Tales of the Faithful Fan
By Thomas M. Boswell
Before there was Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien in the Super Bowl, there was Al Dorow, Ralph Guglielmi and Norm Snead. Before there was John Riggins, Larry Brown and Earnest Byner, there was Johnny Olszewski, Joe Don Looney and Don Bosseler. Before there were Smurfs, Hogs and The Posse, there was The Papoose Backfield. Before Vince Lombardi, there was Mike Nixon. And some of us never forget it.
Long before the days of Redskins glory under George Allen and Joe Gibbs, there was a solid quarter century of ignominy under 10 different coaches. Some of us grew up in those spinach days, when the Redskins had dismal records like 4-12, 3-13 and 6-10. Ooops, sorry. Those records are from the 1990s.
Actually, the Redskins of recent years haven't been that much different from the Redskins of the 1950s and 1960s, when Washingtonians loved a team that was never good enough to break your heart but sure taught you how to kick the TV.
You say the team is "improving" now. Excuse me while I call my boyhood buddies so we can enjoy a nostalgic evening with that one. Every year when we were kids it seemed that the Redskins were "improving." This time is different, you say. The Redskins went 9-7 in 1996. Okay, and they went 8-4 in 1955 before heading south again. Hope-fully, you're right, but who knows?
The point is that while it certainly would be joyous to see the Redskins climb back on top once more, the history of sports franchises, even distinguished ones, seldom resembles a glorious, upward-sloping line. Instead, a team's progress often looks more like a sine curve, oscillating slowly over the decades. What goes up not only comes down, but often stays down for a while. When it does, you should know what it is that you love and why you love it.
Some of us know how we got where we are. For better and worse, the Redskins are ours. We like it that way. We don't "hail" them so much as we have inhaled them since childhood. When they're bad or bizarre or even boring, they're still as much ours as family.
My earliest memory of the Redskins actually has to do with a white football. You don't see them much anymore, especially the ones made of rubber with a black circle painted around each end. But they were still in vogue in the mid-1950s. The Los Angeles Rams used them in night games on the West Coast, where such balls supposedly were easier to see under the rudimentary arc lights. Some snazzy, early NFL films show Norm Van Brocklin throwing bombs to Tom Fears and Crazy Legs Hirsch, heaves that seemed to travel farther than should be humanly possible, in part because the white ball stood out starkly at night.
My white football was a source of shame to me. No such animal was ever seen in my haunts the playgrounds and alleys of Northeast Washington. Not all families had TV yet. For sure, nobody was watching Ram games at 1 a.m.; all you got then was a test pattern, not Van Brocklin. Like any omniscient nine-year-old, my assumption was that my father, who had given me "Whitey" for Christmas, was a hopeless square. After all, he was a librarian. He also was modest (such men still existed in the 1950s, though the breed now seems extinct), so he didn't bother to mention that he'd been on a state high school championship team. He hadn't been especially good, so he didn't deem it worth comment. But he was a Sammy Baugh and Redskins fan of long standing. I didn't even know it then.
So the ball was disdained, used only when no other ball on the block was available. If it rolled into 6th Street, none of us would risk our lives darting into traffic, as we would have for a real football. "Let it go," we'd yell, as "Whitey" took another shot from a passing Packard.
Then one day, probably in 1956, I saw my first football card of a real Washington Redskin: quarterback Eddie LeBaron. Only one thing about the talismanic card of The Little General was obviously a mistake: The ball was white!
If it had been possible to apologize formally to an inanimate object, every kid within five blocks would have gotten down on one knee in front of my ball. "Whitey," now perilously close to the end of its days, was raised to a place of honor. And my connection to the Redskins was made. For life, it appears.
By November 10, 1957 my 10th birthday my destiny was sealed. My father took me to Griffith Stadium to see the Redskins in person. Still have the ticket stub; never forget anything about that day. The rookie backfield of Jim Podoley, Don Bosseler and Ed Sutton yes, The Papoose Backfield, known to others as The Lollypops led the way. The Skins beat the Baltimore Colts on a field goal from midfield by Sam Baker.
I've told about that kick at intervals throughout my life. Yet I noticed several years ago that the record books say the Colts won, 21-17. My only reaction is amazement that the NFL could be so popular despite such shoddy record keeping in its formative years. Don't tell me that Baker's kick put the Redskins ahead but that the Colts marched down the field to score last and win. No, that couldn't have been it. I was THERE.
One of youth's worst misfortunes is to grow up in a town represented by excellent athletic teams. All the wrong values are taught. Fortunately, my gang was spared this fate. We were exposed to the Washington Senators, who hadn't won a pennant in more than 20 years and hadn't even finished in the first division in more than a decade. The Redskins were dependably mediocre with a slight bias towards defeat. A kid could count on them. If the Skins won one week, you could bet your allowance on them to lose the next week. And if they lost one week, they'd probably pull one out the next time.
