Hail to the Redskins

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AROUND the league, there are not many teams that like to play the Redskins in Washington at RFK Stadium. The word around the league is that the Washington crowd gives the Redskins a home-field advantage almost as good as the Broncos get from their crowd in Denver. What they mean by home-field advantage is noise, angry, full-throated, obliterating noise, just when the visiting quarterback is trying to be heard. How could a Washington crowd be so feared? How could a Washington crowd be an advantage to anyone? Washington crowds are not known for anything except for being faceless bureaucrats, or for being government regulators. Washington crowds are thought to be jaded, because politics makes them that way; to lack civic pride, because there is so little local civics here.

It wasn't always this way. In the '50s and the '60s, the Redskins lost nearly two of every three games that they played. In fact, over the 50 years since the team came to Washington from Boston, the Redskins have won barely half. The postwar Redskins were truly second rate. They had as many different quarterbacks as they had coaches. They rarely finished higher than third, the crowds were thin, and the tickets were easy. But beginning in the late 1960s, when the owners of the Senators baseball team infuriated Washington by skipping town, the city discovered the Redskins. Other than politics, they became the only game in town.

Big-time basketball, the NBA Bullets, wouldn't arrive until 1973. But they were transfers from blue-collar Baltimore. Professional hockey arrived a year later, but that seemed mostly to be from Canada. So Washington began following the Redskins the way it follows Democrats and Republicans. That is, totally. First, the stadium started selling out. Then came the heroic Vince Lombardi. In one season, he brought Washington its first winning season in 14 years. Coach George Allen, who cut enough deals and traded enough players to make politicians blink in admiration, took Washington to its first Super Bowl. And the current coach, Joe Gibbs, whose teams have been winning three out of every four games they play, gets almost as much ink as the President of the United States. Going to the games became a great Sunday ritual. Owning a ticket, a mark of power. Inheriting a ticket, a cause for family rejoicing.

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Football binds Washington because it is so different. It is so physical, where everything else is so verbal. Where winning is everything and where compromise has no standing. And where emotions win games, not lose elections.

Excerpted from a recent commentary on ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.''

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