The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How ‘Lord Of The Rings’ took over the Redskins locker room

Soon, the Shire. (By Michael Perez / AP)
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The board was set, the pieces were moving, and victory was in hand, but Kirk Cousins needed a little help with his lines.

“Is it the third day or the fifth day you’ve got to look to the East?” Cousins asked teammate Tom Compton on the FedEx Field sidelines, as the clock counted down Washington’s triumph over the Bills.

Compton grimaced at the memory, still aghast that his quarterback would need to ask.

“I was like, ‘It’s the fifth day, bro,” Compton recalled. “Like, c’mon.”

Information secured, Cousins delivered the lines that welcomed the world into his team’s growing “Lord of the Rings” fascination.

“Today, the gray became the white,” Cousins announced, as the Redskins closed in on a division championship. “We look to the East.”

We know about this, of course, because Cousins was wearing an NFL Films microphone on that day, and because the editors who listened to him for three hours recognized the value in those Tolkien-flavored quotes. But this wasn’t an act for the camera, and it wasn’t a one-time stunt. There’s a segment of this football team that is all-in on “Lord of the Rings.”

Kirk Cousins drops ‘Lord of the Rings’ references on the sideline

“That conversation has been going on for a while, and will continue to go on,” Cousins said.

“It happens any road trip pretty much — bus rides, plane flights,” said center Kory Lichtensteiger. 

“It’s a daily conversation,” Compton said. “We’re always trying to get back to the Shire.”

What in the name of Bilbo Baggins is going on here? It just so happens that the Redskins locker room is filled with Tolkien enthusiasts who are seeking new converts. Spencer Long thinks the “Lord of the Rings” movies might represent the best-ever film trilogy. Compton has them virtually memorized, and also does character impersonations. Lichtensteiger has read the books. And so, with peer pressure mounting, Cousins consented to watch the films over the past offseason. This is straying from his normal movie path — he’s seen just one of the seven “Star Wars” films, and none of the “Harry Potter” series — but, bound by friendship and love, he carved out time for Gandalf and Frodo.

“Fifteen minutes into the first one, I was hooked,” Cousins said. “So I got really into it and enjoyed watching them all, and I texted them when I was done, saying, ‘This is the best!’ and asking them questions about the ring and Mordor and Middle Earth. And they, of course, had the answers, because they’re pretty knowledgeable.”

By now, you’re no doubt waiting for the elaborate athletic metaphor explaining why this matters to a football team that has transformed itself from irrelevance to playoff-bound in 12 months, how the shared values learned in these fantasies inserted meaning and majesty into a 16-game NFL grind. Or at least you’re hoping for a few thoughts on the cover-two defense. Well, you’re in luck. The players already have this figured out.

“Carrying the ring to Mordor is the metaphor for the season,” Long explained, with only a small grin. “Dropping the ring into the fires of Mount Doom is winning the Super Bowl.”

“Sometimes you walk through some dark days, and then the end result of the mission is that everyone’s happy and lives happily ever after,” Lichtensteiger said. “So I guess it works.”

“We’ve joked about how playing at this level is similar to those guys going on their quest,” Cousins said. “You’re going to have challenges, you’re going to have setbacks, you’re going to have great victories, and you just keep going. And we joke about how some day it will all be over and we’ll go back to the Shire, like they do in the movie. So we joke about that, and we’re in the middle of our quest right now.”

(The real importance of all this, it seems to me, is what it says about the current atmosphere in Washington’s locker room. The stories out of Philadelphia in recent days — the toxic environment, the scent of acrid dissolution, team leaders nowhere to be found — were reminiscent of past Decembers in Ashburn, when entering the team’s locker room sometimes felt like visiting a feuding family, all awkward silences and tense whispers. These days, it’s more of a jolly reunion: boisterous card games, good-natured ribbing, smiles everywhere, plus conversations about Middle Earth.

Does winning follow a good atmosphere, or does that atmosphere result from winning? Either way, the quarterback isn’t talking about the Shire if this team is 4-11.)

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If you’re still thinking this was all a goof done for NFL Films, well, your time will come. Players have tried comparing their teammates to various “Lord of the Rings” characters; Lichtensteiger is Gimli (“because he’s short and hairy,” Long said) and Cousins is either Aragorn or Legolas. (They’re still deciding.) When Brian de la Puente had to finish a game for the injured Josh LeRibeus, teammates told him he was like Gandalf, coming in on the white stag to save the day. On hard days at practice, Long will turn to Cousins and say “Kirk, I think we’re taking the ring up to Mordor right now.” In fact, when de la Puente arrived midway through the season, he was startled by the locker room conversation.

“I guess he heard a couple ‘Lord of the Rings’ discussions, and he was like ‘You guys are just straight-up nerds in here,’ ” Lichtensteiger said.

“I mean, everybody has their quirks, you know?” de la Puente said. “I was a little bit on the outside looking in. I feel like it might be a prerequisite to fitting in with a certain group on the team, because they know it, inside and out. So I kind of had to brush up on my ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie quotes and references, because it was kind of over my head on the bus. … I think it’s funny, and I don’t even know what the hell they’re talking about.”

This isn’t the first NFL team to inject some Tokien into its game — Andrew Luck has previously used ‘Lord of the Rings’ audibles — but the Redskins still take a certain amount of satisfaction in this unexpected passion.

“If you didn’t watch the movies you would have no idea. It would sound like real nerdy stuff,” Long said.

“We’re breaking stereotypes,” Compton quipped.

“We kind of feel a sense of pride, because we turned Kirk onto it, and now he’s blossoming in his ‘Lord of the Rings’ knowledge,” Lichtensteiger said.

Which is why Cousins also deployed perhaps the team’s favorite reference: when the Bills game was won, he called for the Redskins to “take our knees, and go back to the Shire.” The Shire here represents triumph, calm and satisfaction, a mission completed. But in the NFL metaphor, where exactly can this be found?

“The Shire is after a game. The shire is when you’re able to just go back and relax,” Cousins said.

“Just getting back home, all safe and nestled,” Compton offered.

“Wherever you think your happy place is, that’s the Shire,” Lichtensteiger said. “Probably not FedEx Field. Somewhere in Ashburn, probably, or Leesburg.”