These are not ordinary times. Even if you are only vaguely aware of pro football, or the Redskins, you know things have gone awry. Redskins fans ought to be anticipating yet another victory over the usually hapless St. Louis Cardinals today at RFK Stadium.
Instead, they're left to debate the merits of the players strike, or whether the Redskins' "replacement team" can beat a St. Louis team stocked with 14 strike-breaking veterans.
They can only wonder what star next will cross picket lines, or can only speculate when the strike will end. Football fans are disappointed, angered, bored.
The unhappy turn of events began when the National Football League Players Association struck Sept. 22 after months of contract talks. It's the second players strike in recent years; a 1982 strike lasted 57 days and caused seven weekends of NFL games to be canceled. While looking for alternative entertainment today, most fans are rooting for concessions from both players and owners in their bargaining, and a resumption of peace and weekend games between the real teams.
Meanwhile, this week's sights have included: Redskins fans trooping to RFK to return their tickets, players carrying picket signs, strangers wearing Redskins uniforms, stadium vendors standing up to support multimillionaires.
Should fans go to today's game, or give away their tickets? Should fans go on strike, just like the owners and players? Who has the willpower not to watch today's game on TV?
Under the burgundy helmets at Redskin Park, the faces look unfamiliar.
For one, Danny Burmeister says he is trying to learn as much as he can about playing safety while trying not to think of the unpleasant fact that the actual Redskins are across the street walking a picket line. "If you start thinking of everything, it will boggle your mind," he says after a practice. "You try to keep your mind clear of what's going on around you."
An Oakton High School product, he graduated from North Carolina in May. He played free safety for the Tar Heels and won the 1985 Brian Piccolo award as his conference's most courageous player. He had come back from a broken leg, and he is a diabetic. As a free agent, he was given the chance to try out for the Redskins in training camp in Carlisle. "Trying out," he says, "was like a dream come true."
He was cut before the first exhibition game. A Redskins assistant came to his room one morning to give him the news. He was awake but still in bed. "It's a tough way to start the day."
Now Burmeister is back in a Redskins uniform -- No. 22 -- but he says, "I can't say this is a dream come true. It's a tough situation.
"I feel bad about crossing the picket line, but you only get so many chances and this was an extra one for me. There are a lot of football players in the country, and if I wasn't here somebody else would be.
"I'd hate to be thought of in this area as one who tried to put a Redskin out of a job. That's not the case. Whenever they're ready to come back, it's their job. They're the top show. I'm just out there to do a good job and make some money in the process."
Soon, he expects to join a company and become a sales representative. Broadcasting Problems
How do you broadcast a game between "replacement" teams?
"Just like a preseason game," says Sam Huff, one of the Redskins' radio voices. "Only this preseason game," he adds, his voice rising, "counts!"
Huff and partners Sonny Jurgensen and Frank Herzog chat it up during their radio broadcasts of Redskins games -- they can take off on tangents and they always seem to be having a good time. Today, they'll have a lot to talk about, but the strike is what's on people's minds, not the life history of a player on a "replacement team." Today just doesn't figure to be as much fun in the booth.
Huff sees "replacement teams" as part of a "master plan" by the owners to break the players. Yet he's not so happy with the players either. "You've got to question the direction they have gone," he says, mentioning the players' quest for free-agency. "Free agency after four years -- I don't support that. It takes a quarterback five years to learn his job."
He worries about players leaving their teams just after they've been trained. He favors free agency for a player "in the twilight of his career. Like O.J. Simpson at the end of his career wanted to play in San Francisco. I think a player should be able to do that."
Huff was in on the beginning of the players association ("I was part of it") as New York Giant's player rep in the '50s, and he still tends to think of the players as belonging to an association not a union. "A picket line is for unions," he says.The Music Man
Barnee Breeskin is upset.
"This thing is killing me," says Breeskin, who wrote "Hail to the Redskins."
He is drinking coffee and eating a donut mid-morning Thursday in an almost empty restaurant.
"This is disturbing. They're playing my song on radio and TV, but I'm listening to it and I'm terribly disturbed.
"I've been a union man most of my life -- the musicians' union. But I don't know what's the right or wrong of this situation yet. I'm terribly disturbed. God, I'm disturbed."
He puts down his donut and waves his hands.
The thing is, Breeskin has long been identified with the Redskins. He knew Sammy Baugh and Riley Smith and others. He worked for the team for years. "I went through six coaches."
But the popularity of players in the franchise's early years was nothing like it is now. "TV, radio, the newspapers have married these guys into the minds of everybody walking down the street," he says. "They're in love with this team."
On the other side of the restaurant's big front window, people hurry by. As Breeskin sees it, they shouldn't have to be denied their football. He knows football is on their minds because he's always getting calls to make an appearance or speak "because I wrote the song."
Everybody loves this team, all right. But now this. He finishes his coffee, picks up his newspaper and heads outside. It's a glorious day with a breeze kicking up, but he's not thinking of the weather.
"Things are just not right," he says.
"It's an art," Ralph J. Hawkins says of vending.
He's been vending at RFK since 1963. He's moved up -- first it was sodas, then hot dogs, now beer.
"You make good money," says Hawkins, a security officer in the city's schools who works part-time on Sundays. A vendor gets a percentage of sales. "It can be profitable for a side job."
Hawkins' secret of vending?
"Walk slow. My first day, I walked fast. I made $4. This elderly fellow told me, 'I've been watching you. You're going too fast. You missed several people.' The next day I slowed down. I made $16."
It helps, too, to have peripheral vision -- like a quarterback.
"When the hands are shooting up," said 18-year-RFK veteran Lyn Teasley, "you have to focus on each side of the aisle as you go up or down. I don't miss too many."
The vendors will be honoring the players' picket line today. They say they can use the money but they'll be sacrificing for the players.
They'll be missed. Season Ticket Holders
They park their cars in the lots or take the Metro and walk across the grassy esplanade in front of RFK to return their tickets to today's game of "replacement" teams. Wednesday there had been long lines, but Thursday morning it's easier. "No line today," one man leaving calls out to another one coming. "No line."
Coming away from the ticket windows, no one is particularly happy.
Chris Nordlinger of Washington: "I don't want to cross the picket line, and I certainly think it's going to be lousy football."
Jack Hughes, of Seabrook, Md., who's been going to Redskins games for 10 years with season tickets passed down in his family: "If you're going to pay to see the Redskins, you want to see the Redskins. My wife feels the same way."
This week, you couldn't find a "real" Redskin in uniform.
They are easy to spot, nevertheless. Many wear jeans. And they're big. And, of course, they carry signs.
"It's physically tiring," Neal Olkewicz says of picketing. "It's boring to an extent. But it's amazing how many people come out to support your cause."
The Redskins walk the line across from Redskin Park. They also came in large numbers to RFK during the middle of the week, hanging out near the ticket windows.
"Have a good day," says a fan who returned his tickets to Terry Orr.
"Thanks a lot," Orr replies. "Appreciate it."
"We have the best fans in the world," Orr says. "We're out here thanking them for their support."
The football fans in the bar in downtown Herndon are mad. It's dark and the smoke is thick, but you can see -- they're mad.
"There's three parties involved in this strike," says Bob Croke of the bar called Foot Anakin (named for an English dart pub owner). "The owners. The players. And the forgotten fans.
"They knew this was coming. Still, they make the fans suffer.
"We pay the salaries and they're saying come back to the stadiums when they're ready. We say forget it."