The House Was Rockin', the Players Were Knockin'

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 1997; Page G10

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Russ Grimm remembers the first time he realized RFK Stadium was special. It was just before the 1982 NFC championship game, and the Washington Redskins had gathered inside their locker room for last-minute instructions from Coach Joe Gibbs.

Whatever Gibbs said that afternoon has long since been forgotten. What Grimm and his teammates experienced hasn’t.

At first, it resembled the roar of a jet engine parked outside their door. Then it was accompanied by the rocking of an earthquake.

"It sounded like the place was going to come apart," Grimm recalled 15 years later. "It was like nothing you’d ever heard."

Finally, the roar became decipherable and players nodded and smiled in awe as they understood that what they were hearing was a long, loud chant.

We want Dallas!
We want Dallas!
We want Dallas!

In the hearts and minds of Redskins fans, that afternoon—and others like it—was one of the reasons that RFK Stadium was the best place on earth to watch an NFL game. It had the loudest fans, the most intimidating atmosphere, and for 35 seasons, no NFL team had a better home-field advantage.


1972 NFC championship game, Redskins 26, Cowboys 3, Dec. 31, 1972: The penultimate RFK Stadium game. This was the day the old ballpark was transformed from a good home-field advantage into one of the best in sports—a roaring, intimidating presence that could rattle even the most veteran opposing players. With the stands swaying and crowd noise that occasionally resembled claps of thunder, George Allen’s "Over the Hill Gang" won the franchise’s first title in 30 years. Remember Billy Kilmer running across the field holding an index finger aloft?

1982 NFC championship game, Redskins 31, Cowboys 17: Joe Gibbs needed two seasons on the job to recapture the magic that George Allen had begun more than a decade earlier. Fans had been looking forward to this game for weeks and had ended the previous two home victories with chants of "We Want Dallas!" On game day, they created another thunderous atmosphere home-field advantage and the Redskins responded with an easier-than-expected victory. "It was deafening," General Manager Charley Casserly recalled. With 32 seconds left in the first half, defensive end Dexter Manley knocked out Cowboys quarterback Danny White. Defensive tackle Darryl Grant clinched it by returning an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

1991 NFC playoff game, Redskins 24, Falcons 7, Jan. 4, 1991: The Redskins sprinted through the regular season by going 14-2 and hardly breaking a sweat. With their eyes on a third Super Bowl championship, the playoffs began in a cold, driving rainstorm. Amid the mud and ice, the Redskins forced six turnovers and dominated the Falcons to advance to the NFC championship game. When running back Gerald Riggs scored his second touchdown to clinch the victory, fans began twirling their yellow, plastic give-away seat cushions toward the field. Hundreds of them swirled from every corner of the stadium and they eventually covered the lower stands and corners of the playing field. "It was just an amazing sight," tackle Jim Lachey said.

1973 regular season, Redskins 14, Cowboys 7, Oct. 8, 1973: What was the quietest moment in RFK Stadium history? Perhaps it was at the end of this Monday night game when Cowboys fullback Walt Garrison caught a fourth-down swing pass and needed about eight inches to score the game-tying touchdown. A packed stadium could see the future: Garrison was going to score, and the game was headed for overtime. Safety Ken Houston burst toward Garrison, wrapped his arms around him and wrestled him away from the goal line. Houston made one of the most famous plays in franchise history and RFK Stadium burst into a roar of elation.

1965 regular season, Redskins 34, Cowboys 31, Nov. 28, 1965: Sonny Jurgensen’s greatest day. His arrival in 1964 changed the perception of the Redskins because with Jurgensen, they had a chance to win any game and they were never out of any game. The Cowboys took a 21-0 lead in the first half before the Jurgensen began firing touchdown passes. His 26-yarder to Charley Taylor got the Redskins within 21-6 at halftime. He led two more touchdown drives and the Redskins were down by four, 24-20, early in the fourth quarter. Don Meredith gave the Cowboys a 31-20 lead with a 53-yard touchdown pass to Frank Clarke. But Jurgensen won the game with a pair of touchdown drives in the final 3½ minutes. His 10-yarder to Bobby Mitchell made it 31-27 and he won it with a five-yarder to Angelo Coia.

Former Redskins safety Brig Owens remembers "the fans being so close that they were an extension of the team." Former Cowboys safety Charlie Waters remembers it "as being the wildest place you could play. The fans cared and they would do anything. I remembered getting pelted with ice, rocks and batteries coming off the field one afternoon."

