Gabbing With O’Reilly, at the opening of another NFL training camp, a 42 year season ticket holder looks back one last time at the Redskins and RFK Stadium.
First appeared in SportsFan Magazine, Fall, 2000
Featured in Bermuda Shorts by James J. Patterson
When O’Reilly was at last awarded his seat at RFK stadium, I had already been sitting in the one next to it for eleven years. He arrived at his first game carrying a seat cushion and blanket, though it was a warm September afternoon. He was in his fifties, if my memory serves, but ruddy-faced and as excited as a little kid. How long he had been on the waiting list for his seat I’ve now forgotten, but seats rarely came open, and the pace was glacial. The time he put in was measured decades.
When he saw me, a hippie wearing buckskin, in the seat beside his, he was crestfallen. It was 1972. George Allen was coach of the Washington Redskins and had them winning for the first time in twenty-five years. Vietnam, Nixon, and the private war between generations and lifestyles in America were raging.
The first couple of years he sat next to me, O’Reilly and I never spoke. He ignored me completely, and that’s hard to do in close quarters when everyone is excited and there’s so much going on. Harder still with someone like me who gabs constantly about players, stats, and game situations with all else around me. If I asked him a direct question about a player on the visiting team, he wouldn’t answer.
It was called DC Stadium when it first opened. I was eight years old and already a huge fan. My dad took me to the games. His company bought a box of season tickets and he purchased two. Since my birthday is in the third week of September, he would give me the tickets as a birthday present, and he did so for forty-two years. He wasn’t a big fan and as soon as I was old enough to go by myself, he let me have both seats, and encouraged me to go alone, scalp the extra ticket, and use the funds for hotdogs and bus fare.
A couple of years earlier, I had sat crossed-legged on the floor in the basement in front of our black and white TV watching Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime during the championship game. I had ran upstairs, where the adults were having cocktails, several times saying, “you need to come down and see this, I think what’s happening is really special,” to which they smiled and sent me on my way, maybe coming down one at a time, drinks tinkling in their hands, to see what I was up to. Oh, a football game, how cute.
Our seats were in section 115, at the one-yard line, eight rows from the field. It was a crazy catty-corner angle from which to view a game. The field was almost at eye level. A team with the ball moving toward the opposite end zone slowly marched away. Years of watching at last educated the eye to accurately gauge the distances traveled through the jungle of moving legs and falling bodies. But oh, when a team had the ball marching toward my end zone, what a state of escalating urgency would fill the crowd! Our bodies could feel the collective thrill. If Charley Taylor, Paul Warfield, Art Monk, Bob Hayes, Jerry Rice, or Joe Morrison were running one of those tricky corner patterns in my direction, the ball would come rocketing skyward in my direction before the receiver ever made his break to the outside, seeming as though the pass was coming right to me. I could see the whites of their eyes as they looked for it coming in over their shoulders. I could hear the slap of the leather on their hands. I could hear the air leave their bodies as the players impacted one another.
The goal line was directly in front of me, and when a team was marching in close, and the defense would dig in, a goal-line-stand resounded with the thunderclap of pads and grunts and rebel yells.
I remember Jim Brown carrying Sam Huff on his back, and Tony Dorsett cutting so swiftly through the line that he would already be standing in the end zone while behemoth-sized linemen were still falling in upon one another like a collapsing house of cards. I saw Franco Harris, Larry Brown, Walter Payton, Tom Matte, Leroy Kelly, John Riggins, Emmit Smith, and Gayle Sayers do things that would make anyone with a sense of wonder stand and say, “Oh my God!” And that’s what we said.
On a cold December afternoon, as the Redskins were making a push for the playoffs and the thrill of post-season possibilities lifted us poor success-starved fans into a state of high anxiety, O’Reilly had a change of heart. How he had come around to accept me as a person, he never did say, but he reached into his pocket, withdrew his flask, took a swig, and tapped me on the elbow with the back of his hand. Without saying a word, he handed me his flask of Irish whiskey.
Everyone in the row behind us, including his daughter and son-in-law, who had been watching us with concern for years, rejoiced.
