Thirty-six years ago this month, a Sports Illustrated profile of awards dinners paid particular attention to the Touchdown Club of Washington, calling it “the granddaddy of all sports banquets.” That year’s black-tie affair attracted 2,000 all-male attendees who ate filet mignon, Italian green beans and water chestnuts at the then-Sheraton Park Hotel; the guest list included Supreme Court Justice Byron White, brother of the president Billy Carter, Tony Dorsett, Ken Stabler, John Madden, Roger Staubach, Carl Yastrzemski, Adrian Dantley, Bruce Jenner and John Havlicek.
The year before, the same event attracted Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, Jack Kramer, Joe DiMaggio, Meadowlark Lemon, Fran Tarkenton, Abe Pollin and Johnny Bench, among others.
“I don’t know how in the world you ever talked me into this,” Hope told dinner chairman Charlie Brotman, according to the next day’s Post.
For decades, Brotman and pals attracted dozens of A-listers to this banquet, from Ronald Reagan to Mickey Mantle, from Richard Nixon to Sugar Ray Leonard.
“Every major coach, every major player — and I mean EVERY one that we went after — came here. No exceptions,” Brotman told me this week. “We have never really been known as a sports town, because most of our teams have not actually been very successful. But with the advent of the Touchdown Club, every January we would have the greatest athletes in the United States here in town. For about a week, we were like the sports capital of America. “
The awards banquet circuit isn’t what it used to be, and the Touchdown Club dinner faded away sometime in the ‘90s. Now, there’s an effort to bring it back. The DC Touchdown Club – note the slightly different name – will hold its first dinner March 8 at Carmine’s in Chinatown, headlined by Frank Beamer, who will be given a lifetime achievement award.
Organizers are hoping to start anew by tapping into the previous Touchdown Club’s original roots in local prep and college football. The event will raise money for a local youth football cause, and will honor high school players of the year in the District (Yannick Ngakoue), Maryland (Kendall Fuller) and Virginia (Jonathan Allen), as well as Good Counsel Coach Bob Milloy, Maryland defensive lineman Joe Vellano and Howard Coach Gary Harrell. Previous Touchdown Club high school players of the year will also be invited.
“It was a vibrant piece of the local football community for years,” said Steve Beck, the executive director of the Military Bowl, who is leading the resuscitation efforts. “This is something that the community really liked in the past, and I think it’s something that they’ll wrap their arms around again.”
Of course, it’s hard to replicate the celebrity power of the past, like the 1988 appearance by Sylvester Stallone, accepting the President’s Council on Physical Fitness award. Or the 1966 event, which featured then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Willie Mays and Red Auerbach. Or the 1973 dinner, emceed by Howard Cosell and featuring Johnny Unitas, Bart Star, Sonny Jurgensen, Don Strock, John McKay, Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry.
The club was founded by Arthur “Dutch” Bergman in 1934; its symbol was the “Timmie” award, a trophy featuring a boy in uniform and sneakers. The new club hasn’t settled on a name for its trophy.
“What I would like for it to be, on a personal level, is something people could get together with their dad about: father and son, father and daughter, going and enjoying themselves together,” Beck said.
Organizers are hoping for more than 300 attendees at their initial effort, including several pros and retired players. They have consulted with Brotman, who supports their mission but cautioned that the world has changed since the banquet’s heyday. Athletes, he said, are less likely to show up at a banquet without an appearance fee. Friends can’t lean on friends to participate in quite the same way.
“I don’t think you can ever have the same success as something that was so historic, but they’re on the right direction, they’ve got the right idea,” Brotman said. “They’re trying to start the way the Touchdown Club actually started a century ago — go for the high school player, the prep school player, all local stuff. That’s the first domino to fall.”
Note: This item originally misstated the date of the Sports Illustrated story. It was 36 years ago, and not 26.