Sports programming blares on every TV screen at the Southern Railway Taphouse, a bustling gastropub near downtown Richmond's old canals and former tobacco warehouses, where Virginia state legislators and lobbyists, worn down by six weeks of committee meetings and floor sessions, munch chicken wings and meatballs while jockeying for an audience with the president of the Washington Redskins.
"That's embarrassing!" Bruce Allen guffaws when state Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen confesses that his Senate basketball team recently lost a game despite having a Hampton University tight end and legislative intern, whom he has just introduced, in its lineup. "That's embarrassing!"
A moment later, a lobbyist's young son sporting a Ryan Kerrigan jersey and carrying an autographed Redskins football approaches and starts telling Allen why quarterback Kirk Cousins deserves a big contract. Allen replies with a good-natured laugh and tousles the boy's blond hair.
The Redskins Pride Caucus, as the gathering is called, is at a Richmond, Virginia, bar each February as the General Assembly session winds down, giving Allen a chance to thank legislators for their support. In turn, Virginia lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists get to talk football with their heroes.
Even without his title, Allen probably would own this crowd. A bottle of Budweiser in one hand, he wears a dark blue suit with an American flag pin on the lapel and boasts as his guest the ultimate show-and-tell of a man's man: Redskins linebacker Will Compton. This is how Allen works the room, never staying in one group too long, fielding Redskins advice with a smile but grimacing anytime someone mentions the University of Virginia or William and Mary or any college other than the University of Richmond, his alma mater.
From the moment Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, he has tried to restore the glory of his childhood passion, only to cycle through eight head coaches and compile a 125-162-1 record. Coaxing former coach Joe Gibbs, architect of Washington's three Super Bowl championships, out of retirement in 2004 represented Snyder's first attempt to reconjure the gilded past. Hiring Allen as his general manager in December 2009 was his second.
Allen is not only a son of Hall of Fame Coach George Allen, who led the Redskins to their first Super Bowl after the 1972 season, he's also the youngest brother of a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator. Twin strands of DNA - NFL royalty and political animal - lie at Bruce Allen's core.
Despite a tumultuous seven-year tenure in which the Redskins fired coach Mike Shanahan and benched would-be franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III, Allen has steered the team through a volatile chapter in the long-running controversy over its name. He has beefed up the team's charitable efforts and resurrected ties with former players. And he has forged relationships with Washington-area politicians, particularly in Virginia, which led to a lucrative, eight-year deal to hold training camp in Richmond each summer beginning in 2013. The Redskins in 2012 also received a $4 million grant from the state and $6 million from the Virginia State Lottery toward an expansion and renovation of the team's headquarters in Ashburn.
But Allen's biggest challenge lies ahead: brokering a deal for a new stadium, a billion-dollar-plus project expected to open by 2027, when the team's FedEx Field lease expires.
Renderings for the 60,000-seat, semitransparent venue ringed by a moat were aired in March 2016 as part of a CBS "60 Minutes" segment on its Danish architect. The vision for the project remains the same, Allen said in a recent interview at Redskins Park, although its location isn't settled. Nor is the projected cost or financing plan.
If Allen can deliver a successful stadium deal, he'll impact the franchise in a way his father never could - increasing revenue and ideally, if it's a high-tech venue with millennial appeal, energizing and replenishing an aging, weary-of-losing fan base for decades to come.
"We see this decision as one of the biggest decisions this franchise is going to make," said Allen, who's taking the lead in the negotiations. "This is about a stadium that the Redskins will be playing at through 2050. We're on schedule. It's an exciting process."
Whether it's built in Northern Virginia, on the site of RFK Stadium in the District or remains in Maryland, the Redskins' next stadium will be Snyder's legacy - not the hand-me-down venue he acquired from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke. For Snyder, it would be an opulent monument to his clout and stature as an NFL owner - an owner whose team is worth $2.95 billion, according to Forbes magazine's September 2016 valuation, nearly four times the $800 million he paid for it in 1999.
Allen enters the most critical phase of the effort - negotiations for a site - on unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground, regarded as a villain by many longtime fans for the ugly way in which Scot McCloughan, his hand-picked general manager, was fired March 9, barely two years into his four-year contract.
