The game that launched J.P. Szymkowicz's legal battle against his favorite football team and his home county began on a chilly December afternoon in 2001.
The Washington Redskins faced the Dallas Cowboys, and Szymkowicz, then 32, strode toward FedEx Field carrying tickets to the owner's suite.
But like other fans trying to walk along Redskins Road to the stadium that day, he was blocked by barricades and security guards. He spent 15 minutes arguing with Prince George's police, he said, and missed the first quarter. Despite the cold weather, Szymkowicz was steamed.
Some time after the game, he ran into Peggy Feltman, a former client and fellow Redskins fan. "Both of us were shocked" that pedestrian access was restricted, he recalled. "She said: 'This is insane. Can you do something about it?' I said, 'Sure.' "
As the Redskins prepare for a new season on the field, Szymkowicz, a lawyer raised in Clinton, remains embroiled in his fight to overturn a Prince George's County policy that keeps fans from walking to the stadium along a short but popular stretch of Redskins Road.
After months of burrowing through dozens of boxes of county files, he has challenged the policy on several fronts. Among his allegations: that the rule was adopted, initially, in secret; that closing a public sidewalk is an unnecessarily strict way to protect pedestrians; and that the Redskins organization was motivated by money more than safety.
The policy remains intact for this season. Fans will not be able to walk up Redskins Road to FedEx Field, county officials said. Portions of four other roads -- FedEx Way, Arena Drive, Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard and Hill Oaks Drive -- also will continue to be closed within the immediate area of the stadium before and after events.
While the policy has been in effect since 2000, it was overturned before the final game last season against the Philadelphia Eagles. A Circuit Court judge ruled in December that the policy had been authorized without public notice, violating Maryland's open meetings law. Szymkowicz relished his legal victory by sauntering happily up Redskins Road for the Eagles game.
"It felt great," he said.
The feeling did not last long. During the off-season, a panel of county, team, stadium and community representatives -- known as a "coordinating group" -- again recommended the restrictions. The policy was readopted by the county Department of Public Works and Transportation in June after a public hearing. Szymkowicz has appealed the administrative decision to the county Board of Appeals.
Throughout the debate over stadium access, county and team officials have repeatedly said the closure is necessary to protect public safety as thousands of fans stream across busy intersections, one at Brightseat Road and Redskins Road and another nearby. Since the stadium opened in 1997, two pedestrians have been killed and 12 injured after being hit by cars near Redskins Road, police said at a hearing on the policy.
"The policy is intended to keep people from getting hurt and killed," said Redskins spokesman Karl Swanson. "It's a clear public safety issue, and we follow the direction of the county."
Jim Keary, a spokesman for Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), said it is safer for pedestrians to enter along other stadium roads. Two Metro stations -- at Largo Town Center and Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard -- are scheduled to open in December and will make the stadium more accessible for nondrivers, he said.
Keary added that a public hearing in May on the issue was sparsely attended. "If there was a great outcry, we didn't hear it," he said.
Opponents of the policy say officials could erect temporary fencing to protect pedestrians walking to the game rather than block the sidewalks. Others say blocking Redskins Road discourages fans from parking for free at Landover Mall, which closed in 2002. "They don't talk about public safety at all; they're basically redirecting all these people into cash lots," Szymkowicz said. "They have an ulterior motive."
On behalf of Feltman and other fans, Szymkowicz filed a class-action suit against Pro-Football Inc., the corporate owner of the Redskins organization, and WFI Stadium Inc., the owner of FedEx Field, in December 2002, alleging that pushing fans into cash lots was an antitrust violation. That case is pending. Three other appeals on aspects of the issue are inching through the county legal system. Next month, Szymkowicz will go before the county Board of Appeals to try to reverse the pedestrian policy.
No one expects closure on the issue soon. "It will go on," said a county attorney, Jay Creech, with a twinge of weariness. "It will be appealed again, whatever happens."