For me, it was a personal triumph. From then on, I had a pal with whom to discuss the events on the field. Girlfriends complained that he and I wouldn’t shut up the entire game.
We had a lot to talk about.
Older than me by thirty years, O’Reilly had seen listened to the exploits of Sammy Baugh on the radio. He had followed the exploits of Otto Graham, Sid Luckman, Cliff Battles and Curly Lambeau. Together we watched as, Fran Tarkenton, playing for the Giants, was sacked inside his five-yard line, right in front of us. Peevish as ever, he stood up and bounced the ball off the back of big defensive end Jimmy Jones’ head. Diron Talbert, Manny Sistrunk, and Ron McDole, three members of the famed Over the Hill Gang, turned and pounced on him. Tarkenton was small, even for a quarterback. It wasn’t pretty.
From that corner of the stadium, I saw Y.A. Tittle, Terry Bradshaw, Don Meredith, Johnny Unitas, Earl Morral, Joe Montana, Billy Kilmer, Frank Ryan, Norman Snead, John Brodie, Phil Simms, Dan Marino, Randal Cunningham, Roman Gabriel, Brett Favre, Bart Starr, Ron Jaworski, and Joe Theismann.
Roger Staubach had perfect aim, perfect speed, perfect poise, perfect bloody everything. We hated him for being a Cowboy, and for being so damned perfect.
Sonny Jurgensen would get down on one knee in the huddle and pluck at the grass as he instructed his men, making up the play on the spot. As the play clock wound down, our hearts would leap into our throats. Is he going to Charlie Taylor? Jerry Smith? Bobby Mitchell? You have to be damn good to make the Hall of Fame from a losing team. Those who saw Sonny play will never forget his marvelously unpredicatable play-calling, the perfect spirals, his timing, the soft touch, accuracy, and his courage as he stood in and took a beating to deliver the ball. His limited play at the end of his career, his feud with Coach Allen, and his eventual retirement were sad events for us. And for the rest of our football lives, we would compare every quarterback thereafter to him. None of them measured up, not even close.
I remember that the air in the stadium smelled sweet with a mixture of hot chocolate, pipes, cigars, hot dogs, and beer, the perfect aromas for a football stadium. The team had a rowdy marching band dressed like Indian chiefs, and an equally rowdy group of barrel-chested male choral singers who wore burgundy blazers. Both inhabited one corner of the stadium and played their marches and sang their songs while swaying back and forth like a battalion of drunken muppets. We listened through a tinny public address system and drowned them out as we sang along. Autumn twilight would dim the field and big lights atop the stadium would come on in stages, reflecting off the burgundy helmets, the sights and smells and sounds creating a sensual ambiance that lingers through time. The fall color NFL uniforms of dark mustard gold and burgundy, the other teams in white with hints of green or blue or silver, made the chill in the air warm with promise, and, as the clock ticked down and the sun faded and the temperature began to drop, so did the excitement heighten as season after season swelled, ebbed, crested, then slipped away. There were no TV screens in the stadium, and so every play was memorized by those in attendance. We would have to wait for the brief repeated hi-lites on the eleven o’clock news before bed that night.
When Robert F. Kennedy was murdered, it just made sense to rename the stadium for him. Though he wasn’t a Washingtonian, he had certainly blazed a trail through the Capital City, and we understood that our town stood for something a lot bigger than local concerns. The stadium, after all, was geographically located on a straight line from the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial, taking what seemed its natural place among those glorious national landmarks.
Sometime in the 1970’s, the number of VIP’s on the sidelines began to obscure our view. Then came the mobile carts with TV cameras that went up and down the sidelines with the cameras and cameramen on accordian platforms that would rise and lower, blocking our view just when the game was coming our way. The working stiffs seated in the stands down low would throw whole beers at them. Then one year, after the season’s final game, when fans traditionally went onto the field to take down the home-side goal posts, they were unexpectedly met with helmeted police who savagely beat them with night-sticks. It was stunning and scary to witness up close.
We got the message. Things were changing in America, and the game experience was now shifting to favor the fans watching at home at the expense of the fans actually in attendance.
