To get to the Vanderwiehle-Henderson wedding, you headed through the giant inflatable helmet, past Doug the Food Dude’s food truck, nearby two dueling games of cornhole and then around a pair of guys wearing pig snouts and gold wigs. Once you reached the stage — where Wendy Vanderwiehle wore a Steelers Bradshaw jersey and Justin Henderson went with a Redskins Jurgensen model — you could enjoy the moment with a few family members, a scattering of random fans, a row of media members and those two guys with the pig snouts and gold wigs.
The fans were mostly quiet, at least until the groom kissed the bride. Then they started singing “Hail to the Redskins.”
Brett McCarthy — who gave away his aunt at the ceremony — would have sung along, except he was crying too hard. Also, he’s a Jets fan. Most of the family is, as it turns out. But Henderson is a lifelong Redskins fan, and Vanderwiehle is a lifelong Steelers fan, and they’ve dated for 16 years, and so why not get married before a football game in a FedEx Field parking lot?
“It’s perfect for them,” said McCarthy, during a non-teary moment. “They’re not formal people. They’re not the queen and king of England. The ceremony should fit the person. If you’re not a formal person, don’t have a formal wedding. This fits their personality.”
After Vanderwiehle lost both her father and her brother at a young age, she decided she didn’t need a wedding. She and Henderson, both 38, have dated since college, and they planned to spend their lives together, and that was good enough. But then their daughter, Justine Henderson (currently 9 years old), pointed out that their last names would never be the same.
“I said you’re absolutely right, we should have the same last name,” Vanderwiehle told her. So the couple decided to get married last summer in Myrtle Beach. Then they realized the Steelers would be visiting the Redskins sometime this season.
“So we said, ‘Let’s just wait another year and do it at the game,’ ” she recalled. “That would be way better than Myrtle Beach. … I said, ‘Let’s do it the way we want to do it,’ and this is what we chose.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, could a woman get any more perfect?’ ” Henderson remembered thinking. “A lot of the people I talked to thought I was being selfish before I told them it was her idea.”
(This was about 20 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to start. I asked Henderson if he was nervous yet. “I’m more nervous about the game, truthfully,” he said. “With Wendy, I’ve got a sure thing.” I mean, don’t you just love them?)
Henderson was the son of a Jets fan, but when he was 6 he told his dad he would be a Redskins fan. His dad said that was fine, but that he would never buy him Redskins gear. Vanderwiehle was part of a Jets family, but she had friends who liked the Steelers so she’s spent her life rooting for them. The couple lives in upstate New York, but they decided they would just invite everyone to visit Landover for a fall celebration.
Then it turned out that the Redskins and Steelers were scheduled to meet not on a fall Sunday, but on the second Monday night in September. About two dozen family and friends came down this weekend to get ready for a tailgate, and after the Redskins found out about it, they put the ceremony on stage in the new tailgating lot. (“Come on over to the stage and witness history!” a Redskins official asked the early-arriving tailgaters. “I didn’t know we made history,” Justin later said. “I’ll take any part of history I can get.”)
Their chosen jerseys spelled out their anniversary (9-12, get it?), and the wedding party donned Redskins and Steelers gear out of support, and they all took a break from drinking margaritas and Hennessy for the brief ceremony. Justin’s older brother Damon officiated; “may the only division in your loving home be that of your sporting allegiance,” he told them. The ceremony was short, and the vows sweet. (“Now that she’s gonna be part of the Redskins Nation … I do!” Justin said, to applause.) The hecklers were few and far between. (“Don’t do it!” one fan shouted, causing Damon to pause and compose himself.)
There were dueling Redskins and Steelers garden gnomes, and festive helmet cookies instead of wedding cake, and Wendy had a garter that was half-Skins and half-Steelers. When it was over, there was a barrage of questions from the media. Justin said it went better than he hoped. Wendy said they had a guaranteed date night every four years: when their teams play again. They both agreed that they couldn’t wait for the game to start, and they both made cracks about each other’s favorite team, and the likely result.
As they waited before yet another television interview, I asked Wendy whether the day had lived up to her expectations. It was, she told me, just getting started.
“I just want to tailgate and watch the game,” she said. “We’re way more excited for the game.”
This post has been updated.