For a fan base that has proven near impossible to alienate despite profligate free agent busts and foolish coaching hires, the public disparagement of McCloughan that accompanied his firing was a step too far. While Allen never referenced alcohol as a reason for dismissal - as former Redskin Chris Cooley alluded to on the team-owned radio station and a Redskins official detailed to The Washington Post the day of the firing after requesting anonymity - many fault Allen for not publicly defending his general manager.
Allen now says that he spoke privately to Cooley about his on-air speculation, with McCloughan present. Asked why he never publicly countered the disparagement of his general manager, Allen said: "There was someone who said on the radio that there was jealousy. Then, there was somebody who said we were trading Kirk Cousins for Tony Romo and giving the Cowboys draft picks. Then Chris said what he said. Then somebody said 'X, Y and Z.' I can't keep up with sports-talk radio; I don't ever want to keep up with sports-talk radio. If I had Twitter, maybe I would say, 'This is false! This is false! This is false!' . . . Every time somebody throws something against the wall to speculate, we're not going to respond to all that. That's what the media does. It's impossible to answer all of the foolishness that's out there."
If the backlash against Allen has shaken the team president, there's no evidence. He insists that he loves and understands the passion of fans.
But for the Redskins to seal a deal for a stadium site, Allen must win over lawmakers who answer to many of those angry fans as well as taxpayers who care little about the NFL or the fortunes of Washington's team. If he succeeds, he may prove himself to be the best hiring decision Snyder has made since buying the team.
At 60, Allen is the corporate face of the Redskins, the most important person between Snyder and the rest of the world. In many ways, he is the yin to Snyder's yang.
Elder by eight years, Allen is Snyder's football adviser and trusted confidante, his gatekeeper and elbow's-length companion, accompanying him to and from practice at Redskins Park, training camp and most team functions. In social settings, he compensates for Snyder's reticence and largely self-imposed isolation. And in NFL affairs, Allen's gregariousness compensates for the brusqueness that often proves a liability for Snyder in transactions that require diplomacy over bullying.
"Within the four corners of Virginia, he's very much the public face of the team," said Petersen, the state senator, a Fairfax Democrat and passionate Redskins fan. "I love Bruce. Even when the team was taking a lot of grief, he never said an unkind word. He's just a very positive person. Clearly, his brother was a big-time Republican governor and senator, but Bruce is a guy - people like him on both sides of the aisle."
Allen's impact on the field hasn't measured up to the "proven winner" Snyder proclaimed him to be when he was introduced as general manager in December 2009. Since then, the Redskins' record is 45-66-1. Still, Allen has not only kept his job - no small feat given the turnover of coaches and front-office executives under Snyder - but he has expanded his power, promoted to team president in 2014.
"One of the most tremendous, instinctive political animals I've ever known" was how one NFL front-office executive who has worked closely with Allen characterized him.
"Bruce both insulates and softens Snyder. Having Bruce by his side gives Snyder a degree of credibility," the executive added, requesting anonymity so as to speak more openly. "But make no mistake: Bruce is going to make sure Bruce takes care of Bruce, above all."
The Redskins negotiate the stadium deal from an enviable spot, with three jurisdictions - Maryland, Virginia and the District - to play off one another.
No doubt, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, would love the distinction of landing the new stadium for his state before his term ends in January 2018. A tireless dealmaker and a voluble promoter of his adopted home state, McAuliffe has a close relationship with Snyder and describes Allen as "a very straight shooter."
"I can always have an open, frank conversation with him, never have to worry that what we say would get leaked out in the negotiations that we've had," McAuliffe said. "I think he clearly has the confidence of Dan Snyder."
Every summer during Redskins training camp, McAuliffe hosts the team at the Executive Mansion. After the players leave, Snyder and Allen stay for dinner and drinks, talking late into the night, said McAuliffe, well known for his party stamina. Sometimes, for kicks, they'll ring up Allen's brother, former governor George Allen, a Republican.
"Oh, we have fun with it," McAuliffe said. "We'll call his brother when we're sitting around, just to goose him a little bit, yeah." He laughed. "Yeah, we have fun with George and everybody."
Despite the cozy relations, a Virginia stadium deal isn't a certainty.