Get a couple of old RFK season ticket holders together and it’s impossible not to open the lid on a hundred breath-taking moments. And why not? Sure it’s sentimental, sure it’s self indulgent. But those indulgences are what make those pleasures so rich and enduring. These are moments we consider as much a part of our life and times, as a child’s graduation, a Thanksgiving family get together, and ranked among the personal highs and lows of our lives.
For most Washington fans, you need only mention the names for the memories to rise up: Dick James, Billy Kilmer, Monte Coleman, Chris Hanburger, Dexter Manley, Art Monk, Mike Mosely, Ray Knight, Len Hauss, Pat Fischer, Larry Brown, Gary Clark, Brig Owens, Doug Williams, Darrell Green, Kenny Houston. And, of course, there are the villains – Clint Longley and Lawrence Taylor. Longley, a quarterback replacement for the Cowboys beat us on Thanksgiving Day with a hail mary at the end of the game. Walt Garrison was stopped at the one yard line by Kenny Houston, a one on one tackle in the final seconds of the game, turning a potential teagedy into a never forgotten triumph. Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Thiesmann’s leg so brutally fans from all corners of the stadium claim to have heard it snap. Together we witnessed the dizzying success of the Gibbs Era and three Super Bowl triumphs. Other teams have won more, but those were ours.
We saw Sonny come in for one play, disobeying Coach Allen’s orders to simply take a knee at the end of the half, and throw a forty yard touchdown.
That play probably was a turning point in NFL history. When quarterbacks called the plays, everyone in the stands and at home would hold their breath, identifying with the man in the saddle, his style, his mind, the make-up of his character, all factored in. But a corporate mentality was taking over in America, controlling everything from farming to football games. But Jurgensen’s play was for all intents and purposes the end of his career. A few years later, Joe Gibbs explained the siezmic change in the game this way, “It’s the coach who takes the blame for bad decisions, not the player. If I’m going to be the one to get fired then it’s going to be me calling the plays.” It makes sense on a corporate basis, but not on a football one. The person calling the plays is no longer the person whose body is in danger. And once quarterbacks were no longer calling plays they started getting hurt right and left. So the league began changing rules to protect them, and inserted deep flaws into the structure of what was, to me, and those fans sitting around me, for a time, a flawless game.
At a rainy Monday Night Football game, most of section 115 had gone home by the second half. O’Reilly said he wasn’t feeling well, thought he’d leave, too. Before he did, he held out his hand. I was startled by the unexpected formality. “I just want you to know what a pleasure it’s been sitting next to you and talking all these years,” he told me.
I arrived at the next game to find his seat empty. His daughter and son-in-law explained sadly that the Friday before that Monday night game O’Reilly had gotten some bad news about his health. He had walked out of the stadium at halftime and stepped in front of a fast-moving bus.
I was the last person known to have seen him alive.
“It was like going to church,” a friend and long-time ‘Skin’s devotee told me when the team moved out of RFK, “it meant that much to people.”
Now, those afternoons and evenings at RFK are just old news. The highlights from those years look grainy and dark, which is so odd when the memories are so vivid. These days each NFL team receives $120 million from network television every year, all neatly negotiated as the salary cap for the player’s union, with not a dime passed along to fans to reduce ticket prices. The current stadium the Redskins inhabit holds 90,000 fans. Contained therein are 55,000 broken hearts. It won’t be long before they are gone as well.
I’m glad the Redskins have moved on. It would be painful to see an advertisement slapped over the name of the place that holds so many myths, such legendary events. Thirty-six years of friends and football deserve better. Perhaps the team’s mascot should change too. The Native North Americans I knew growing up during summers in rural Canada, called themselves redskins. It was a mere distinction, like “white men.” But the epithet, “wahoo,” that was a “go” as far as fighting for Native pride was concerned. But that’s neither here nor there. Plenty of other names would serve just as well. It is, after all, just a football team. Certainly, people matter more.
I don’t go to the Redskins games anymore. Hey, nothing stays the same.
But every now and then, as football season returns, I look up from the sports pages to find myself still sitting in old RFK, section 115, row 8, seat number 2, gabbing with O’Reilly, and still missing Sonny.