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Redskins.com Fan Column: Being There


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http://www.redskins.com/news/newsDetail.jsp?id=13086

ExtremeSkins Fan View: Being There

By Mark Steven

December 1, 2005

A couple of boys in men's bodies lived a dream last Sunday. What follows is an attempt by one of them, sincere but surely naive, to adequately convey some small part of the experience.

*

Late November, Washington, D.C. Mid-morning.

It's a postcard autumn Sunday in the nation's capital. The air is crisp and dry, with a hint of a chill breeze confirming we were smart to wear layers.

Properly attired and laden with consumables, we've left our vehicle and are weaving through a jumble of parking barriers, smoking grills, flying footballs and burgundy and gold-clad revelers toward a tailgate meeting place in the far reaches of Lot F.

The lots are quickly filling, the air alive with olfactory wonder; buffalo wings, burgers, brats and beer all meld together deliciously, sending my Pavlovian pre-game butterflies to flight, and my mouth to watering.

Mega-woofers in a dozen SUV's thump out distinct rhythms; a feel-it-in-your-chest sonic jumble that melds occasionally into temporary synchronicity, only to disengage again. Like turn signals and windshield wipers sometimes do...only way cooler.

Arriving at the tailgate, we find the festivities already well under way. We're treated to warm smiles, food and drink, hail-fellow-well-met handshakes, the long-overdue matching of faces to names, and even a special hug or two (though not from Art Mills, who reminds all he doesn't do hugs). And hovering over it all, just this side of awareness, is the tangible, utterly unique promise that is Redskins football.

It really doesn't get any better than this.

Except for today, that is, when it actually does.

I've been a fan of the Washington Redskins since moving to the Virginia suburbs in 1970 as a 10-year-old. I have long-since ceded part of my life to my love of this team, and know as well as anyone, in my bones, what George Allen meant when he said you die a little with every loss. Well today, as it happens, alongside my dear friend and partner Tony, I'll be attending the game with press box and sideline access...and, beyond even that incredible circumstance, will also be granted a sterling soapbox of a platform to write about it.

Someone asks me if I'm excited.

How do you answer a question like that?

*

We working types (ahem) enter FedExField via the press/player tunnel.

Our names are briskly checked against a list, and we're handed our passes. Security types check our bags for inadmissables--there will be no crossbows, contraband or Cowboy gear sneaking by today. Happily, we've left all of that stuff either home or smoking in a dumpster, so they pat us down without incident, nod and wave us through.

And suddenly we're walking down into the bowels of the stadium, not quite succeeding in wiping the silly grins from our mugs, and quite literally staring at the light at the end of a tunnel, which today just happens to be the realization of a lifelong dream.

After negotiating labyrinthine corridors, stairs and gangways, and having been looked up and down numerous times by professionals both uniformed and not ("Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges. YOU need stinkin' badges"), we find ourselves in the lobby of the Press Box. TV monitors galore, cafe-style tables and chairs. Here the caterers are doing their thing, and here we'll later find ourselves noshing self-consciously on such fare as brats and kraut, barbecue, burgers, and all manner of energy-boosting sweets.

We climb a small set of steps up to the top level of the actual Press Box area. We're met with a glassed-in, panoramic view of the stadium. Four rows of curving, smooth-topped beige counters and swivel chairs. Monitors everywhere. Probably a couple hundred stations all told, about a quarter filled at this point.

Our digs are in the second row, about ten in from far left, near the corner of the end zone to the left of the Redskins bench. Typed placards with our names on them, phones with "Extremeskins.com" labels affixed. Heady stuff.

Seeking to get my internet connection activated, I'm allowed briefly backstage into a tech room. The professional buzz of 21st century technology and attendant staff is in the air, as a tech heads into a glassed-off room of floor-to-ceiling machinery (think renegade War Games computer WOPER on steroids) and makes it so.

Back in my seat, I log on and start tapping out a quick stage-setting thread...and quickly realize that despite all my best intentions, I'm seriously going to struggle to convey what I'm seeing and feeling. That sobering thought accompanies me as we retrace our steps, and head back downstairs.

Time to breath it all in.

We come around the final bend and walk out into sensory overload.

*

Electricity.

360 degrees of constant motion. Pounding music--bass and drums. Natural and stadium light fusing to lend everything a surreal, animated look.

Grass, ale, pretzels, sweat. French fries, cigars and perfume.

The yellow line we're to stay behind runs maybe ten feet from the sideline, maybe half that from the ends of the Redskins bench. We will be, almost literally, rubbing elbows with the Redskins today. The sidelines are heavily lined with stargazers; eyes wide, sporting tiny, unaware smiles...gazing at larger-than-life actors in full battle gear not 50 feet away stretching, sprinting, drilling, finding their zones.

