The Redskins yesterday gathered for the last time this season, exchanging holiday greetings and wishing each other good luck. But despite the laughter and the smiles, there was something unmistakably eerie about this moment at Redskin Park.
The shock of the loss to Dallas Sunday and the elimination from the playoffs was starting to wear off, yet seeing each other again for the first time since the game brought back a flood of memories most were trying to forget.
This was not how they had planned for it to end. There were supposed to be playoff games, and, maybe, a trip to the Super Bowl. But not this, not the end of what had been such a wonderful season, not a team picture on a day when they should be practicing for another opponent, another contest.
There still was some bitterness and anger. The Cardinals had choked, Harvey Martin had embarrassed himself, the officials deliberately had stripped them of a final chance to beat the hated Cowboys.
But mostly there was sorrow. The rookies were taking it the hardest. Nothing in their college careers had prepared them for Sunday afternoon's nightmare. The veterans were much more philosophical.
"It hurts you a lot," said Diron Talbert, who has known both joy and sadness during his years in the NFL. "But you feel more sorry for the young kids. It hurts them financially, it kills them that way.
"But you have to realize that life goes on."
Talbert was sitting by his locker filling a large cardboard box with football gear. "Been doing this for a long, long time," he said. "Just like a guy who changes jobs, you just pack up and move on, no matter what happens at the end of the season.
"Still, this is probably the most fun I've had in any year except 1971. But it ranks right up with the Super Bowl, it certainly does."
In the background, John Riggins was singing an off-key chorus of "Hail to the Redskins" while his teammates slowly took off their game uniforms after the photo session and packed up for good.
None of them knew how many would be back for training camp in July. Talbert said he wanted to at least finish out the year left on his contract, "but I don't know if they want me back, we haven't talked about it. This is becoming a young man's game, anyway, and that's the way it should be."
But just in case he wasn't to return, he spent a few minutes giving linebacker Neal Olkewicz some philosophical advice about paying his clubhouse dues.
"Pay those dues, take care of the trainers and everyone else," Talbert advised the rookie. "When you hurt a knee, they'll take an extra few minutes to work on it. You'll appreciate them when that time comes."
Talbert is the Redskins' past. Olkewicz is the team's future. Olkewicz will have plenty of other shots at the playoffs. Talbert might have used up his last. Probably that is why he dressed so methodically.
"You feel so bad for the older players," Coach Jack Pardee said. "They held us together this season.They gave us leadership, then they played so well under the circumstances Sunday. You grieve for all of them."
The town also was grieving for these players and they knew it. The heartache of Sunday would be with both fans and athletes for a long time. But yesterday there already was talk at Redskin Park about training camp. Other players dwelt on the last 48 hours. Some really didn't want to talk at all.
Riggins: "We got the vault door open, but we couldn't get inside. Next year, we can start taking stuff out. How many times has Dallas had a game like that? Twenty? It was my first. They know how to win in those circumstances, we had to learn. It would have been nice to be Cinderella, but maybe that wasn't the way it was supposed to be.
"One thing we proved, though, to ourselves and to everyone else in the United States. The Dallas Cowboys are an ordinary team, they aren't the dominant force they have been in the past. We have reduced them to a team that no one has any respect for and there is no reason to have respect, because they are a regular team now."
Linebacker Dallas Hickman: "The last two days have been hell. This just wasn't meant to be. Today, to come here and see everyone, it's tough. You want to be here to prepare yourself for a game and instead, everyone is saying goodbye.
"We have a lot of energy to channel elsewhere. It will even be difficult to watch the playoffs on television.
"Tell you something, for 56 minutes in the game, it was the best feeling I've ever had in a team sport. And for the last four, it was the worst."
Linebacker Pete Wysocki: "I'm getting a checkup for ulcers. Seriously, I'm doing my darndest not to think about the game.
"To feel the kind of highs and lows we felt during that game was something. People in this town were talking about having heart attacks and people going to the hospital. What other city would react like that to a game? I'll say this, that game is responsible for a lot of alcoholism in Washington, D.C."
Tackle George Starke: "I didn't sleep much the first night. I couldn't, I was too restless. But by now, you've had time to adjust.
"You wonder about what would have happened if we had one more second. You wonder about a lot of things. But you can't stop living. It's something that happens."
Cornerback Ray Waddy: "Everybody knows we still should be in the playoffs, that's what hurts. I'm already looking forward to next year, to training camp. You won't believe the kind of enthusiasm we are going to have. t
"I keep thinking about those final seconds and looking at my teammates and seeing the hurt and disappointed in their faces. I've sat back and thought about how I can make myself bigger and stronger so I can be a better player for this team next year. We've got a lot of time to think now."
Linebacker Monte Coleman: "St. Louis sticks in my throat. The way they played against the Bears, they took a dive. The Bears haven't scored that many points in their last two games combined. To lose it like that, because of the Cardinals, well, we have St. Louis next year, maybe we can take it out on them.
"I keep thinking about those last few minutes. I was covering Preston Pearson when he caught his last two passes. He gave me a double move and I took the first move. He's the best back I've faced. It will help me to play against a guy like that, but it did depress me. Now I'm looking forward to another chance to cover him."
Safety Mark Murphy: "I've had to study for a final exam and that's helped to take my mind off the game. I keep seeing visions of one second on the clock and Mark (Moseley) kicking the field goal.
"Everyone is still drained, though we know now what we can do when we come back next season. Just look at how we finished off this year compared with how we ended last season. We aren't that far from being a championship team. But I never want to go through a flight home like that again. It was the longest ever."
Tight end Don Warren: "I'm trying to get home for Christmas. It'll be rough driving across country (to San Diego) but I want to make it. It will help take my mind off things.
"We should have won. It keeps coming back to me, that we were a better team, we showed we were better. But I guess it really hasn't hit me yet. We could have gone to the Super Bowl, we were that good. And now to come up empty, to have nothing, it just doesn't seem fair."