The District's RFK site is much in the running, business and political insiders say, particularly under a pro-business Trump administration that has no qualms about the team's name. RFK offers the iconic backdrop of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, perfect for national TV broadcasts. For Snyder, Allen and longtime fans, the site rekindles memories of triumphant Super Bowl runs. Plus, it's easily accessible by Metro.
Virginia offers cheaper land and labor as a right-to-work state, and the area around Dulles International Airport, a likely site for a venue, is scheduled to be served by Metro well before a stadium would be completed. But the Dulles area might lack appeal for the young, urban fans the Redskins want to attract. Maryland's logical candidate, the vibrant National Harbor development, has no prospects for Metro service.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans, as circumspect as McAuliffe is bombastic in beating the business-development drum, declined to comment on the chances of the Redskins returning to the RFK site, where the bulk of that and surrounding land is owned by the federal government and controlled by the National Park Service. But he speaks cordially of Allen, calling him "a stand-up guy."
"I find him very personable, very knowledgeable and somebody I could do business with," Evans said.
With a full head of slightly graying hair, Allen isn't as tall as George, his eldest brother. But he has the comportment of a former athlete, resolute about staying within a pound or two of his college playing weight as a punter for the Richmond Spiders.
And he exudes the confidence of someone who, from birth, was welcome everywhere. A bon vivant who never doubted that he belonged, whether keeping score as a child on the Los Angeles Coliseum sideline when his father coached the Rams or visiting the Oval Office as a Langley High teenager, guest of President Richard Nixon, the Redskins' No. 1 fan during George Allen's years as coach.
"Mom said, 'Don't steal any ashtrays! Don't take anything!' " Allen recalled with a laugh of the family's White House visit.
Among Redskins fans, however, the team's on-field performance matters far more than Allen's distinctive pedigree. And on that point - restoring the burgundy-and-gold's winning tradition - Allen can't claim success.
Allen's tenure has been marked by a welcome, more restrained approach to free agency. And his hiring of McCloughan, signed to a four-year contract and promised total control of the roster as general manager, heralded a coherent plan for building a team for sustained success. But the relationship ended early and badly amid reports of infighting, petty jealousy and claims of excessive drinking.
Rather than shoulder responsibility for the failed hire, Allen has let stand the implication that McCloughan torpedoed his own career. The effect of the silence, whatever its motive, placed blame for the failed relationship on McCloughan.
McCloughan has not responded to multiple requests to comment since his dismissal.
To some in the NFL, Allen's handling of the firing smacked of a pattern associated with his rise in management ranks in Oakland and later in Tampa Bay. More than once, and on matters of less consequence, Allen was suspected of undermining rivals in subtle ways, such as an offhand comment or well-placed tip to the media. Congenial toward all, Allen was regarded by some as deft in shifting accountability when things went wrong - the unseen hand that left no fingerprints.
But among NFL players' agents and fellow executives, Allen is warmly regarded.
"Bruce is very bright, very well-informed, and his personality is so charming and ingratiating - I don't think I've ever met anybody who doesn't like Bruce Allen," said Leigh Steinberg, a veteran NFL agent. According to Steinberg, Allen's "all-star sense of humor" in his days handling player contracts as an Oakland Raiders executive leavened a particularly tough negotiation over terms for defensive tackle Darrell Russell.
"Each offer he emailed he had a different name in the subject line: The 'Double-Scoop' offer, the 'Take-It-Or-You'll-Die Offer' or the 'Two-Minutes-to-Midnight' offer," Steinberg recalled, laughing. "Then it would be followed by a droll or funny introduction that had me laughing. Bruce was able to defuse what normally would be a tense moment. His people skills are off the map."
These days, according to agent Peter Schaffer, Allen's Redskins contracts include performance incentives he names for the team's greats. A quarterback's contract might include "the Billy Kilmer clause;" a running back's deal, "the Larry Brown incentive."
Face-to-face negotiations in Allen's office are typically preceded by a challenge to sink a putt on a miniature putting green that looks flat but breaks right. "He's the best in the game, but he wants everyone to play," Schaffer said. "It's his way of breaking the tension."
Despite his stature in the Redskins organization and respect around the NFL, Allen has often proved tone-deaf during the controversies that frequently surround the team.