There's an overwhelming sense of potential energy, laced with just a hint of danger.

After warm-ups, the teams retire to the locker room briefly...then re-take the field to a swell of pulsing music, exploding fireworks, and a roar from the crowd that I feel deep in my chest. As the pall of smoke drifts slowly across my field of vision, and the band plays Hail to the Redskins, and 85,000-plus fiercely partisan voices thunder down from the stands, I finally abandon the futile effort of trying to "keep track"...and simply let it wash over me.

*

I've seen enough pro football to know that people on the sidelines get wiped out from time to time. I've often chuckled, after realizing they weren't seriously hurt, and thought, "How silly it must be to be caught so unaware." After a few plays, I'm not so smug.

You know those NASCAR shots from right down alongside the track, where you see the cars coming from a distance, slowly at first, then incrementally faster until they just explode by in a visceral blur? Well, when Chargers quarterback Drew Brees fires a ball in our general direction, and his receiver catches it, turns upfield and heads toward the sideline readying to take on converging linebackers and safeties, they all look mostly human. But as they near the sideline, things speed up very, very fast indeed, and they grow in a few seconds from semi-remote actors on a stage to hurtling mountains of kinetic energy...and I'm doing rapid mental calculations about which direction to bail.

Happily, the play ends at my feet, and I remain upright, neither in traction nor posterized. I'm deeply thankful for that, and silently vow to keep my eyes on the field.

A large, lean Charger defender makes a play behind the line of scrimmage not 20 feet away, and comes up woofing. He pounds his chest with a fist, glares at us mortals and yells something unintelligible through his mouthpiece. As he turns, triumphantly, and heads back to the huddle, there's a ripple of laughter among the unarmored on the sideline. A polite ripple.

Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington sacks Brees to end a drive, and all along the sidelines, as well as in the stands, I swear I catch a sense relief intermingled with the primitive roar. Pass rush, baby. Pass rush.

I spend some time watching the body language of the players coming and going from the bench, and trying to overhear snippets of conversation. At one point, Gregg Williams addresses a cornerback during a time out, "Hey, you've got to challenge those receivers..."

The stadium erupts as Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell finds Santana Moss at the goal line. Moss bounces off a defender and spins into the end zone, capping a great drive and giving the Redskins a 10-7 lead. I cannot hear myself shout, "Yes!" through clenched teeth. For a few seconds, the sound level exceeds my ability to process, and seemingly folds back on itself.

Let there be no doubt: it is loud at FedExField when Redskins fans are at full throat. There are louder things--jet engines, some rock concerts--but those things don't carry the same magic. They are artificial. A football crowd's collective voice is a living thing. It's an organism that is born, lives and dies all in the course of a fall afternoon. It has depth, timbre, emotion, nuance. It has a soul.

And clearly, with prolonged exposure, it can affect the minds of some of those swimming in it. Almost unbelievably, the half is over, and the Redskins are streaming all around us toward the tunnel; upbeat, strong and determined.

*

We head up to the Press Box for the 3rd quarter, thinking to fully absorb that experience as well. I will try again to convey a taste of it all to my internet brethren.

Fact is though, with the sideline experience still echoing, the mental gear-shift to the hushed, professional detachment of the box causes an acute case of psychic whiplash. One minute we're front row for Aerosmith, the next we're at Kennedy Center, and the National Symphony Orchestra is favoring us with Tchaikovsky. Both wonderful experiences, to be sure...just not often enjoyed within the same 10-minute span.

The half starts as we get back to our seats with some hot food and cold soda, and I suspect we both already know we'll be heading back downstairs sooner than later. Moths to a flame.

The box, of course, and does have its moments. When Charger Coach Marty Schottenheimer's toss of the challenge flag evokes footsie over football, grins and good-natured snickers ripple the length of the room. And more than a few hearty laughs are heard when Santana Moss stands apart from his teammates, askance, arms crossed and staring at the Funky Four doing their Funky Chicken end zone dance, and someone calls out, "Look at Santana, he can't believe what he's seeing!"

Good thing they have a sense of perspective, and humor, about the whole press box decorum thing.

Hustling to the facilities between drives, I spy a certain very accomplished local celebrity journalist seated in the lobby area, watching the Bears game on television. I can't help but think how cool it would be to someday get to a place where I, too, could earn a fine living covering events I could actually watch at my leisure. No, I don't stick around to see how long he actually stays there...but hey. Why let details get in the way of a juicy vignette?

I smile inwardly at my cattiness, and shuffle back to my seat in humbled silence.

