“What should we do for Thanksgiving?” isn’t always a question, but this year, the Gradert family — parents Brad and Courtney, kids Madison and Hunter — had no obvious answer. One side of the family lives in the extreme northwest corner of Iowa, something like a 12-hour drive from the Graderts’ suburban Indianapolis home. The other side lives in Florida, which didn’t seem feasible. So after the Graderts ordered a new storm door, and the installer never showed up, a new idea was hatched: They would return the door, and use that money to buy four tickets to an NFL game being played several hundred miles away.
Look, inspiration comes in many forms.
(I know, a Thanksgiving game preview column should focus on football. Say, Washington’s backfield. Which will feature No. 2 back Byron Marshall and No. 3 back LeShun Daniels, who have logged a combined 11 days on Washington’s active roster. New starting center Tony Bergstrom, who will become the 10th offensive lineman to start a game this season, is approaching his one-month anniversary with the team, which I believe qualifies him for a gold watch. Ten current members of the 53-man active roster weren’t on that roster when Bergstrom arrived. One player, Arthur Jones, was signed and knocked out for the year during the Bergstrom Era; Jones lasted just 11 days in Washington, exactly as long as the Mooch. And who wants to read 1,100 words about all that?)
Anyhow, back to the Graderts.
“We do things as a family on Thanksgiving, and we don’t have family nearby, so this is going to be our Thanksgiving together as a family,” said Brad, a 44-year-old Iowa native who fell in love with the Redskins in the early ’80s and never wavered. “And I think it’s something they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives. When they lower me into the ground, my kids are gonna say, ‘My dad was such a big Redskins fan, I remember him taking us to a football game for Thanksgiving.’ “
And not just any football game, either. This is the first Thanksgiving NFL game Washington (or Landover) has ever hosted, featuring teams with a combined 6-14 record — the worst combined winning percentage for any Thanksgiving matchup in more than a decade. It’s the night game, in a town that often empties out for the week, featuring two teams that likely will miss the playoffs, on an evening when temps are scheduled to dip into the 30s.
Which is why one secondary marketplace, TickPick, reported Wednesday that this game’s average ticket price is less than half that of the day’s other games, and the lowest of any Thanksgiving game in at least three years.
“If they’re winning and they’re really good, I couldn’t touch these tickets for that amount of money,” noted Gradert, who spent a total of $120 for four seats in the second row of the upper deck.
(Back to football: Are injuries just an excuse, as the team’s harshest critics have argued? Sure, I guess. Same way “I got hit by a bus” would be just an excuse for not doing your homework because you got hit by a bus. Excuses are sometimes enlightening. By my count, just three NFC teams have more than a dozen players on the IR: the 1-9 49ers, the 2-8 Giants and the 4-6 Redskins, who also happen to have played the league’s most wicked schedule.)
But you know all that. Which is why I’m going to instead tell you about Matt Alley. His first date with his future wife happened to be at a brutal FedEx Field holiday night game between the Redskins and Giants, a 34-28 season-ending loss on the night before New Year’s Eve in 2006.
“It was the cheapest first date you could ever imagine: free tickets, the cash lot and Kentucky Fried Chicken right in the back of my truck,” Alley joked this week. “That was my very first game, my first experience at a professional football game. I’ll be honest with you: Ever since that day, I’ve been a huge Redskins fan. I pretty much owe it to her.”
Matt and Jennifer fell in love, and became shared Redskins fanatics, and decided this first-ever Thanksgiving home game was something they couldn’t miss, even though it fell not just on Thanksgiving but also on their 10-year wedding anniversary. So they’ll celebrate said anniversary by driving from Richmond to Harrisonburg for an early Thanksgiving lunch with Jennifer’s family, then driving from Harrisonburg to FedEx Field in time for a parking lot dinner of leftover turkey sandwiches and some priceless reminiscing.
“If it was up to me, I’d be there at 12 o’clock when they open the parking lot,” Alley noted. “But I don’t want to push it too much.”
(“But the Packers lost Aaron Rodgers!” note the cynics, with the implication that other teams have also suffered crushing injuries. Right. It’s true. And the Packers just scored zero points at home. Because crushing injuries are crushing.)
Noon already will be well into the day for my pal Ted Abela, who plans to arrive at FedEx Field around 9 a.m. so he can start cooking 19 (not a typo) turkeys for his 215 tailgating guests, plus about 100 first responders he has promised to feed. “Tailgate Ted,” as he’s known, is one of the parking lot stars, and very little sets him on edge anymore. This week is different.
“I have never been more freaked out and nervous in my life for a tailgate,” he said during a break in his Tuesday night preparations. “Cooking 19 turkeys in a parking lot? I mean, when I told the turkey place how many I needed, they looked at me like I was crazy.”
Ted, though, hit on something I’m guessing is true: This won’t be a typical night, in any way. Not just because of the parking lot Thanksgiving parade featuring Larry Michael and Redskins cheerleaders and alumni. Not just because of these injury-ravaged rosters, with perhaps the six most famous pass catchers on the two teams all likely sitting out. Turkey day football is ingrained in Detroit and Dallas, part of the routine. It’s new here. Absent a sexy matchup, and with bargain prices, the game likely will draw a higher number of newbie fans, and a smaller percentage of regulars.
There are thus season ticket holders such as David Schneider, who’ll stay at home and eat their tickets. (Metaphorically. Unless they run out of sides.) Schneider’s dad didn’t want to go, and the prices on the secondary market didn’t seem worth the bother, plus they didn’t want to sell to Giants fans. And so they’ll just watch the game on television in Chevy Chase, their tickets unused.
“I mean, I asked my brothers who are in town; I asked my cousins from out of town who are Redskins fans; and it’s just something that no one’s really into,” Schneider said. “We have Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s hard to just leave the whole family behind to go to the game.”
If some in-town regulars are unsure, some out-of-town first-timers feel differently. Such as Kyle Saulmon, a 24-year-old Redskins fan from the West Coast who finds himself living in Tennessee, and who has never been to FedEx Field. His plan: Drive seven hours to see his family in Haymarket, and then drive by himself from dinner to the game, before heading home Friday.
That’s not all that different from what the Graderts have planned. They’ll leave Indianapolis around 4 a.m. on Thursday, stop in their Silver Spring hotel, and then figure out what to do for Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe they’ll find a Denny’s. Maybe they’ll pack some turkey sandwiches. Maybe they’ll run into Tailgate Ted in the parking lot, and they all can discuss the potential of Redskins center Demetrius Rhaney, who — like Marshall and Daniels — will be making his first trip to FedEx Field with his new team. The newbies won’t only be in the parking lot.
I’ve been to a lot of Redskins games at that place, and many of them have been weird. This one could set weirdness records. But before you turn cynical, think of 9-year-old Hunter Gradert. When his father told him they were all going to the game, Hunter put his head in his hands. His parents weren’t sure what was going on. Turns out he was crying tears of joy.
Sweet, right? And what does the rest of the family think about this unlikely Thanksgiving plan?
“We haven’t told them,” Brad Gradert told me. “They’d kill us if they knew we were going to a football game.”
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