As the Redskins sought to counter mounting public sentiment against the team's name, regarded by some as a racial slur, Allen in May 2014 called on fans to voice their support for the moniker via a social media campaign using a #RedskinsPride hashtag on Twitter. The initiative instead triggered a new wave of mockery and disparagement.
His stabs at humor amid the Redskins' on-field struggles often have fallen flat, whether it was the reference to a successful Harvest Fest promotion when asked about Griffin's benching in 2014 or a season-ending boast that the 4-12 Redskins were "winning off the field" through community service projects.
At the NFL's annual spring meeting last month, owners, executives, head coaches and spouses of all 32 teams gathered at Arizona's posh Biltmore Hotel for four days of meetings, golf and evenings on the town. It was the sort of setting, mixing business and pleasure, in which Allen thrives.
One morning, Allen was seated at a cafe table on a walkway out back, overlooking the resort's meticulously landscaped lawn and lavender-hued Camelback Mountain beyond. Sipping an iced coffee, he launched into the first in a series of media interviews. In each, he offered the same, scripted rationale for firing McCloughan and the same rosy outlook for the upcoming season.
"Aloha!" Allen said, extending a handshake to an NFL general manager who walked by. He'd say "Aloha!" at least a half-dozen times in a 30-minute span, greeting longtime friends and associates while disregarding his cellphone's jaunty ragtime ring (Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer") to continue the conversation.
At an NFL meeting five years earlier, Allen erupted in a profanity-laced tirade behind closed doors, lashing out at owners and the league's legal counsel over a $36 million salary-cap penalty assessed the Redskins for the way they structured contracts in the 2010 season. According to two people present, Allen stalked the room like a lawyer making an impassioned closing argument, as Snyder looked on bemused. Both were ultimately asked to leave the room, and the penalty stood.
According to one NFL official, Allen lost a measure of respect that day for what was viewed as epic performance-art designed to show Snyder he could be a pit bull in the Redskins' defense and to deflect attention from a financial gambit that was too clever by half.
New York Giants owner John Mara, then chairman of the NFL Management Committee that imposed the penalty, insists today that no long-term damage was done.
"We obviously had a sharp disagreement about that and exchanged some words at the time," Mara said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's ancient history, and we've moved on from that."
Asked about the incident today, Allen said he's still angry, convinced the Redskins did nothing wrong - nor the Cowboys, for that matter, who were penalized for much the same thing.
"When something is unjust, I get angry," he said. "Anything that hurts my team, I'm not going to be at peace with!"
At the cocktail reception that kicked off this year's spring meeting, reporters mingled with the league commissioner, league staff, coaches and billionaire glitterati who own the teams. As dusk settled on the main lawn, liquor flowed freely from multiple open bars. Huge platters of outsize chilled shrimp and crab legs were replenished every few minutes, as were the prime-rib stations, tables of sushi and made-to-order taco bars. Daniel and Tanya Snyder, flanked by Bruce and Kiersten Allen, and Coach Jay Gruden and his wife, Sherry, made a brief appearance before departing for dinner.
In this setting, it was easy to ask how Allen and the Redskins are perceived by their NFL peers.
Within the NFL, the challenge of working for Snyder is well known. If Allen is culpable for actions others frown on, he is viewed through the prism of his job as Snyder's right-hand man. Succeeding in that role means insulating the mercurial Snyder from criticism, as one person familiar with the team's workings pointed out. It means delivering unwelcome messages and taking bullets as needed, all the while projecting a likable corporate face.
In this role, Allen is playing to an audience of one. And if he delivers the next Redskins stadium - a billion-dollar building project that would define Snyder's legacy as an NFL owner and serve as an economic engine to the Washington region - Allen will take a bow to all the applause a man needs.
WASHINGTON - During a break in a basketball game to raise money for charity, Shon Hopwood told some of his Georgetown law students it felt different than the last time he was on a court: When he played basketball in federal prison, he had to carry a shank in case his team started to lose.
His students laughed. He ran back onto the law-school court -- and sank the winning shot.