Rock Cartwright puts an exclamation point on another good drive, bursting through a huge hole and scoring from 13 yards. It puts the Redskins up 17-7, and it's all we can do to stay quiet and seated. To our credit, we manage to do both, but look at one another knowingly. Moments later, we're quietly setting down our notes, closing the laptop, and scurrying like school kids back down a deserted stairwell.

*

Something doesn't feel right.

With eight minutes to go in the game, the Redskins are up by 7 and have the ball. I turn to my partner and tell him we either score again soon--even a field goal--and win this thing...or we don't, and San Diego will eventually tie it and we'll lose. I despise the negativity even as I utter the words, but as the Redskins struggle and fail to convert a couple of key 3rd downs over the next few minutes, I find myself more convinced by the moment I know what's coming.

I find myself studying the body language on the bench again, and it just feels wrong. I don't see the chatter and ebullience from the first half. Instead, I see pockets of silence and a few 1,000-yard stares. When the defense takes the field yet again, they no longer look quite as hungry to dictate, but perhaps just tiniest bit resigned. I can't quantify that, obviously, and I'm quite certain the players and coaches would bitterly deny it...but the impression of dread I felt, and thought I saw, was strong.

San Diego scores to tie, and the air is sucked out of the stadium.

There is one last eruption when Shawn Springs intercepts a deflected pass, and the Redskins take over within field goal range with a minute left in regulation. Two plays later, however, after Washington has set itself up at the 25 and what everyone in the stadium is sure will be a game-winning 42-yard field goal, the impossible happens.

I happen to be watching center Casey Rabach in the instant he realizes he's been flagged for holding. Even in the heat of the moment, and as naturally outraged and up-in-arms as the fan in me is, based on Casey's reaction and body language in the aftermath, I can't help but feel for the man. Trust me, he knows.

The Hall field goal attempt from 52 hangs tantalizingly in the air, but I can tell at the top of its arc that it isn't going to get there. The Crowd Noise Creature gives a mighty groan that heads straight for my gut. I cannot shake the Groundhog Day feeling--I'm Phil Connors, and I've seen this all before.

Moments later, Ladanian Tomlinson beats Ryan Clark with a textbook stiff-arm, sprints by with Carlos Rogers in futile pursuit, and it's over.

I turn to my right to find the entire Redskins team streaming around me toward the locker room. The facemasks hide neither the hurt nor the anger. They know, as do the 85,000 fans that showed up today, and as do my partner and I as we head in silence toward the locker room, that they let a crushing one get away today.

*

We hang with the press in the concrete tunnel outside the locker room, seemingly forever, waiting for the doors to open. Mostly football talk, and a few re-acquaintances, in subdued but not stricken tones. Unlike us, these are seasoned pros, long inured to this stuff, about to earn their pay in tough circumstances.

Coach Gibbs walks by, and everyone falls silent. His head is up, but his eyes are down. He glides softly in the pervading silence past the crowd, toward the press briefing room.

The doors open, and we're ushered into a mausoleum. Inside there's an almost oppressive silence. Many players have already left. Most that remain sit half-dressed, staring at the floor. Some hold their heads in their hands. I also catch a palpable undercurrent of anger. Ryan Clark, to his credit, stands tall and quietly fields questions in a tight crowd with lights and cameras in his face.

We take our cue from the professionals, most of whom don't seem any more anxious than we to approach anyone. Employing discretion over valor, we exchange perfunctory handshakes with a team official, give a respectful nod to a couple of players who look up long enough to make eye contact, and take our leave.

Don't let anyone tell you again that pro athletes do not feel this game.

*

We spend about 20 minutes back upstairs in a mostly empty Press Box, where I try to put the game into some kind of context for the board. What comes out is straight from the gut. Tempting as it is now, in hindsight, to explore and expand upon it, I opt instead to let it stand:

"Know what occurs to me? The Redskins are simply not ready for prime time yet. For all the angst I know we're all going to feel this week, and all the ruing of missed opportunities and bemoaning of mistakes, the fact is that this team, for the past several weeks, has come up short in crunch time.

Never was that more apparent than today. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, San Diego was simply better in all phases, and forced the issue, and we had no answers.

Break it down as you will...for my money, this team is good enough to play with anyone, but not yet quite good enough to close the deal.

Signing off until later, from a very quiet FedExField."

*

Gear stowed, we make the long trek back toward the outside world and reality. Heading up the ramp, we walk the last 100 feet or so next to defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, who has been playing for weeks with a painful foot injury. Today, we will learn later, he has worsened it considerably.

