I spent enough time in the FedEx Field parking lot before Redskins games to know this: If you saw a group of fans hurriedly clustering in a circle, there was a decent chance Chief Zee had showed up. And if you saw a rush of photographs and hugs, the odds were even higher.
That’s why if you looked for memories of the late Zema Williams on social media Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, what you would find again and again were parking lot photographs, with Williams usually pointing at a Washington fan, and the fan usually grinning like crazy. Getting that photograph was some sort of Redskins rite of passage, an acknowledgment that you were really at the game and really a fan, like getting a fan club card in the mail. There must be thousands and thousands of Washingtonians who have such images of themselves, images just like these.
Media members, too.
“I had the pleasure of meeting him as a child and as an adult, and I got the same warm embrace each time,” wrote CSN’s JP Finlay.
“Long before there were ‘selfies,’ people flocked to have their picture taken with Chief Zee (me included, the first time when I was still a teenager),” wrote Richmond NBC12 anchor Curt Autry on Facebook.
“For DECADES he’d go to the games and take a picture with every fan he could,” wrote Hot 99.5’s Elizabethany, who had a dance party with Williams in the parking lot just last season. “He’d talk to them. He’d experience things with them. He didn’t have to do any of that, but he did, without hesitation. Maybe he wanted everyone to love the games the way he did, or maybe he was as interested in everyone as they were him.”
Just look at this fan page on Facebook. It’s one parking lot photograph after another. It was the same thing on Twitter and Instagram. Williams did this for long enough that he took parking lot photos with children as they turned from toddlers into teenagers. He took photos with parents and children, a generation apart.
And he took photos with the same groups of tailgaters, one week after another. Hes must have posed for hundreds of these a week, for decades.
It was, somehow, a part of the FedEx Field experience, maybe especially for the people who spend extra hours there on Sundays, and who’ve done it during two mostly fruitless decades. Maybe you weren’t going to see a win, but finding Zee in the parking lot was like checking part of the game-day experience off your list. With all due respect, FedEx Field doesn’t have many must-see features. This older man in the costume seemed like one of them.
Redskins players paid tribute to Williams on Tuesday. Even non-Redskins players (Chad Johnson) and former Redskins players (London Fletcher) chimed in. But Williams belonged to the fans more than to the players. He belonged to the parking-lot scene most of all. That, I would guess, is where he’ll be missed the most.
“He has been an icon to Redskins fans for as long as I can remember,” one fan wrote on Facebook. “Things just wont be the same at FedEx Field without seeing Chief Zee!”
“I don’t think there was ever a Redskins game at FedEx we attended that we didn’t see Chief Zee,” wrote another. “Having only ever seen him on TV, I finally met him the second game I attended back in ’06, and looked forward to seeing him every time thereafter. He was always gracious, enthusiastic, energetic, and loved everybody, even fans who weren’t Redskins fans. He welcomed every man, woman, and child into his arms, smiled, and posed for pictures that made us, the fans, feel like we were the celebrity of the day. He made my children laugh, hugged and cooed over them, even might tell a quick story. He treated my non-Redskin fan friends, adult and children alike (even the Dallas ones) with respect without question. We would always know if he was in the area because over the buzz and noise of a tailgate, one would hear “Chief Zeeeeeeee”. It was always surreal to watch fans of all migrate to see him. Yes he loved his team, but he loved the fans. He wasn’t just a Redskins fan….. He was THE Redskins fan.”