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  With Cooke's Death, Loyal Redskins Fans Recall Glory Days

By Eric L. Wee and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 7, 1997; Page A11

Whether or not they liked his public image or the way he conducted his personal life, Washington Redskins fans remembered team owner Jack Kent Cooke as a man who craved a winning team as much as any loyal fan and brought the region together by bringing home championships.

"Oh my goodness! It's a tragedy," exclaimed Dana Mebane, a 21-year-old college student, upon hearing of Cooke's death.

A Redskins fan since she was a toddler, Mebane said she has watched almost all the team's games with her family. She recalled the team's winning seasons through the early 1990s and the excitement in the stands on game days. Washington was united when the Redskins won, she said. For that feeling of community, she is thankful to Cooke.

"The team wouldn't have been here if it weren't for him. There is so much spirit when the Redskins play," she said. "He created all of that."

At Tunnicliff's sports bar on Capitol Hill, where Redskins admirers for decades have stopped in for a drink before games and a party after victories, longtime fans passed the news from bar stool to bar stool. Nursing pints of beer and chewing on cigars, they nodded quietly, and the talk soon turned to running back John Riggins, quarterback Doug Williams and other players from the team's glory years.

"He was a wonderful sports owner for the city of Washington. He spent money, and he spent it wisely," said John Conroy, a 55-year-old lawyer who has been a fan of the Redskins since 1969 and first heard about Cooke's death at the bar. "He did what was needed to build a winning organization."

Like many, Conroy didn't care for what he saw of Cooke's personality in public. The multimillionaire businessman often appeared brash and arrogant, whether in negotiating to build a new stadium or putting a gate on his property.

To Conroy, he was a glad-handing manipulator who came across as insincere. When he saw Cooke on television, Conroy said, he thought Cooke was still, at the core, a slick encyclopedia salesman who just happened to make it big.

"On a personal level, I thought the guy was a total whack job."

But in the end, he remembered Cooke as the man who was willing to pay big salaries so the Redskins could get talented players. He respects him for shelling out $175 million to build the new stadium in Prince George's County and wished that Cooke could have lived long enough to have seen his team play in its new home.

Nearby, John Hancock, 50, of Arlington, agreed that Cooke's football legacy overshadowed his life off the field.

"I don't think sports fans could have asked for a better owner. He was willing to pay players and keep them around," Hancock said. "While other owners wanted to look at the bottom line, Jack Kent Cooke wanted to win."

Jack Cully, 60, said he respected Cooke's leadership of the Redskins and his tough demeanor. With his tattered Redskins Super Bowl banner hanging behind him at an Eastern Market dairy counter where he sells cheese,Cully eulogized Cooke as a straight-shooter who told things the way they were. Cooke, he said, was a rarity who combined hard-nosed business tactics with a sense of being fair.

The question of what happens next with the Redskins was on the minds of many fans.

Clyde Jackson, 43, who took in the news at George Starke's Head Hog barbecue in Bethesda, said he does not think much will change with Cooke's son and grandson working in the organization.

But other loyal followers worried about whether John Kent Cooke will have the same commitment to the team that his father did.

"What's going to happen now?" asked Barbara Birnmam, 48. "I'm concerned. Gus [Frerotte] isn't signed; Darrel Green isn't signed. ... I hope he made a will that's very specific."

Cameron Beatley, 31, even worries that his hometown team might be vulnerable to being moved without Cooke anchoring it.

"I just don't know whether his son has the strength of character like his father did," Beatley said, as he picked up cheese and vegetables at Eastern Market for dinner. "I don't know if anyone has the strength he did."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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