January is supposed to be icy cold, with the Redskins in the playoffs. The weather isn't cooperating, but today at sold-out FedEx Field, for the first time in seven years, it's going to feel just right.
The Washington Redskins are champions of the National Football Conference's Eastern Division, and Washington once again has a common language.
Harry Hinken, 75, will be on the sideline, in his customary spot, for today's 4:05 p.m. confrontation with the Detroit Lions. Now in a wheelchair, Hinken has been hailing the Redskins since 1938. He was 13 when he signed on to play his trombone for the Washington Redskins Marching Band, then called the Chevy Chase Chestnut Farms Dairy Band. Ever since, the team's fortunes have been intertwined with his own. Today will be no different.
Hinken has been there from Griffith Stadium to RFK Stadium to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to FedEx Field--living for moments such as this. "That's my entire life--my entire lifetime has been with the Redskins," Hinken says.
The Redskins' first playoff game in seven years, against the 8-8 Lions, has been an occasion for nostalgia--sometimes with pure relief, sometimes with lingering anger about all those years of drought. All week, talk radio has buzzed with fans' memories of their favorite playoff moments. Friends have traded boasts about how far they went to score playoff tickets. Ticket holders and ticket seekers alike dragged out their old yarns about the years they spent languishing on the NFL's longest season-ticket waiting list.
Harriett Koontz, 70, will watch on TV from her Takoma Park home. A fan since her children got her hooked on the team in 1972, Koontz gets so overwrought during Redskins games that she prefers to watch alone. Neighbors can tell how it's going from her screams, which can be heard out on the sidewalk. Close friends know to keep their distance after losses--particularly losses to Dallas.
The telephone doesn't ring in Koontz's home during games unless it's her youngest son, whose devotion to the Redskins rivals her own. They must have spoken 16 times during the Dec. 26 come-from-behind victory over San Francisco, in which the Redskins clinched the NFC East title.
"It's strange how a winning Redskins team seems to bring Washington together," Koontz says.
With a win this afternoon, the Redskins, who finished a season with 10 wins for the first time since Joe Gibbs was coach, would face Tampa Bay (11-5) next Saturday.
Washington football fans were spoiled by greatness in the team's glory days,when running back John Riggins mowed down defenses weekly and Gibbs masterminded Super Bowl championships after the 1982, '87 and '91 seasons.
However, the six seasons before this one have been fraught with disappointment. As other teams advanced to the playoffs, Redskins fans found themselves stuck in a "Groundhog Day" of gloomy winters--repeated postseason funks over quarterbacks who hadn't delivered, draft picks who fizzled and defensive linemen who were supposed to get it right. The discontent was accompanied by sporadic fantasies of Gibbs's return and of NFL superstars such as Barry Sanders who might someday wear burgundy and gold.
The 1999 Redskins succeeded without either. The largely unheralded bunch compiled a 10-6 record, led by quarterback Brad Johnson, who'd never played a full season before; Stephen Davis, a three-year backup who blossomed into the NFC's leading rusher; and an offensive line that has played with grit and heart.
For all their griping, the real fans say they never wavered during their painful passage through the dark years.
Hinken long ago learned that victory is only sweeter for the waiting. He had just started high school when he auditioned for the marching band. Having a band at Griffith Stadium was the brainchild of Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, who wanted to spice up the game-day entertainment value.
The band's early repertoire consisted exclusively of marches, and Hinken was playing one the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, when a succession of admirals, generals and congressmen was called out of the stands. The explanation for the odd parade didn't come until after the Redskins' 20-14 victory over Philadelphia.
"Most of us thought Pearl Harbor was some woman," Hinken said. "We didn't know what it was."
Hinken enlisted in the Marine Corps the next day, and the following three years marked the only interruption in his service to the Redskins. After retiring his trombone, he became the band's drum major, then personnel director. He came to see his fellow band members, Redskins players and the fans in the stands as part of his extended family. Hinken says he has accepted the team's recent foibles and shortcomings just as he embraced the 1937 and '42 championships and the Super Bowls of the Gibbs era.
"It's family," Hinken says. "Of course my feelings toward the Redskins--whether they win or lose--are not going to change."
Koontz gets irritated when fans criticize her Redskins. But even she was fed up with losing at the start of the 1999 season. Her home tells where her loyalties lie. There are photographs of Dave Butz, Art Monk and Darrell Green. She still hasn't quite forgiven Coach Norv Turner for letting Monk go.
For nearly three decades, her Sundays have been built around Redskins games. When her husband was alive, he joked that he'd have to go outside during games just so the neighbors would know he wasn't the cause of his wife's shrieking.
"I'm a very ladylike person most of the time," Koontz says, "but not when I'm watching."
The excitement is not limited to those who watch. Brian Mitchell, the Redskins' running back and kick return specialist for 10 years, will be on the field--perhaps more than usual, in fact, given the sprained ankle that has limited Davis since Dec. 19.
Mitchell is one of the few remaining links to the Redskins' championship era, having been part of the 1991 squad that defeated Buffalo, 37-24, to win Super Bowl XXVI. He was a second-year player then and never dreamed that eight years would pass before the Redskins returned to the playoffs.
Winning was expected when Mitchell was drafted by the Redskins in 1990. The team went 10-6 that year and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. The next season, the Redskins won their third Super Bowl trophy in 10 years.
Mitchell has heard the horror stories about peeved fans in other NFL cities. He says he has never experienced that in Washington.
Still, the past seven years have been a struggle.
"It's frustrating every January to watch other guys on TV--guys we felt that we could have beaten," says Mitchell, 31. "It's a long time that we haven't been there. It's time for the fans to get something that they can be happy about. They've stuck by us, and finally we've given them something back."
They've given back January. Now, about that temperature. . . .