There are those who would say it's only fitting that the Washington Federals have traded in the Capitol Building for Donald Duck.
Disney World is just up a stretch of Florida highway from Orlando's Citrus Bowl, home of the Renegades, which is what some might call the latest misnomer for a bunch of cartoon characters. Federals is what they used to be, but it's a word seldom heard around here. The team colors have gone from green to blue and most of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Reggie Collier, who can keep his real name because he beat the Baltimore Stars in an exhibition game the other day, staked out some shade under the rafters of the stadium, which is where the Renegades will try to erase the stigma of once being the worst team in pro football. He is one of 18 former Federals left on a training camp roster of 72, and smart money says there won't even be that many left when the next 12-player roster cut comes Feb. 11.
"The general atmosphere," Collier said, "is that they are trying to forget about anything that ever happened. There's been a saying lately. 'The only thing green around here is the grass.' "
And not even that. The lawns are scorched, the sun is incessant and the air is damper than the sweat on owner Don Dizney's nervous brow. If you had to pick a color for Orlando it would probably be yellow, as in the Golden Arches. An alliterative fast food festival, it offers Steak n' Shake, Soup n' Sand or Ham n' Yams, and for desert you can stop through Krispy Kreme for a cone with sprinkles. They've got Bob's Boats and Motor Homes, Ace Auto Air and the grandest creation of them all, Handi-City.
But they've never had anything like the Federals. Two seasons with a cumulative record of 7-29, by the end of their stay they were reportedly $5 million in debt and their attendance had dropped from 23,000 to a little over 7,000.
The Renegades have been in existence only 112 days by the count of General Manager Lewis (Bugsy) Engelberg, who was hired away from the Tampa Bay Bandits by Dizney to rebuild the franchise. In that time they have sold 18,000 season tickets and hired an entire new staff, including Coach Lee Corso, a former assistant at Maryland and Navy.
"Obviously we still have some Federal flavor, but we're trying to blend that with the new things we're doing," Corso said. "The only thing you do with the past is study it to find out what went wrong."
The Renegades also have started a massive advertising campaign. The slogan is "Catch the Renegade Rage," and that's what you're liable to get from Engelberg if you mention the subject of the Federals.
"The Federals are no longer in existence," Engelberg said flatly. "They're gone. The fans probably don't even realize we were the Feds. We've spent $300,000 on marketing and changed our colors. We've worked from Day 1 to overcome that image."
There is not even a whisper of good-natured kidding about the Federals. Hilarious as they might have been in Washington, they are no laughing matter here.
"There hasn't been a whole lot of joking about it," said wide receiver Joey Walters. "The Feds are history. It's been very subdued. It's just not brought up."
Collier claims there has been a campaign to weed out old Federals simply because of their reputation. His claim is supported by the small numbers left on the roster.
"If you were with Washington, you really have to play to show you can stay here," he said. "They're treating it like a whole new team. If you're a Fed you better watch out. That 3-15 record sticks out, regardless of what certain people did individually. They're trying to get rid of that."
Engelberg, however, denied that the Renegades were purposefully getting rid of Federals, implying that it has instead been a question of talent.
"We're going to take a football player if he's good," Engelberg said. "Just because he was a member of the Federals doesn't mean he can't play."
Despite his misgivings about the stigma of being a Federal, Collier's own feelings about Washington are bitter. He was in a particularly frustrating position playing behind Mike Hohensee, who later was traded to the Portland Breakers.
"Personally, I don't have too many fond memories," he said. "I met some nice people in Washington, but as far as playing football there, I wish it had never happened."
Some forgettable history:
The Federals go 4-14 in their inaugural season, which includes a 10-game losing streak. Although they sell 20,000 season tickets, paid attendance never reaches more than 14,000 after opening day, and they lose just under $2 million for the year. Season ticket sales dropped to 9,500 in 1984.
On Feb. 26, 1984, the Federals suffer a 53-14 loss to the Jacksonville Bulls, an expansion team, in their opener. Afterwards, team chairman and chief operating officer Berl Bernhard declares that "they looked like the Muppets," and "a group of untrained gerbils can play as well." Coach Ray Jauch is fired in midweek after the loss and offensive coordinator Dick Bielski takes over.
On March 26 they are beaten by the New Jersey Generals and Herschel Walker, 41-6, in a penalty-filled brawl that included nine flags against Washington in one seven-minute span. One headline reads, "Walker Runs, Federals Fall." The next day Bielski tells the press, "Our morale is a bit testy right now."
On April 6 they lose to the Chicago Blitz, 21-20. With the Federals in position to kick the winning field goal with seconds left, center Dave Pacella snaps the ball over his holder's head. In the locker room afterward, Bielski points to his throat and says, "Should I draw a dotted line or should I just cut it?"
On April 27, Bernhard announces plans to sell the team because he can't raise the $4 million it would take to salvage it. "What went wrong?" he said later. "What didn't?" On May 9, Florida real estate developer Sherwood Weiser announces plans to buy the team for a reported $6.5 million, move it to Miami and hire Howard Schnellenberger as coach.
On May 21 Weiser arrives to take his first look at the team. They lose to San Antonio, 30-14, before 6,159. On Aug. 24, Weiser calls off plans to buy the team when the USFL announces it will move to a fall season in 1986. Asked what the team's assets are, general partner Robert Linowes points to himself and says, "Me."
On Aug. 28, Dizney proposes to buy the team and move it to Orlando. And that's where they stand.
Most Federals' immediate reaction to the move and new management has been favorable, if not outright relieved. Not a single member of the old Federals' front office remains ("Not even the guy who washed the socks," according to one new staffer), and players who suffered in silence under the old regime are airing some leftover complaints.
"I know this team is a lot farther along than the last one," said defensive back Victor Jackson. "Everything here is upbeat. At Washington, you were just trying to get through the week."
"Things are running a hell of a lot smoother, I can tell you that," Collier said. "I'm not going to say Washington didn't know what it was doing, but things could have been better. The attitude here now is that we more or less can't wait until the season starts."
The Renegades even got their first victory Saturday, 16-10, over the defending league champion Stars. Jackson had an interception, Collier threw a touchdown pass, Jeff Brockhaus kicked two field goals and backup quarterback Jerry Golsteyn completed 12 of 15 passes for 147 yards. The Renegades led almost the entire game after trailing just 3-0 in the first quarter.
"It was encouraging," Engelberg said. "The old Federals might have quit if they had gotten three points down."