They came, as all good football fans do, proclaiming implacable faith in the home team and disbelieving that any ill could come in Washington on a holiday weekend.
"No, no, no, no," said Betty Sims of Hampton, Va., when someone asked if she might be nervous about the playoff game yesterday at RFK Stadium between the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Bears.
So four hours later, after the Redskins had lost, 23-19, Redskins supporters scattered quickly from the stadium and Georgetown bars, eager to hide their embarrassment and find a private place to sulk.
"It's so sudden," said Lawrence Maloney, 22, as he leaned against the door at Champions, the Georgetown bar where he and about 50 others had watched the game on television. "I took it for granted that they would win. I've just gotten in the habit in the last couple of years. I never used to worry about a Redskins game until they got to the Super Bowl."
Now, said Maloney, came the time to mourn -- to relive the game through television clips and conversation -- and exorcise the disappointment. Then, said Maloney, who lives in San Clemente, Calif., "I'll want to go out West because no one cares about the Redskins out there."
Many of the other patrons at Champions began scurrying away as soon as the Redskins' defeat seemed imminent. "Are you a Redskins fan?" someone asked as one of the viewers departed. "Redskins what?" came the muffled reply.
Another left, head bowed, sullenly silent.
Charles Nasmith, 29, who sells subscriptions for The Wall Street Journal by telephone, said he considered calling a few prospects after the game, but had second thoughts. "No enthusiasm, I've lost the enthusiasm," he said. "With the excitement of winning the game, I probably would have been able to win some clients. But losing doesn't give me the get-up-and-go for it." He said he planned to go home and go to bed early.
In many ways, the end of the game brought relief to fans exhausted from the emotional swings that the game had brought.
"I'm sweating, I'm losing my voice . . . I'm smoking too many cigarettes, and you can't see it, but my foot on the bar stool is twitching," said Tyrone Barber, 24, only moments after the Bears had scored another of their three touchdowns.
A table away, Vanessa Vandevanter said her hands were so moist from anxiety that she had "trouble picking up my beer glass." Meanwhile, her companion, Cindy Ellis, 24, was sipping sourly on a drink, her eyes fixed on a television screen.
"This may sound strange, but my hair is beginning to frizz. That's what happens when I get nervous," Ellis said.
There were more obvious signs of frustration at Champions, with patrons tugging at their beards, twisting their mustaches, rocking forward in their chairs, and pressing folded arms heavily against their chests.
Earlier, Mark O'Brien, 28, of Washington had been one of the few fans heading into RFK Stadium who expressed doubts about the Redskins. "I got up early and then I couldn't eat breakfast," he said. "I had butterflies in my stomach. I felt like I was going to be playing myself." He spent the game standing at the back of a section of first-level rows, pacing away the tension between plays.
But Betty Whitlock of Annandale was so adamant about maintaining her composure she marched to the stadium with a "Don't Panic" button pinned on her sweater. She, like many other fans, knew she had a job to do.
"We fans are going to decide the game, I guarantee that now," said David Thomas, 25, who approached the stadium with an expression of stern resolve. "At 12:30, when the ball is kicked off, that's when the fans take over and we will decide the game."
A sign inside echoed the message, calling the fans the Redskins' 12th man.
Near the concessions and in the aisles, fans exchanged pats and pledges of confidence in their team. "We're going to win," or "We're going to make it all the way," was the refrain. But Alice Loftin, 31, who was selling beer and peanuts, had guessed the meaning of their words.
"How could you tell they were nervous?" she asked. "They were really trying hard to talk positively."
Yesterday, talk and cheers weren't enough.