I hate to admit it, but I wasn't really a Redskins fan before I met Jack Kent Cooke. He converted me. It began because we were both fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Our first conversations were about whether Scott could whip Ernest Hemingway rather than whether the Redskins could whip, say, the Broncos. We agreed that Scott could be counted upon to give Ernest a good thrashing, not on the gridiron or in a boxing ring, but on a piece of paper.
Scott Fitzgerald loved football. One of the bitterest disappointments in his life was dropping the pass that would have scored the winning touchdown against his prep school's biggest rival. So his team lost. Ernest Hemingway always won all his games. Which made Scott, who had suffered, a better writer -- in our opinion -- but would have made Ernest a better draft choice.
Eventually Jack and I got around to talking about not only writers but also Redskins. We gossiped about Jay Gatsby and Jay Schroeder. About Dick Diver and Doug Williams. About "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz" and a stadium as big as the Grand Canyon. About "Babylon Revisited" and the Super Bowl Revisited Revisited Revisited.
Since my father was a football coach and my mother a school teacher, I've always loved both football and words. Jack turned out to share this dual passion. He even likes to play football with words, tossing them around to see what will happen.
I sometimes go to Redskins practice with him, and we sit on the sidelines discussing game plans and grammar. We talk about defensive backs who might be turned into offensive receivers -- and nouns that somehow get turned into verbs.
I once told Jack about interviewing Brendan Gil of The New Yorker and asking him if he hosted many parties. Gil told me that he couldn't have a civilized conversation with somebody who used "host" as verb. In other words, he informed me that I was as articulate as a grapefruit. I said I still felt embarrassed when I remembered that moment.
Coming to my defense -- like Terry Orr helping out Barry Wilburn with downfield pass coverage -- Jack pronounced Gil unbearably stuffy.
The next day, Jack sent me by messenger several Xeroxed pages from one of his favorite books -- Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage. In this fabulous volume, various experts, including the immortal Red Smith, get to vote on various usages. Sort of the way Jimmy The Greek used to handicap football games. This usage is a winner, that one's a loser.
A majority of the experts supported the use of "host" as a verb. But it was close. An ugly victory. Sort of like the NFC championship game.
Jack later lent me the whole book -- Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage -- and I discovered that he had underlined favorite passages on every page. And he had made notes -- some agreeing, some disagreeing -- on most margins. He and the book had been having conversations for years.
I soon learned that Jack has a gift for picking good books and good gridiron performers. Years ago, he told me that Ricky Sanders and Alvin Walton would be big stars and that Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" was a great novel. All of them turned out to be worth taking a look at (Which brings me to another Cooke rule: Sentences that end in prepositions are something he will put up with). Jack tends to like books that are as big as Dave Butz. Smaller ones end too soon. He made me read Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, something I am grateful for.
Jack loves to discuss English syntax and the syntax of football. He once sent me a copy of Jacques Barzun's Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers with a note that said it was one of his favorite text books on the language.
Of course Simple and Direct not only typifies most good writing but also the Redskins' offense much of the time. The one-back offense. Rogers right, Rogers left. But Jack was also the first to celebrate "Complicated and Tricky" when Gibbs began to practice more deception toward the end of the season. Especially the reverses that first showed up in the extraordinary victory over Buffalo.
I like to think that the Redskins are like a good library. The linemen, offensive and defensive, are the heavy reference books on which all else is based -- the unabridged dictionary (O.E.D. or Webster's II), Roget's Thesarus, Who's Who. Clint Didier and Donnie Warren are hefty nonfiction works. George Rogers and Timmy Smith at their best are bestsellers by novelists you can count on -- like Larry McMurtry. The defensive backs, especially Alvin Walton, are Mike Hammers. The receivers -- Gary Clark, Art Monk, Ricky Sanders -- are great suspense novels. And Doug Williams is poetry -- sometimes Rod McKuen, sometimes the Bard in shoulder pads.
Scott Fitzgerald once wrote a short story called "Winter Dreams," and we have all been dreaming them lately, haven't we? Some of the best stories have unhappy endings, but the best games have happy ones. May Washington's 1988 winter dream come true. Aaron Latham is a Washington writer, author of "Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood" and a novel, "Orchids for Mother." His movie credits include the screenplays for "Urban Cowboy" and "Perfect."