The Washington Federals had just ended a 10-game losing streak with an 18-11 defeat of the Wranglers in Phoenix Saturday night. As their chartered plane rolled down the tarmac at Dulles, a number of players peered out the window. They saw catering trucks, tents and rush-hour crowds milling around early on a Sunday morning.
"They're here to greet us!" one player shouted.
When the team walked into the terminal, they saw more than a dozen photographers waiting.
But no one was there to see the 2-13 Federals, and well the team knew it. Those who had come to Dulles were there to see the space shuttle wing around the Virginia skies.
The Federals have a way to go, a very long way to go, before fans come to greet them at the airport the way they have the Redskins of George Allen and Joe Gibbs.
"I'm happy for the players, it feels good," Coach Ray Jauch said. "What we really need to do, though, is keep it up. It's good, but we need a lot more than one win."
Defensive back Doug Greene, who made an important interception and six tackles, said, "Yeah, I'm relieved. It's a shame. We should have been doing this all season long. Coach Jauch stuck with us and believed in us. I'm happy . . . for him."
While the Wranglers (4-10) presented a good opportunity for a Washington victory, the remaining three games on the Federals schedule are not easy. Michigan and Philadelphia could be the two best teams in the U.S. Football League and Los Angeles is in the midst of a race for the Pacific Division title.
Recently, the problem with Washington has been its defense, but Saturday night that unit played better than it had all season. The Federals limited the Wranglers to 173 total net yards by pressuring quarterbacks Dan Manucci and Alan Risher and making the big plays when necessary.
In the first half, the Wranglers had a number of good opportunities to score and put the game out of reach, but the Washington defense prevailed. Fumbles by Craig James and Billy Taylor and two interceptions of Kim McQuilken provided Arizona those opportunities, but the Wranglers managed only an 11-0 halftime lead, far less than it could have been.
Mike Guess got the Federals going by returning the second-half kickoff 55 yards. McQuilken, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 100 yards, threw to Joey Walters, Mike Harris and Curtis Bledsoe and Washington completed its first drive of the night. Taylor's six-yard touchdown run narrowed the score to 11-7 with 11:37 left in the third quarter.
McQuilken suffered his third interception of the game, but the Federals' defense managed to scotch the Wranglers' ensuing drive.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Federals seemed to arrive on offense, as Sandro Vitiello kicked a 48-yard field goal to cut the Arizona lead to 11-10. After Guess intercepted Manucci, the Federals scored again, this time on a three-yard run by James with 9:24 left in the game. McQuilken completed a pass to Taylor for the two-point conversion and the 18-11 lead.
But the big play was still to come. Fittingly, the defense was involved again.
On its final drive, Arizona appeared as if it might well score. Manucci completed five passes in a row to bring the Wranglers to the Federals' 27. But after two incomplete passes, linebacker Mike Muller batted a pass into the air and Scott Facyson was there to catch it at the 10 with 1:38 remaining to preserve the victory.
"One day at a time," Coy Bacon said after the game, and the Federals finally boarded a bus for home as winners. Airport receptions were unnecessary as victory itself, after three barren months, was sweet enought.