In the 10 years before they registered on my consciousness in 1956, the Redskins had won 49, lost 67 and tied 1. No titles were predicted or expected. In fact, for 25 consecutive seasons from 1946 until 1971 the Redskins NEVER played a post-season game.
Yes, those were MY Redskins. Still are. From the time I was 10 until I was a senior in high school, the Redskins NEVER beat the New York Giants. Our gang hated the Giants. We hated their linebacker Sam Huff, who to us was a late-hit, pile-on artist. We hated when they beat us by 53-0 or 45-14. Once we tied `em, 24-24. We lived off that for years.
In the course of all this, we learned that if you love something or someone, it must be unconditional and permanent or it's nothing much at all. About 10 of us gathered every Saturday for years to play touch football and, of course, pretend that we were the latest quarterback prospect for the Redskins, like George Izo, Dick Shiner or Eagle Day.
Wherever we went, for an RC Cola and a Lemon Pie or those tiny, syrup-filled wax bottles that you'd chew, somebody in the group always would casually drop the football on the ground and yell, "Fumble!" Everybody had to dive on it, even in the street; good for your technique. If you got a couple in a row, you'd claim you were Gene Brito or Andy Stynchula. We may have been out of our minds. But, so far, only one of us has gotten a divorce. We learned lessons in fidelity as Redskins fans.
And we did love them. The key to our affection an excellent childhood lesson was to accept them exactly as they were. Because they definitely weren't going to get any better in those days. Our hero LeBaron was 5 feet, 7 inches not much bigger than we were as kids and smaller than many of us as older boys. He had to throw jump passes on routes over the middle. Not because it was stylish but so he could see his receivers. His claim to NFL fame was his faking. Faking! Is this scraping the barrel to find a distinction, or what? Yet throughout my own mundane quarterbacking days, I took pride in my deceptive ball handling. Although no evidence exists to indicate that anyone was ever faked out.
By the time Huff became a Redskin in 1964, we assumed that he had to be nearing the end of his career or Washington never would have gotten him. However, because we had passed our Redskins catechism, we saw life as it was. Most of our Redskins, after all, were deeply flawed, including some butterfingered wide receivers who had a habit of dropping perfectly thrown bombs or defensive backs like Jim Steffen, whose calling card was the bone-crushing, downfield, cross-body-block tackle after he'd allowed another 20-yard completion. It didn't change our view of Huff because he suddenly wore burgundy and gold. We just accepted him. He was our own.
Old habits die hard, even faced with the prospect of more pleasant ones. Once you've decided that football heaven is watching Sonny Jurgensen pass Washington to a 42-37 defeat a loss more glorious to me and my buddies than the banal, 17-14 wins of other teams it's hard to turn your head around.
For example, when Vince Lombardi came out of retirement in 1969 to coach the Redskins, my friends and I found it at least as ridiculous as it was inspiring. America worshipped the Packers, us included. So we were slightly embarrassed for him. What next? Would Einstein show up in our high school to teach algebra? It was positively peculiar watching him on the Redskins sidelines, in A GOLF VISOR, on a 90-degree day in early September.
Lombardi was a watershed nonetheless. Franchises have an interior image of themselves, like a mirror turned inward. No matter what they project to the world, they can't escape how they view themselves. Lombardi shattered that negative, self-mocking mirror just by signing on board. After that, anything was possible. Even five Super Bowl trips and three world titles.
Reading this book can have a similar effect, especially when you're reminded of how extraordinarily successful the Redskins were when they first arrived in Washington in 1937. There is Ray Flaherty, the first Washington Redskins coach, accumulating a winning record of more than 73 percent, the best in team history, before the Redskins' long dry spell began. The notion of the Redskins winning 73 percent of their games would have been incomprehensible to my gang.
All across America we have heard the refrain in recent years that "Washington fans are spoiled." They expect a contender every year. They won't tolerate a bad record. Which fans are those? Many of us subsisted for years on a few elegant interceptions by Paul Krause and an occasional crushing tackle by Chris Hanburger. We can wait if we must. We paid the dues for all the Johnny-come-lately celebrities now in the owner's box. We put in the hard time for all the talk-show hotshots.
These are the days when you learn to love a hometown team, not just root for it and revel in its success. These are the best times to be a young fan, starting up the ladder.
My son is 10. He knows he can count on his Redskins dependably mediocre in most recent years, with a slight bias toward defeat. If they won last week, they're probably due to lose this time. If they lost last week, get ready to celebrate a win. This season, maybe I'll teach him how to pronounce Guglielmi. And someday maybe he can hand down that name Frerotte.