Joe Gibbs opened training camp as coach of the Washington Redskins for the first time in 12 years yesterday, beginning a new chapter in his storied NFL career that Redskins fans hope will revitalize a dormant franchise and return it to the success it enjoyed when Gibbs led the team to three Super Bowl victories.
About 90 Redskins trotted onto the field at Redskins Park, the team's training facility in Ashburn, shortly after 9 a.m., eliciting loud cheers from an overflow crowd of several thousand people, some of whom had been waiting for hours. But the crowd roared even louder a few minutes later when it spotted Gibbs -- in burgundy mesh shorts, a white golf shirt and a white and burgundy Redskins baseball cap -- strolling out the back door to join his players and staff on the field.
"Welcome back, Joe!" more than one yelled amid the din.
"It still hasn't hit me yet," said Steve Dabkowski, 47, who had arrived at 7:30 a.m. with his wife Cyndi Bishop, 48, snagging a prime spot near the 50-yard line with a burgundy folding chair emblazoned with a Redskins logo. "Every time I look out and see him [Gibbs] standing there, it's excitement. It's exciting to hear his voice."
Gibbs, who acknowledged that he awoke yesterday with a few butterflies in his stomach, put the team through a spirited, tough-nosed morning practice in which players wearing helmets and full pads went at each other with a succession of crunching hits. The team had a second, equally taxing two-hour practice in the afternoon.
"It was kind of a rough [practice], but I appreciate all the fans being here," Gibbs said. "I don't think any sports franchise can match our fans' intensity and excitement. They were here at 8 a.m., yelling at us from across the street. It's a great place to coach and a great place to play."
"There's a lot of intensity out there," said tackle Chris Samuels. "The guys are hungry. We're sick of losing around here. We're trying to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl, and today was our first step."
The Redskins have won one playoff game since Gibbs abruptly resigned in March 1993 after leading Washington to three NFL championships in 12 years. Under owner Daniel Snyder, who bought the Redskins in 1999, Washington has become one of the most profitable franchises in the NFL, routinely selling out FedEx Field's 86,484 seats and maintaining a waiting list for season tickets that exceeds 70,000 people.
But for more than a decade, the team's record on the field has not matched its success off it. Washington ran through four coaches in five years before Snyder lured Gibbs away from a successful NASCAR team and back into football in January with a five-year, $28 million contract.
Gibbs, who was an obscure assistant when he was hired as head coach of the Redskins in 1981, returns to Washington having already been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. His hiring has created enormous interest across the NFL, and more than 100 journalists were on hand at Redskins Park yesterday.
"I can't remember 1981. I'm too old to remember '81," said Gibbs, 63, with a cackle. "I think it's a lot of the same things, a lot of the same emotions: You're nervous, apprehensive. It's all the emotions of anybody when you're trying something for the first time."
In nine days, the Redskins will face the Denver Broncos in Canton, Ohio, in the NFL's preseason opener. After five exhibition games, Washington kicks off the regular season Sept. 12 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field.
Judging from the comments from fans at training camp yesterday, anticipation of the 2004 season is building, with many expecting that years of suffering among Redskins loyalists are over. By 7:15 a.m., a line of more than 200 fans snaked around the entrance to Redskins Park for the two-hour morning practice.
James Manley, 38, who was on hand with his father, James Manley Sr., recalled the buzz when Steve Spurrier was hired as head coach in 2002. Spurrier quit after finishing last season 5-11.
"This is different from Spurrier," Manley said. "That was painful. I was watching games and I was almost having ulcers."
Evan Redmon, who works at the National Academy of Sciences, agreed: "After last year, it couldn't be any worse. It can only get better. It's a lot more excitement because you didn't know how Spurrier was going to adapt to the NFL game. Gibbs has already proven he can do it."
Gibbs, the second-oldest coach in the NFL, looked spry during some offensive drills, playing the role of free safety, backpedaling and occasionally blitzing, along with Don Breaux, an offensive assistant.
"If they can't [beat] us," Gibbs cracked, "then we're really in trouble."
Gibbs, who is known for his workaholic habits, has installed a pullout bed and shower at Redskins Park and has been working assiduously since January despite an ongoing battle with diabetes. In the hallway of Redskins Park, the Super Bowl trophies won by Gibbs -- XVII, XXII and XXVI -- glitter in a glass case. But Gibbs has played down the past, and he declined to be on the team's media cover, which has a Redskins logo instead.
When the afternoon practice concluded, Gibbs, along with a few players, walked toward the crowd for an impromptu autograph session. As the giddy spectators pleaded for his attention or simply cheered, Gibbs signed Redskins items -- footballs, baseball caps and one program from his last game as Redskins coach, a 20-13 playoff loss to the 49ers in San Francisco on Jan. 9, 1993.
"Thank you all for coming out," Gibbs told the fans.
"Thank you," one person replied, "for coming back."