Willie Nelson and a host of lesser-known Lone Star luminaries were wailing yesterday afternoon on the sound system at Austin Grill in Silver Spring. Both TVs behind the bar were carrying the Redskins-Buccaneers battle.
Young Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, who had his moments in the real Austin during four years as the Texas Longhorns' golden-haired quarterback, was looking sharp in the early going. After he hit receiver Joey Galloway with a 34-yard bullet and when, two plays later, Bucs fullback Mike Alstott launched himself into the end zone, the gray-haired, goateed guy at one end of the bar let out a groan and threw up his arms in despair. It was rather demonstrative for Tony Nash, a Brit and a game-day regular at Austin Grill.
For Nash, a 62-year-old Takoma Park resident and retired professor of agriculture at the University of Maryland, Austin Grill serves as something of a London pub despite being a chain restaurant. He's lived alone since his wife died, so he enjoys watching the game in the company of other fans. He likes Austin Grill.
"The bartender knows your name. He's got your drink poured before you can get your coat off," he said. "It's very much like a pub."
Down the bar a ways, Steve Pawlikowski, a draftsman and D.C. native, pondered Redskins fan support: usually a bit tepid, he believes. "There's Redskins admiration," he observed, "but as far as mania goes, like in Philadelphia, say, you don't see it here -- unless they're winning. Of course, a lot of people around here are transients. That makes a difference, too."
The Bucs' Alstott, a 248-pound John Riggins replica, scored again as Pawlikowski, 46, a black bandanna stretched across his head, pondered the sociological significance of the Redskins. "There can be race riots in D.C., but you walk up the next morning to a guy at work and say, 'How 'bout them 'Skins?' and all that's gone. You're all in it together."
Back at the end of the bar, Nash, who specialized in grasses, flowers and ornamentals during his teaching days, was thinking he might go on home. He had come to the bar for the noise and camaraderie, but the Bucs were playing well enough to keep the din muted. Then Ladell Betts returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, the Bucs' appeal was overruled and the horticulturalist, revived, decided to stay. After the Betts run, the noise in the restaurant made it hard for bartender Anthony Murphy to hear drink orders.
At the other end of the horseshoe-shaped bar, Otilia Hutchinson was happy with a huge plate of ribs, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, which Murphy had brought her by mistake. Hutchinson, 54, a loan officer with a mortgage bank, said she had come to eat, watch the Redskins -- and flirt with Murphy, 23. Sitting beside her, daughter Maureen Hutchinson, 34, blushed.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Bain and three Army buddies showed up around halftime. Outpatients at nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center, they often watch Redskins games at Austin Grill, Galaxy Billiards or American Legion Post 41, a few blocks away.
They would have arrived earlier, but a contingent of Redskins cheerleaders put in an appearance at the hospital for a photo op with patients; their visit was part of a host of Veterans Day activities that had kept the patients busy for nearly a week. "They looked even better than we expected," said Bain, 34, "so we didn't rush it."
The Valencia, Calif., native has been in therapy at Walter Reed for 19 months, ever since a mortar blew up two feet from his head. He had dived under a truck seconds earlier and had his head down, but the mortar nearly took off his left arm. His arm is deeply gouged and scarred, and he has little mobility in his hands and little strength in his right arm.
"It was my best day and my worst day," he recalled. His identical twin brother, Kim, was serving in Iraq, but Bain didn't know where he was. Passing through a checkpoint, they happened to see each other and got to spend the rest of the day together. They promised to meet up again as soon as possible; that afternoon, Bain nearly lost his life.
He surveyed his buddies sitting on stools around a high table near the bar: at 20-year-old Cpl. Todd Bishop, who had lost both legs, at 21-year-old Spec. Ed Lingley, who took huge amounts of shrapnel in both legs, at 32-year-old Spec. Robert Bartlett, who wears a patch over what used to be his left eye. His face had to be almost totally reconstructed after a roadside bomb hit the truck he and Bishop, his gunner, were riding in. Bartlett was hit May 3 and "died" May 8 after he got to Walter Reed. He was resuscitated minutes later.
"We look pretty rough when you see us together," Bain said. "We got a pirate with an eye patch, a guy with no legs, my hands don't work. Sometimes people'll come up and ask, 'What happened to you guys?' We'll say, 'We were in a fight, but you ought to see the other guys.' "
Bain glanced at the TV. The Redskins offense was on the move. He took in the cheerful scene: the two Hutchinsons, Pawlikowski and Nash at the bar, laughing and talking, people happy to be alive. "This is what we were trained to protect," he said. "This is our country's freedom."
He'll be moving to Williamsport, Pa., in a few months, back to his wife and three kids. "We used to take everything for granted," Bain said. "All of us do. But what I decided once I got through this, now that I'm here, is that from now on I'm going to live my life to the fullest. Just being here today, I'm grateful to have what I have."
In the end, it was Alstott again. Tampa Bay, 36; Redskins, 35. Professor Nash had wandered home alone by then.