This mountain of a man is alone, gear bag over one shoulder, staring straight ahead as he limps, slowly, up the ramp. A row of fans waits for autographs. I'm pleased when no one is loud or pushy about it, but even still, every instinct I have calls out to pat big Joe on the back, ask if maybe I can help him with his bag, and give him a hand onto the bus. He's earned that right and then some.

I watch instead as Mr. Salave'a redirects slowly over to the fans, and begins patiently signing autographs.

As we walk out into the night, I look inward. I'm at once beaten down by the loss and what it means for the season, awed by the spectacle and the men who give it life, and positively drunk with the whole of a truly magical ride.

The disappointment of the loss, I know, I will get over soon enough.

The awe, however, and the sweet drunkenness, I know even in that moment to be permanent and precious markers in a deeply humbled Redskin fans' life...ones I will revisit in my heart and mind, in private moments, for a lifetime.

Hail.

:helmet:
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I told you :)

Only wish your virgin experience could've ended on a positive note. As Redskin's fans have become accustomed to reassuringly say to themselves....

Maybe next time.

Ditto.

Although it could be worse. You could be 0-3. :(

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Great read Om. I really appreciate what you and the rest of the staff give me every week- a chance to live vicariously through you guys when you're at the game.

I've never been to a Redskins game but after articles like yours or a blog like Art's to Tarhog and TK's pics, I feel like I'm there. I very much appreciate everyone's efforts at covering the games. Thank You. :point2sky:

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Man, that was really good! I mean, WOW, excellent stuff. Very vivid. I almost had the experience myself as you described it.

I have tickets for the X-mas Eve game against the Giants, row 4, 50 yard line, home team side. Your description of the pagentry makes me salivate.

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Man. Great read Om. Sitting here in my burgandy and gold painted office in my Dallas home I can see the whole sceen right in front of me. See it, hear it, smell it...feeeeeeel it. For a few minutes this morning, in the gloom of going to work, you have transported me back home. You have given me a peek into a world I have dreamed of for years, since I was a kid sitting in my Uncle's upper deck season ticket seats for another, different Charger game back in the day when Jack Pardee was the coach during another season where the Skins would not quite make to the post season.

I am glad you enjoyed this and only wish it could have ended a bit better for you. Thank you so much for sharing.

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Thanks, all. This one came straight from the heart.

Testing the hypothesis that a picture IS in fact worth a thousand words ... I’m going to take the liberty of reposting a few of the shots I took while trying to justify being there in the first place. Tony was kicking butt all afternoon taking actions shots (those cheerleaders can move, man), plus had the monster camera, so I went for more crowd and atmosphere stuff.

These hopefully in some small way enhance and accent the narrative above.

*

Tony D., the boy inside the man:

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No explanation required:

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He’s baaaack:

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Oh, Hail yes:

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The Enemy:

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American Idol’s Travis Tucker does the honors:

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Sean Taylor stands at attention, menacing:

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This guy seriously earns his pay. Constant motion up and down the sidelines.

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Ain’t nothing like it.

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GW: “Hey, you’ve got to challenge those receivers ...”

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Best seat in the house:

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12th Man:

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Just because:

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"I see large people."

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Press Box Lobby, a/k/a Wilbon’s Lounge (stairs at right lead to top row of Box):

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More 12th Man:

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Serendipity: Random crowd shot uncovers Bill Cowher scouting the Redskins:

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John Hall, practicing David Blaine levitation trick:

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To the victor go the spoils:.

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To the vanquished, a sobering job to do:

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:helmet:
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Trepidation.

It’s a game every Redskins fan knows the team can and probably should win ... but seen through the prism of nagging doubt about their agonizing tendency of late to let such games slip away.

Rookie (in this case 7th round) QB’s behind patchwork offensive lines, with less than a handful of starts under their belts, should not be able to beat the 2005 Redskins.

Struggling defenses with depleted secondaries should not be able to contain a Redskins offense featuring a healthy offensive line, Mark Brunell, Clinton Portis, Santana Moss and Chris Cooley.

Teams with turmoil and recrimination on the sidelines, and a stand-in head coach few casual NFL fans can name, should not be able to out-game plan, out-maneuver or out-adjust Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams.

And yet ... the recent slide has forced us firmly back into “show me” mode. And not just for 50+ minutes, either. The team once again needs to prove to itself, and by extension to us, that they can close.

Trust, but verify.

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Om, you are truely an amazing and gifted writer. I always seem to be able to see through your eyes and feel what you feel when you write. It was awsome to meet you at the ExtremeSkins tailgate - I knew I should have gotten you to sign my Portis jersey!!! Famous Guy.

Kind words indeed, m'lady. Enjoyed meeting you as well ...

Now, please, as I asked Sunday, stop with the "famous" stuff? :)

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