Hopwood's new job as a tenure-track faculty member at the Georgetown University Law Center is only the latest improbable twist in a remarkable life: In the last 20 years, he has robbed banks in small towns in Nebraska, spent 11 years in federal prison, written a legal petition for a fellow inmate so incisive that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, done that again, earned undergraduate and law degrees and extremely competitive clerkships, written a book, married his hometown crush and started a family.
But this could be his most compelling role yet. His time in prison gave him a searing understanding of the impact of sentencing and the dramatic growth in incarceration in the United States, an unusual perspective on the law that allows him to see things other lawyers overlook. And he takes the job at a time when criminal-justice issues have real urgency, from lawmakers to protesters to students.
"It's one of the big social-justice issues of our time," he said. The United States has 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. "Between prison, jail, home confinement, probation, parole, combined it's about 10 million people. It's a big number." And almost three-quarters of released prisoners are back in custody five years later. He hopes to change some of that.
"The story's still writing itself," he said in his office recently, marveling while students hurried to class outside. "I feel like I'm living someone else's life quite often these days."
Shon Hopwood's life didn't start out as remarkable. It began with a happy childhood in a town of 2,500 people in Nebraska. His dad managed a cattle feed yard and his parents helped found a church. He was friendly and well-liked, uninterested in school, and best known for his skill on the basketball court.
An athletic scholarship to college ended when he got kicked out for not going to class. After two years in the U.S. Navy, he drifted back to Nebraska, depressed, drinking, doing some drugs, living in his parents' basement and working 12-hour shifts on a cattle farm, shoveling manure.
One night his best friend turned to him in a bar and suggested that they rob a bank.
In August 1997, Hopwood walked into a bank, sweating, heart racing, dropped a metal toolbox to the floor with a bang and pulled a rifle from his coveralls. With the terrified customers and tellers locked into a vault he sped away with $50,000 of other people's money and his friend, who knew every bit as well as he did that what they had done was horribly wrong.
His friend suggested sending the money back, with a note. Instead, Hopwood went on to rob four more banks.
At his sentencing, 30 family members stood behind him, most of them crying. He was 23 years old. Judge Richard Kopf thought he was a punk. He had not forgotten Nebraska's history of violent bank robberies. When Hopwood told him he was going to turn his life around, Kopf said something disdainful like: I guess we'll see in about 13 years.
His first morning in federal prison, Hopwood got up early to work out and watched as two inmates yanked another one from a pullup bar, knocked him to the ground and stomped on the man with steel-toe boots leaving bits of teeth in pools of blood.
Working in the prison law library sounded like a good idea.
At first, he just checked books out. But in the summer of 2000, a Supreme Court decision caught inmates' attention: Essentially, Hopwood explained, "things that can increase your sentence need to be proven to a jury, or you need to plead guilty to them." He had been sentenced based on guidelines for armed robbery, even though he had pleaded guilty to unarmed robbery. A technicality, maybe, but he began dreaming of getting out early. Among all the other reasons to leave, he had begun a friendship, by mail, with a girl from back home.
After two months of research, he mailed off a brief and quickly got a response: He had filed it to the wrong court.
And when he redirected his appeal, Kopf denied it; the new decision did not apply retroactively in his case.
Still, something had clicked. Trying to figure out a solution to the legal puzzle was the first academic thing Hopwood had ever enjoyed. And it came easy. Soon he was sending memos to other inmates' lawyers, suggesting strategies. Then he was writing briefs.
He was finding errors, often from overworked public defenders, like a young black man sentenced to 16 and a half years for possessing less than a handful of crack cocaine because he had mistakenly been labeled a career offender. With Hopwood's help, his sentence was reduced by more than 10 years.
The third brief he ever wrote was for a friend whose appeal had been denied. Hopwood spent months learning about the Supreme Court and habeas petitions, and one night he realized how he could frame an argument using the Sixth Amendment rather than the Fifth. After many drafts, honed by conversations with fellow inmates that forced him to distill the legal issues into simple, compelling logic, he typed out a petition for certiorari and mailed it off.
Months later, he was working out early one morning when a prisoner came running toward him, screaming that Hopwood was going to die. He tensed for a fight; he had recently survived a situation in which he fully expected to be stabbed to death by gang members.
But the man was holdng a newspaper, with the story of the Supreme Court accepting a petition from a federal prisoner.
