The circus has camped in the D.C. Armory across from Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. All day, kids dance to brain funk in the streets, in the rain, their music blasters wrapped in plastic laundry bags.
Every afternoon when the Washington Federals file out of their dressing room and walk the half-mile to the sloppy practice field nestled belly-to-belly with the Anacostia River, no one seems to notice their somber journey.
Oh, occasionally a balloon or hot dog salesman will shout some vague insult in a terrible, hoarse voice, upsetting no one, and wave a fist at the stream of players, but few pay him any mind.
For the Federals, it has been a season of gray skies, of ugly days spent running for shelter, searching for a dry bower in which to rest but never finding one. "This weather," Coach Ray Jauch said earlier this week, "oh, this miserable weather. I wonder if these gray skies will ever turn to blue."
After practice for the 1-4 Federals' game against the Arizona Wranglers (2-3) Monday night at RFK Stadium, Jauch walked back to his office with his hands in his pockets, his chin buried in his chest. You note how he sways when cutting through this fog of ubiquitous gloom, a slow, almost lazy stagger. He appears to be wrestling with gravity itself.
"Winning is such a personal thing," Jauch said. "I'm not sure it can be taught. I think it's all a matter of pride, pride in yourself and in your team; and you must understand your role on the team in order to achieve and understand victory."
Defensive tackle Ronnie Estay, who walked beside Jauch, played 10 seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. At 34, he is not a young man; he is not old. Although he is not bearded, neither is he cleanly shaven; the stubble on his jaw hides the tender keloids of chinstrap wars.
His scars and those fresh wounds covered with butterfly bandages are the testament of survival. He walks with a limp, is a full-blooded Cajun (a Louisiana native originally descended of Acadian French immigrants) and is proud of it.
Estay on winning: "I don't know if you start out playing football just to win. I think you play 'cause you like playing and it's something you want to do. But later on, down the line a piece, you learn that there is no point in playing if you don't win. So all that matters then is winning; it becomes the reason for playing, the only reason.
"I sometimes question myself after losses. No, whenever we lose, when I lose, I question myself. I ask: Am I doing everything I can do; what could I do to get better; what should I do? I ask these questions, then I look for answers as best I know how. I run a gut-check, so to speak."
Offensive tackle Dave Pacella walked some distance behind the line of players with his best friend, defensive lineman Mike Corvino. Pacella and Corvino, both rookies from Maryland, are blessed with chins that could furrow through stubborn fields of stone and come out unscathed.
Sure, they've taken it on the chin, and well. Although they've been playing football since August, the hungry spark in their eyes belies any mention of fatigue. They may claim it's been hard, going straight from college to pro ball without a full month's rest, but the jounce of their walk away from the practice field indicates they want for more; there will never be enough days of work and pleasure in this gray or any other season.
Pacella on winning and losing: "You will know defeat if you are an athlete. Nobody wins all the time. Yes, you will lose but you can't accept losing. You gotta learn from it, turn it into something positive.
"Whether you win or lose, playing football is fun. You play to win, sure, but it's fun always. Sometimes I think it's like a game of army. There are battles, big and small, and then there's the war. The war is what you want, to win the war. I think the team, like the army, that makes the most mistakes loses. How do you teach winning? You can't; no, you can't. You just buckle up and go out there and win.
"If we lose, I will not go any further than myself; I don't look for excuses. At times, though, I'll get really tired, but tomorrow is never so bad. When things get tough, when they're awful, you can go to a number of people. I can talk to Mike (Corvino) or I can call Mom. There's always God or an old high school coach. The family's there. But to win, you mostly have to pull it out of yourself. Yeah, that's where it is; it's inside of you."
Corvino: "Most of my playing time so far has been on special teams, but, even there, games are won and lost. I first have to make sure I make no mental mistakes. I want to be in on every tackle, every tackle, not just one or two. Losing is hard; hell, losing is hell. I keep most of my feelings to myself though. I look at the whole picture and break it into parts, hashing out the good from the bad. You can only learn from losing by learning not to make the same mistakes.
"But there oughta be no system to handling losing; you should never be able to handle or accept it. If you do, something's wrong. You're building these fatal walls around you and there's no way out.
"The way I see it, you have a certain number of days during each year to prove what sort of person, what sort of man, you are. Those days are Sundays when you're playing ball. I have l3 of those days left this year, only l3 days to prove who I am, who we are as a team. When it's all said and done, nobody cares how hard you worked in the offseason, what sort of kid you were off the field. You can pump iron all day long, all year long, when it's all over they want to see your won-loss column."
The Federals yesterday released Phil Murphy, an offensive tackle picked up Monday in a trade with the Los Angeles Express. Murphy played the last two years with the Los Angeles Rams.
The Federals also signed place kicker Ken Olson of Gaithersburg, who beat out former Maryland all-America Dale Castro. Olson attended Salisbury State College and had been cut by the Chicago Blitz in training camp.