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For Skins, Stadium Is Played Out

By Leonard Shapiro and Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 23, 1996; Page A1

Halftime, and restrooms that should have been jammed were roomy, concessions all but deserted. At the final game the Washington Redskins would play at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the fans climbed out of their seats not to see to personal business but to cheer a stream of middle-aged men jogging onto the field in street shoes and old football jerseys.

"Quarterback from Duke," the announcer began.

"Son-NY!" hollered Craig Glee, throwing a fist into the air even before Sonny Jurgensen stepped into view.

"Running back from Kansas . . ."

"Riggo!" cried Cedric Lockhart, as John Riggins took the field one last time.

It all ended about as well as anyone could have hoped, with the current Redskins finishing the season at 9-7 by routing the arch-rival Dallas Cowboys 37-10 before a loyal crowd of 56,454 fans. It was a victory that meant almost nothing in a practical sense, the Cowboys already having been assured a spot in the playoffs, and the Redskins having been eliminated a week earlier.

But because Washington's very first victory on the same field had been against the Cowboys, and because the Redskins fans prefer beating Dallas over any other team, the result was a tidy end piece to 35 years in a uniquely intimate stadium.

It was a day about sentiment, with no reason to look anywhere but back.

"Honestly, the whole section over there, it's almost like a family," Glee said, gesturing through the vapor glare toward Section 225, where he began watching the home team 16 years ago, when he was 7. "You see the same people every week. My dad wasn't here today. People asked about him.

"The people sit in that section--white, black, whatever, even people who support other teams--there's never any meanness. People poke and jab and stuff, but it's really like a community type of thing.

"You don't see that much any more.

"It's a special, special place."

And when the final gun sounded for the final time, some could not resist scrambling onto the field to take some of the specialness home with them.

About 250 District police officers were assigned to yesterday's game, five times the normal roster. At the two minute warning, they took up positions ringing the field, many wearing helmets and wielding batons, gas masks strapped to their belts.

When time ran out, the first men over the fence were tackled. But as the minutes passed, what began as a trickle turned into a stream, and the police and ushers were overwhelmed.

"All I want is a piece of turf," Bart Gibbs, of Calvert County, shouted to a police officer who was trying to restrain him. "I'm 31 years old, and I've been coming here all my life. This will never be this again. I just want a piece of history."

Before long, hundreds knelt and dug at the dirt with fingers stiff from cold, with pocketknives and with their boots. Scores stood up, triumphant, stuffing pieces of grass into tote bags, plastic baggies and cups that during the game had held beer.

"I got a piece of history, and I'm out of here!' Gibbs shouted.

The band had played "Auld Lang Syne," and the players had long since disappeared into the locker room, but the fans kept milling around. A chant went up: "Goalposts. Goalposts."

But the police made a goal line stand at both ends of the field, and the uprights stayed that way.

"I've got the 40-yard-line arrow," said John Atkinson, 30, of Arlington. "I'm going to plant it in my yard. This is an end of an era. Fans are never going to have a kinship with a stadium like this again."

By the time the field was cleared 40 minutes later, the playing surface looked like a minefield, with huge chunks of grass missing and only the outline of dirt where once yard-line numbers and end zone decals had been.

Damage to the turf was estimated at about $60,000.

"We didn't care if they took the turf, but we had more damage in the seats than we'd like," said stadium manager Jim Dalrymple, explaining that seats were chipped and stripped for souvenirs. But, he added, "it wasn't any rougher than a rock concert."

Franchise owner Jack Kent Cooke was not in his box to witness RFK's final game, staying away on doctor's orders, according to a statement. But the billionaire vowed to be on hand in September when the Redskins open next season in the brand-new 78,000-seat stadium he is building in Prince George's County--and naming after himself.

His absence left yesterday entirely to the fans, to the players, and to the shared memories that they--perhaps more than any football franchise--combined to provide.

"Thanks for the memories," read the hand-lettered sign one man held out to the 33 former Redskins who milled on the field before the game and who watched from sideline seats.

"It's good they're playing for nothing today," Riggins said. "That means we can focus on the last game at RFK. I'm not playing. What the hell do I have to do with it? This is for the fans. For them, it's the most emotional, not for me."

But it was for other former players. Dexter Manley had tears in his eyes and a smile wider than East Capitol Street as he ran through a gantlet of Redskinettes, photographers, wives and girlfriends out to the middle of the field at halftime. Released Nov. 6 from a Texas prison after serving a two-year sentence for cocaine possession, Manley first slapped hands with many of his old teammates, introducing them to his teenage son Derrick. Then he went zigzagging through the Redskins band, offering high fives.

"I can't thank these people enough," Manley said. "It feels so great, just to come back to Washington to see this and share the love of these people. I'm so honored. It's just so great to be back on this football field."

About noon, hours before fans were allowed into the stadium, Jurgensen took a nostalgic walk around the playing field with Dalrymple, pointing out the spots where he threw so many of his completed passes for so many years of Hall of Fame performances.

"I wanted to do it one more time," Jurgensen said later. "I was just showing Jim the places on the field where we had a few good plays a long time ago, that kind of thing. It's a special day. It's been a very special place."

What made it special, everyone agreed, was the union of fans, team and a stadium with the capacity to make the crowd a part of the game. RFK is not a stadium anyone sat and admired. State of the art 35 years ago--the first stadium with cantilevered decks--it had, by the 1980s, acquired all of the grit and graininess that television producers would doctor tapes to produce in highlight reels in a quest for that vintage look.

The food aspired to mediocrity. The bathrooms were medieval.

But in a city where perception is everything except reliable truth, there was no mistaking the authenticity of RFK. And from the field, the stands seem to loom. The big bowl trapped sound--and opposing teams. "When things get going good, this place is literally shakin'," former quarterback Doug Williams said, with an appreciative glance toward the second deck.

"I just hope everybody remembers this team really pulled this community together," said Dennis Harney, a car salesman from Manassas who was present at the first RFK game and was not about to miss the last.

"Farewell RFK Stadium" read the icing on the cake on the table Harney's party had set up in the parking lot near the main entrance, tailgating one last time.

"It's sad," said Earl White, whose father-in-law helped build RFK. "But then, going to a new stadium, that'll be neat."

His wife nodded. "Going to stadiums somewhere else, you realize what they need," Denise White said. "We'll make noise anywhere."

But their friend Iris Kotz wasn't sure. "How many people will sit in the new stadium for the first game next year and say: 'It's not RFK. It's just not RFK.'"

Nearby, Bill Gray tended to the coals in the Weber grill he has set up in the same corner of the same parking lot for 20 years. His nephew John Houston was slicing a steak.

"My cousin and I walked down the street for the first game," said Houston, who grew up on Constitution Avenue. "And I drove all the way from Charleston, South Carolina, to get here for the last game."

He said the stocking cap on his head was from the 1972 Super Bowl. It looked it.

Staff writers Eric Wee and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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