In 35 seasons at RFK Stadium, the Redskins lost one playoff game. They never lost an NFC championship game there, and between 1969 and 1992, never had a losing record at home. It was where Sonny Jurgensen played and George Allen coached. It was Billy Kilmer’s home field. And Joe Theismann’s. And Art Monk’s. It was where Dexter Manley knocked out Danny White, and Ken Houston collared Walt Garrison and where fans threw their seat cushions in celebration of a 1992 playoff victory.

When RFK Stadium was rocking, opposing teams simply could not call audibles and had trouble getting off plays of any type. Former Redskins linebacker Monte Coleman remembers the crowd noise as sending "a cold chill over me."

So as the Redskins move to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, one of the questions being asked by fans and players is this: Has that magical home-field advantage been lost? Will Jack Kent Cooke Stadium be as noisy and intimidating as RFK? Will the Redskins lose some of their advantage by moving into a stadium that has 25,000 more seats? Where RFK Stadium seemed cozy, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium is monumentally huge. Will that lack of coziness mean a loss of something else?


Millions of fans who loved RFK Stadium won’t like that answer. In Washington, it was always assumed that there was no place like RFK Stadium, but around the NFL, a variety of players, coaches and club executives know the truth to be otherwise.

RFK Stadium was special because the Redskins were special. Allen transformed a losing franchise into one of the NFL’s best teams, and a city fell in love with its NFL team. Gibbs kept the magic going by taking the Redskins to the playoffs in eight of his 12 seasons, and he, too, urged fans to make RFK Stadium a tough place for the Cowboys and Giants.

When the Redskins ceased being one of the NFL’s best teams, their home-field advantage vanished. Fans stopped coming, and when they did come, stopped cheering as loudly. In all the nostalgic remembrances about RFK Stadium, has anyone forgotten that in 1994, many of the fans seemed to be rooting for the Cowboys during one dismal home defeat?

RFK was special, but so was Denver’s Mile High Stadium and Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. Green Bay’s Lambeau Field was colder. Before the Browns bolted for Baltimore, Cleveland Stadium might have been the most hostile NFL arena for visiting teams.

Perhaps it was never RFK Stadium as much as it was the great teams that performed and the rabid fans who followed those teams.

The best indication that Cooke Stadium will be special is that Giants Stadium—the architectural inspiration for Cooke Stadium—is also one of the coldest, loudest and most intimidating places for a visiting team.

Players who have been around the league awhile want fans to know that they’re the ones who make a stadium a home field, especially with Cooke Stadium’s 80,116 seats.

"I think when they design these stadiums now, they try to get that in the mix," said Redskins quarterback Jeff Hostetler, a former Giant. "It’s a big advantage for the home team."

Hostetler remembers fondly his trips to RFK Stadium with the Giants, but he emphasizes that there are a dozen other difficult places to play. Just last season, Oakland Coliseum was as noisy as any place he had ever heard during a Monday night game against Denver.

Why is it important? The best fans know how to disrupt a game. They know that when an opposing team has the ball, a loud crowd can prevent a quarterback from changing plays at the line of scrimmage. In the loudest arenas, the interior offensive linemen can’t even pass the snap counts down the line to the offensive tackles.

"If your offensive tackles can’t hear, everybody’s slow off the ball," said Redskins guard Bob Dahl, who played his first four seasons in Cleveland’s Dawg Pound. "One advantage you have on offense is knowing the snap count and being quicker off the ball than the defensive guy across from you. If that advantage is taken away, it’s a big thing."

Dahl remembers the afternoon the closed end of Cleveland Stadium was so loud that the Denver Broncos simply couldn’t get a play off. Officials halted the game, and with dog biscuits and snow balls swirling around the playing field, moved the Broncos to the other end of the field and allowed them to run a play.

Dahl and others believe Cooke Stadium might even be noisier and more intimidating for an opponent. For one thing, there are those 25,000 additional seats. That’s a lot more fans making, presumably, a lot more noise.

For another thing, more fans will be closer to the field. The first few rows of fans at RFK Stadium were just inches from the playing field because it had been designed as a baseball stadium. But the rows sloped away more gradually. If it seemed fans were right on top of the field, it was the first few rows that were on top of the field and the rivers of noise raining onto opponents.

The first rows of seats are farther away at Cooke Stadium, but the angle of seating is sharper, meaning more fans will be closer to the field. And, because it’s more of a theater-like seating, the place has the potential to be as noisy as any NFL stadium.

"I never thought the fans were that close at RFK," Dahl said. "They were loud, but they weren’t all that close. The fans will be close at the new park."

Which is only one of the reasons almost no one around Redskin Park is all that sad about leaving RFK Stadium. Far from the cold showers and cramped quarters, they’re moving to a place where the treatment will be first class and the crowds huge.

"Everyone wants to think their stadium is the best," Redskins defensive end Rich Owens said. "I think we’re going to be able to say that about ours."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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