They switched on grills and radios. They set up propane heaters and, at one truck, a table to play dice. Some set cups of alcohol into a traffic cone and tilted it back. They “pre-tailgated” less for the Redskins, the hometown team having another disappointing season, and more for one another.
This season has tested even the die-hards who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on the team. They said they still believe in owner Daniel Snyder because he cares and is willing to spend the money necessary to win, but they expressed mixed feelings about team president Bruce Allen because, while Snyder trusts him, he has built three winning teams in 10 years. They don’t know whom to blame for what they see as the team’s solid foundation underperforming.
Yet many described their motivation not as the logo on their clothes, but the community around the grill, the cooler and the cornhole board.
“The best time to be at a Redskins game now is between 7 [a.m.] and 1 [p.m.],” joked Chuck Pemberton, a retired firefighter and parking-lot mainstay whose family has had season tickets since the team played at Griffith Stadium.
It was a half-joke because lately you could pick any number — standings, statistics, ratings, revenue, attendance — and paint a bleak picture of the once-mighty franchise. The Redskins are 61-92-1 this decade with no playoff wins, while the Nationals, Capitals and Mystics have all won championships in the past two years. A recent poll of Washingtonians by The Washington Post showed those who considered the Redskins their favorite team declined from 34 percent in 2010 to 13 percent this year.
The frustration with the team’s performance on the field, and its handling of personnel off it, boiled over last week. After the hapless New York Jets mounted a 34-3 lead, fans below Snyder’s box chanted, “Sell the team!” Tickets for the Lions game sank to as low as $4, and some season ticket holders couldn’t persuade family to come, failing to give away their extra seats.
The crowd Sunday became a mix of Lions fans, Redskins die-hards and those who couldn’t pass up a good deal. The concourses featured fans wearing the apparel of at least 21 NFL teams. Robert Johnson wore a Jets hat in the last row at the top of the stadium. To explain why he was there, he leaned back in the sun, smiled and held aloft his Bud Light and box of popcorn.
Johnson replaced some of those who had finally given up. Frustration had built with other blunders, but “Tailgate Ted” Abela saw the fan base’s tenor change after the Trent Williams situation. The standout left tackle refused to play this season because he felt the team mishandled a growth on his head that he said resulted in a cancer diagnosis, and when the team refused to deal him at the trade deadline, Abela felt the fan base fracture further.
Fans on social media accused Abela of being part of the problem — if he and other die-hards didn’t show up, maybe management would take notice and action. He remembered bringing a family friend to a game, and when she hollered on third down to distract the opposing offense, other Redskins fans heckled her.
“This is the worst I’ve seen it,” said Abela, who has missed one home game since FedEx Field opened in 1997. “It’s gone from apathetic to angry. … Some opposing fans are nicer to Redskins fans than other Redskins fans.”
The half-full stadium felt calm Sunday. Shawn Nelson from Anne Arundel County was not the only one attending his first football game. He and his wife decided he could get two $9 seats to reward his 8-year-old son, Zachary, for doing well in school. (Zachary prefers baseball, but he focused on the field as his dad explained the kickoff.)
There were plenty of Lions fans in attendance, including Nick Ariganello, an IT director from Michigan. He had read so many woe-is-Redskins comments on Reddit that his wife customized a sarcastic sweatshirt for his trip to Washington. Next to a Lions logo in white text: “MASOCHISM: 0-16, 1 Playoff Win.” Next to a Redskins logo in gold text: “So it could be worse.”
“The Lions people get it,” Ariganello said.
The perspective did not console Michael Washington. The 58-year-old mechanic had paid about $1,000 for his season tickets in Section 445, only to sit among people who had paid a fraction of that amount for the same seats. Yet the empty seats were almost worse; they used to be filled with Washington’s friends. The forces thinning every FedEx Field community have dwindled what once felt like a family to just him and Kevin Boseman.
The two men from Southeast Washington can’t leave. They see that as part of their responsibility as fans. Boseman has discussed giving up his season tickets — there are probably more $4 games in the future — but even if he does, he and Washington agree that they’ll both still come support the team they grew up with. The black men who have lived in Washington for longer than 20 years embody the two demographics still likeliest to call the Redskins their favorite team.
“Black people been loyal,” Washington said. “That’s [stood] the test of time.”
Even as rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins threw a fourth-quarter interception and a game the Redskins had led seemed ready to slip away, the faces old and new wanted to believe. Carl Anderson was the first person in line to enter the stadium’s gates Sunday, and he has been a season ticket holder since 1996. He was 28 when he wrote a letter to then-owner Jack Kent Cooke explaining he wanted to buy tickets but didn’t have the money. Cooke called him back and explained that, if he’d like to pay in installments, Cooke would lease the salesman two club seats.
He still had the same hope as Hassan Thomas, who drove up from Virginia Beach as a gift for his son Hasantay’s 11th birthday.
“We got it,” Hasantay murmured to himself watching the defense take the field. The Redskins made a crucial interception, and soon a last-minute field goal sent Hasantay’s arms into the air, ending the game very differently than the many he had watched on TV — with a Redskins victory.
The newcomers couldn’t believe their luck, getting an exciting game for a great price. The Lions fans left disappointed and unsurprised. The Redskins die-hards saw it as something like a small reward for their faith, even if it came at the expense of the team’s future draft position.
Those fans understand it’s outlandish to hope this season will mean something, and yet most of them will return in three weeks for the next home game. They will set up the grill and the table and the speaker. They maintain that you never know, and that tough times will be a source of pride when, someday, the team turns it around. They tell their friends and themselves the same story some of those who stopped coming once told. They still believe.