An article Monday about traffic problems at Sunday's Washington Redskins game reported incorrectly that shuttle bus service between three nearby Metro stations and the stadium is free. There is a $2 round-trip charge. (Published 09/15/1999)
A record 79,237 fans were on hand at Redskins Stadium. Veteran quarterback Brad Johnson stood ready to make his Redskins debut. Across the field were the reviled Dallas Cowboys. And overlooking it all, from his elegant suite above the 50-yard line, was the Redskins' driven new owner, Daniel M. Snyder.
All the ingredients were there yesterday to celebrate the Redskins' new beginning. But the fourth-quarter collapse and worse-than-ever traffic and parking problems turned what was to have been a glorious dawn into a nightmare on and off the field for fans, as the Redskins lost their season opener, 41-35, in an overtime heartbreaker.
Thousands of Redskins fans eager to check out the revamped team and stadium improvements yesterday missed as much as half the game as Beltway backups stretched to Wisconsin Avenue and chaotic parking control funneled cars into already full lots and kept them there.
At the end of the first quarter, long lines of fans were still trying to get into the stadium to claim their seats; hundreds apparently gave up and went home when they were still trying to park at halftime.
But most were there to see the Redskins' worst fourth-quarter collapse in 53 years. It came after a sterling stretch in which the team reeled off 32 unanswered points, taking a 21-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Then they lost all of it, sending the game into overtime, during which Cowboys wide receiver Raghib Ismail caught a 76-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Troy Aikman to complete Dallas's comeback.
"I could cry," said Jayne Seaton, of Rockville, who had waited 17 years to buy season tickets, as she left the stadium with her husband, Ray. "They gave the game away," Ray Seaton added, shaking his head. "They were too conservative."
Such an inexplicable loss was not what Coach Norv Turner would have preferred for the start of a season in which he is under pressure from Snyder to improve the performance of a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 1992. But he remained upbeat about the team's prospects: "I have no doubts they are going to respond from this and that this team is going to have a hell of a year."
Snyder himself had mixed emotions: He felt as much warmth from the fans as he did disappointment in the game's outcome.
"The fans were great," he said. "I saw a 12th man today, and we hope they saw a new Washington Redskins and were committed. . . . I'm still optimistic, though obviously disappointed."
Fred Drasner, a minority partner in Snyder's ownership group, put it another way: "three quarters of heaven and one quarter from hell."
But for many, the hell was off the field.
"If he's going to spend $800 million on the team, the least he could do is spend $5 million to get this parking situation straightened out," said Larry Meyer, who left his home in Potomac at 11:15 a.m. but didn't get a parking spot until 1:15 p.m., 15 minutes after kickoff. As Meyer hustled toward the stadium, his son Travis, 15, watched the game on a mini-TV.
"This experience is going to kill" Snyder, Meyer said. "Because if he doesn't fix it, we just won't come to the games."
But Snyder maintained that the Redskins were doing all they could to address the problems, though he admitted the crush was enormous. "Our reports are that traffic moved well. While we had heavy volume, we're told things went well," he said.
Snyder met with police not long after he purchased the team for $800 million to come up with ways to smooth the traffic tie-ups. They suggested opening the gates earlier (which team officials did, at 9 a.m.) and encouraging fans to linger in the stadium after the game (the stadium's big screens showed late games after the Redskins' game had ended).
Still, as the game went into overtime, thousands of fans left early, apparently trying to avoid the after-game version of the traffic foul-ups they had dealt with before kickoff. And they may have been right: Maryland State Police said the traffic after the game was just as bad as before.
"It's pretty much a solid stream of stop-and-go traffic on the outer loop," said Sgt. Kevin Lewis, of the Rockville barracks. The traffic was still backed up at 7:15 p.m., three hours after the Cowboys had defeated the Redskins.
Only a small percentage of the record crowd availed itself of public transportation. The free shuttle service offered by Metro recorded only about 5,480 riders, according to Cheryl Thompson, spokeswoman for Metro, far short of the one-game record of 8,000 riders.
And in contrast to the chaos on the Beltway, "everything ran very smoothly" on the shuttle service, Johnson said.
Meanwhile, back on the roads, legions of fans disagreed with Snyder's impression that the trip to Redskins Stadium ran well. Tom Pallotta, of Sterling, offered this assessment: "This is the worst I've ever seen it."
Pallotta said he and his wife, Michelle, arrived at the stadium at 12:15 p.m. but circled around and around trying to find a spot for nearly an hour before being told to go to US Airways Arena. Instead, with the game in the second quarter, they parked illegally on grass.
"I just hope they don't tow us," said Pallotta, a season ticket holder for several years.
Prince George's County police Lt. Ed Burke, in charge of officers directing fans to parking areas, said drivers were supposed to be sent to overflow parking at nearby US Airways Arena after the stadium's 21,000 parking places filled up by 12:30 p.m.
But many fans said that confusion among attendants kept traffic on the stadium lot tied up for hours as cars sat bumper to bumper even as the game got underway. Some fans said they had paid for parking as they entered the lots, only to be turned away.
As fans inside cheered, fans outside jeered. "We pay for this? To sit in a parking lot?" a woman yelled.
Once parked, fans faced problems trying to get into the stadium.
A line of traffic circled the stadium as pedestrians tried to enter. At one crossing, a truck blocked the street, drawing angry comments from fans. One man who declined to give his name said he got so angry at an officer that the officer took his game tickets from him and his two sons.
Without tickets, he couldn't get in and had to leave, to the disappointment of his young sons, who were crying.
Redskins spokesman John Maroon said the traffic situation will be evaluated. But he cautioned that the problems "can't be solved overnight."
Despite all the bad feelings about the traffic and parking, some fans did have praise for improvements Snyder has brought to the stadium itself.
To get fans pumped up, there is a new sound system that played more up-tempo rock and hip-hop before the game and during breaks, and officials allowed a radio station to pass out thousands of provocative anti-Dallas signs.
The in-your-face attitude drew raves from Ray Lane, 29, a utility worker.
"Give me three of those signs," barked Lane, whose seats are next to the tunnel where Dallas players were to emerge from the locker room. "These are great. I'm going to be holding them up and screaming my head off."
Patrons in the club level -- the middle ring where thousands of seats have been vacant in the last two seasons -- finally got the long-awaited waiter service they had been promised by previous owners Jack and John Kent Cooke. In the luxury boxes one level higher, Wes and Lisa Stearns, of Stafford, were taking in the game with fresh air for a change: The plexiglass windows that penned them in last season had been removed.
"It's a much better view," Wes Stearns said. "You can hear the crowd and you feel like you're more involved in the game."
Betty Maag, 75, was less enthralled. She and her husband, Fritz, said they have been season ticket holders since the 1940s and were shocked when they were turned away from the usual handicapped parking lot yesterday. Fritz Maag just finished a six-week stay in the hospital for a massive blood infection. Despite having a handicapped parking pass, the Maags and others said officials made them park farther away than last year.
"I'm really annoyed," Betty Maag said. "He can hardly walk."
Though the Maags said they were told that handicapped parking was moved in order to give more space to other patrons, Redskins officials said nothing was changed and suggested that the lots were simply crowded with other handicapped drivers.
Staff writers George Solomon and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.