp of retaining the Super Bowl champions. In late 1987, Cooke began lobbying for a larger, more modern home, with 78,000 seats and a raft of lucrative luxury boxes. His first choice, he said repeatedly, was to erect a new stadium alongside the old one. And he set the first of many deadlines for D.C. officials to get him a deal.

Mayor Barry embraced the challenge. "The Redskins are ours," he proclaimed in 1988. "We're going to keep them."

Barry's optimism appeared justified. Prince George's and Montgomery County officials expressed no interest in the team, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments said the team should remain in the District. In September 1988, Barry told business leaders that he and Cooke had "reached an agreement."

Weeks later, the deal evaporated, establishing a years-long pattern. Cooke would flirt with Virginia and Baltimore and suburban Maryland -- and each time return to the District. In August 1990, The Washington Post reported that the District and Cooke had "all but finalized an agreement." A year later, Cooke was quoted as saying a deal with the District was "almost a given."

It never happened. From Cooke's point of view, the negotiations presented a never-ending series of hurdles. The land he desired belonged to the federal government, and acquiring it required time-consuming permits, approvals and environmental impact statements. Discussions over easements, roads and new highway ramps inevitably turned on the availability of federal highway dollars because the fiscally besieged District had little wiggle room.

In the middle of it all came Barry's political sabbatical, when he was arrested, convicted and replaced by Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.

The District, too, has reason to doubt Cooke's true intent. The city put more than $100 million on the table. And time and again, negotiators for Barry and Kelly found themselves within inches of an agreement, only to hear Cooke raise another seemingly insignificant objection, from the timing of an announcement to what publications he would use to advertise for building contractors.

"We kept asking ourselves, `If Mr. Cooke really wants this deal, why is it sitting there after all these years without a spade of dirt turned?' " recalled lawyer Langley Shook, who represented Kelly in stadium negotiations. "We thought we were moving closer, but it was always halfway to the goal line."

Then there was the infamous, alleged grope, where the billionaire entrepreneur (whose $40 million divorce settlement once graced the Guiness Book of World Records) is supposed to have ended a negotiating session by patting Kelly's rear. True or false, reports of the incident did nothing for the atmospherics of stadium talks.

"A billionaire bully," Kelly called Cooke months later, after negotiations broke down completely.

"He's a difficult man," Evans said, "But the bottom line is that our government couldn't make it happen. It's a huge, huge loss."

But that, too, is very much subject to debate. In the view of boosters, stadiums are golden fountains, providing a steady stream of jobs, tax revenue and thousands of dollars spent in local restaurants, bars and hotels. Prince George's County officials estimate the annual county and state tax revenue from a new stadium at $10 million.

In the District, experts agree that a loss sheet must include tax revenue, profit at RFK, some jobs and such ethereal spinoffs as national media coverage. The city's finance office is still tallying projected tax losses and plans to finish its analysis next month.

Few economists expect a dreadful accounting. Although the Redskins were the largest single source of revenue for RFK, these experts note that, unlike hockey, basketball and baseball teams that play 40 to 80 games at home, football teams are in town for only eight or nine games a year.

Stephen Fuller, a George Mason University professor, once studied the economic impact for the District of a proposed new stadium. "It was almost embarrassing -- the numbers were so small," he said. "Football fans want to get into the stadium. They don't stop and shop. And on the way home, it's usually dark."

None of which should suggest that Cooke has embarked on a fool's errand. If new stadiums offer thin gruel to their host cities, they serve a rich sauce for owners. Luxury seating, richly priced food and drink and a blinking, rotating swirl of advertisements are expected to pour millions more dollars into Cooke's coffers -- money he and other owners argue is needed to lure expensive athletes and build powerhouse teams.

Seen in this unromantic view, RFK's extinction was no less inevitable than the passing of the dinosaurs. Derided by architects in 1960 as a "whoopsie-doodle roller coaster," this strange curling stadium -- with its sharp plunge from the highest seats to the field and its bad views, deafening roars and quaint sense of intimacy -- is a remnant of a sports era long past.

"God, you sit in that bowl and you couldn't hear yourself speak," recalled Gabe Phillips, who runs a travel agency in Herndon and has attended games since 1970. "You didn't care how cold it was because the place was vibrating."

RFK officials and groundskeepers spent last week carefully fussing over their field, preparing for the final Redskins game with all the care that an expert gardener might bestow on a favored rose bush. Asked about future uses for the stadium, they talk of small colleges, pro soccer and field and track.

Their plans are gamely tendered, but one is left with the sense of people trying to convince themselves that a nearly empty glass is full.

Come November, RFK Stadium's changing fortunes will be sadly apparent. While the Redskins charge onto their suburban field in full gladiatorial gear before tens of thousands, RFK will host several thousand brides and grooms. Where Jurgensen once hurled rockets into the autumn air, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon will preside over a mass marriage of his followers.

"They say you have to expect change, and the lessons of my life are that much of it is for the better," Tucker said. "But, man, it's going to be strange driving to the suburbs next year. Our stadium rocked. It really did."

Staff writer Len Shapiro contributed to this report.

KEY DATES IN RFK STADIUM HISTORY

1937: The Redskins team comes to Washington and moves into the 25,000-seat Griffith Stadium, which it shares with the Washington Senators baseball team.

1958: The number of Redskins season ticket holders falls to less than 10,000.

1960: Construction begins on a new stadium.

1961: The $24 million, 56,000-seat D.C. Stadium opens, and pickets from the NAACP protest the lack of black ballplayers.

Dec. 10, 1961: First demonstration by local residents protesting stadium noise and neighborhood parking restrictions.

1962: Redskins acquire receiver and running back Bobby Mitchell, the team's first black player.

1966: The first of 229 consecutive sellouts of Redskins home games.

1969: The stadium is renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

1971: The Senators move to Texas.

Dec. 31, 1972: Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys, 26-3, at RFK Stadium, winning the team's first spot in the Super Bowl. The Redskins would go on to win the Super Bowl after the 1982, 1987 and 1991 seasons.

1987: Owner Jack Kent Cooke says he wants a new stadium, and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry says the District will do all it can to keep the team. Years of negotiations ensue as Cooke also explores building a stadium in Virginia or Maryland.

1995: Cooke announces a deal with Maryland to build a $175 million stadium with his own money in Landover.

Dec. 22, 1996: Redskins play last game at RFK Stadium.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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