JENNIFER SHAPIRO, age 9, had been to a professional football game once before. She was 2 at the time, and burst out crying every time the Redskins scored. The roar of the crowd scared her to tears that six- Pampers day.
A few weeks ago, the same child attended the first game of the Washington Federals, the local entry in the ambitious new United States Football League. Tickets, as they say, were and still are available.
This was a father-daughter outing, and I couldn't help but think back to a time more than 20 years ago when my own father took his three sons to the Polo Grounds to watch a team called the New York Titans play the Houston Oilers.
The year was 1961, I was 13, and I didn't know much about pro football back then. I do remember Sunday drives through the Bronx to visit friends of the family and wondering about that thunderous sound I heard through the cracked car window.
They're playing football at Yankee Stadium, my father told us. Can we go? we asked. No, the Giants are always sold out.
But the Titans had no such luck. They, too, were playing in a new league, the old American Football League, and obtaining tickets was no problem.
The memory still lingers.
It was a raw, cold day and the hot chocolate man came around often. My brothers and I sat huddled in the end zone section with a rather limited view of the field, particularly when the grownups stood up to cheer.
I kept the program for a long time, only to be told a few years ago that it had probably been pitched in an attic cleanup. But I still remember the names. The Titans were coached by a fellow named Sammy Baugh. The quarterback was Al Dorow, and he threw quite often that day to a little Texan named Don Maynard, just starting a career that would end with him owning the record for most receptions until Charley Taylor broke it a few weeks ago.
The Oilers had an itty bitty fullback, Charlie Tolar, with Billy Cannon running out of the halfback slot and George Blanda at quarterback. He was 32 at the time.
I don't remember much else about the game, not even the final score. I only know from that day forward I was hooked on professional football, just as I suspect Jennie Shapiro is, too.
She had a marvelous time at the Federals' opener, even if she still doesn't quite understand the game. I spent a lot of time that day trying to explain the difference between first and fourth down and why a team had to kick the ball away if it didn't go 10 yards in three plays. The Feds are very good at that.
We ate peanuts, and hotdogs, and the worst nachos I have ever had in my life. We admired the cheerleaders -- actually I admired them quite a bit more than Jennie did -- and when I suggested we leave the stadium late in the fourth quarter with the home team behind by four touchdowns, my daughter would have none of it.
Her patience was rewarded when the Feds scored a touchdown in the final seconds. She stood on her chair and squealed with delight over what her father, the sportswriter, might describe as a meaningless touchdown.
As I looked around the stadium that afternoon, I noticed lots of other children in the seats too, something you really don't see too often when the Redskins are playing at RFK.
The Federals say they don't have any hard statistics on the breakdown of their audience, but from personal observation, I tend to believe there are far more women, far more children, and far more blacks in the stands than at Redskins games. At Redskins games, 14,000 people/companies/lobbyists control the 55,000 stadium seats, with another 10,000 on a waiting list that may get them inside by the turn of the 22nd century.
"My perception of our crowd is that a lot of them are people who have not been able to see professional football because of the Redskins ticket situation," says Federals general manager Dick Myers. "We're giving people a chance to see football, and that's good for everybody."
The new league is good for other reasons. I must admit feeling particularly happy for an old antagonist, George Allen, a man I covered and fought with for a good part of seven years. Allen is back where he belongs now, on the sidelines, licking his thumb, coaching football after five years of exile from the NFL.
It's nice to see so many more coaches and players able to earn a living, nice to see Eddie Brown returning punts again, nice to see someone giving the haughty old National Football League a little competition for players and fans.
But most of all, it's nice to take a 9-year-old to a football game, to watch her face beam with joy, to answer 150 questions, to promise that we'd come back another day.