The odds of that happening are maybe one in 10,000, said Seth Waxman, the former solicitor general of the United States who agreed to argue the case for free. He read the petition with amazement. "It was incredibly good. It really identified, in sort of a crystalline form, the questions presented. It explained the conflict, it explained the importance."
He immediately wanted to talk to the bank robber who could write such a thing, and thus began a friendship that would help change the trajectory of Hopwood's life.
Now Hopwood was spending his time doing things like reading a 1,650-page textbook on criminal procedure. Twice. And with new sentencing guidelines, he was busy churning out work for other inmates, taking on 10 or more cases at a time. "I was running a law firm in prison," he said lightly. Because he was now convinced that sentences beyond about five years didn't make sense for any but the most dangerous criminals, because he was upset by the disparities in sentences, because he saw prison more often hardening people or cutting off their chances for reform than turning their lives around, he enjoyed seeing people packing for home. He had another petition granted by the Supreme Court.
When he walked out of prison in October 2008, he was 33 and overwhelmed with anxiety about rebuilding his life. He knew no one was clamoring to hire felons. He wanted to get married and go to college, and he had no money. He was working at a carwash when he had another moment of grace: A family-run legal printing business in Omaha agreed, after getting some reassurance from Waxman, to hire him to help with their Supreme Court briefs. "If that doesn't happen, none of this does," he said.
A story in the New York Times unleashed a flood of invitations to speak, and a book deal. Still it was difficult, given his résumé, to get into law school. But the University of Washington granted him a full scholarship that made it possible - even with a little boy at home, and a girl born on the first day of law school - to attend.
He startled his former probation officer in the elevator of the courthouse one day two months after his supervised release ended. He was not there for his mandatory check-in this time. He was arriving for work, clerking for a federal judge.
As he was studying 12 hours a day, he was wondering: Would he be granted a law license at the end of all this, or would they reject him because of his criminal record? The hearing was long, but in the end, the vote was unanimous. And in April 2015, after he passed the bar exam, he was sworn in as a lawyer by the D.C. Circuit judge who had chosen him for a prestigious clerkship.
He joined Georgetown on a teaching fellowship about a year and a half ago, working with students on cases in the appellate clinic. He sees issues others don't, strategies that others don't, said Steven Goldblatt, director of appellate litigation.
"He understands the problems of incarceration in a way that somebody who just studies them as an academic is not able to get," said William Treanor, the law school's dean.
Many colleagues were struck by his academic writing, Goldblatt said, in which Hopwood wrote about the rule of lenity, which he described as designed to protect citizens from getting caught in vague laws, and argued it must be revitalized to push Congress to write with more precision when drafting laws that take away liberty.
It's not a theoretical issue, Goldblatt said. It's fundamental. "It symbolizes what Shon is all about," he said. "Why wasn't there more written about it? Damned if I know."
The surreal moments continue. Recently Hopwood helped his former criminal defense attorney practice a case to be argued in front of the Supreme Court. He also spoke on an academic panel with Kopf, the judge who sentenced him. It was an emotional meeting for both. Kopf gave Hopwood a gift that had great meaning for him, a leather briefcase Kopf had received from a former prisoner whom he had defended. It was a recognition, Kopf said, that he and Hopwood were both trying to emulate justice.
"I don't know if it was atonement as much as it was, 'Carry on - keep doing what you're doing,'" Kopf said, thinking out loud. "I would do anything for Shon."
Hopwood is still, at 41, haunted by guilt and regret for his crimes. But he is an optimist by nature, and he has accepted that he can only change the future. Now his primary goal is to help people, whether by serving as a reminder that you can turn your life around, by giving students an understanding of the real impact of the law, or, he hopes, by influencing the criminal justice system.
So while he kept the letter from a law firm offering him $400,000 a year, it was just as a curiosity. The money would be nice, but influence is what he wants. The Capitol dome is literally in view from campus, and most days he walks right past the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Even now, preparing to start a new position at Georgetown on July 1 as an associate professor of law, with a young family, and all the gratitude he has for the friends along the way, he doesn't feel like he's made it.
"I'll feel that way when the federal government passes a bill that gets rid of federal mandatory sentences," he said. "That will be the moment for me."