Before we get to the big story—Robert Griffin III’s knee injury—there’s still a story to tell about what came before, what it was like to be at the NFC wild-card playoff game between the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks. While it ended poorly for Skins fans, Sunday afternoon started out as an ideal scenario: fine January weather and lots of time to tailgate in the sun before the 4:30 kickoff, plus a widespread spirit of optimism. After all, the team had seven straight wins in the books. Why couldn’t this be another?
Redskins fans are, at the very least, colorful. They like to strut and show off their fashions. Some fans wear Redskins logo pajamas to the game, and there seems to be a fondness for Skins camo, plus many goofy hats and variations of face paint. The preponderance of #10 T-shirts, jerseys, sweatshirts, and jackets indicates someone is getting very rich—the NFL? Dan Snyder? Griffin? Probably all three.
Tailgating at a Redskins game is itself a type of major league sport, with styles and flourishes that make the scene fairly competitive. You know, “my parking sprawl is much cooler than yours,” the determining factors being things like the size of the grill, the amount of alcohol, and the loudness of the music. One man served as his own deejay, rapping while simultaneously cooking and serving food.
The pros show up four hours before game time, when the gates open to the acres of multicolored parking lots at FedEx Field. The early arrivals have favorite spots and stake them out with, shall we say, assertiveness. They set up grills, bars with beer, wine, and spirits, and folding chairs, TVs, and beanbag games. All kinds of food gets unpacked from the backs of cars, whether store-bought prepared food or the raw ingredients of a full meal that will be cooked on site (most often chicken or beef barbecue, hamburgers, or chili).
We arrived two hours before kickoff, endured the hyper-rigid directions to park here and not there, and, as we made our way by foot from the orange lot on one side of the stadium to the green lot on the other side, we were at least in a euphoria of good food smells. People were happy, friendly, playful, loud, and everywhere. Cars inched among them, trying to find precious empty spaces. I wondered if some of them would stay in the parking lot for the game—their setups were that elaborate—but later learned that, no, they pack up tight and flood into the game before it begins.
We spent some time at the tailgate party of friends parked in one of the green lots. In the back of their SUV they set up an HDTV that was tuned to the Baltimore-Indianapolis game, using an antenna, and shook their heads in scorn over a neighboring group that had actual DirecTV. They considered the satellite to be overkill. From there we drifted over to the stadium, endured the TSA-worthy security check-in, and set our minds on exploring the “splendors” of FedEx. This is, after all, the house Jack Kent Cooke built without any fan fluff included in the mix. This is not Nationals Park, with the human-friendly architecture and the conscientiously creative choices in food. We quickly began to understand why people tailgate. The food choices in the stadium are unimaginative at best, very repetitive, and, most of all, expensive.
Speaking of expensive . . . one can spend thousands of dollars for club-level season tickets and then have permission to partake of a buffet, but even there the food is only slightly improved over the fast food concessions available to everyone else.
It was fun to climb the ramps all the way to the top level to take in the view. And what a view it was—of both the massive encampment of tailgaters and, in the other direction, the stadium as it slowly began to fill. There is a magnificence to these temples of head-butting competition, and the perspective is probably the best from the nosebleeds. We paused for a moment up where the stadium lights live and then began the descent to our seats in section 217.
A word about the bathrooms: There are not enough of them. There never have been. And with all that beer consumed, in no time the lines for the men’s and women’s bathrooms get very long—it’s enough to make a person not want to drink anything, even water, and especially not coffee.
Our seats, which were at about the five-yard line on the tunnel side of the stadium, were among a group of ardent fans. The camaraderie was high. We had a good view of the field and the stadium, so we could see—and especially hear—everything. Yes, Redskins fans are loud. Television does not capture the audio level. I can only imagine what it’s like for the players on the field, especially the opposing team, who are routinely screamed at when they have possession of the ball.
There’s not much that could match the exuberance around us as the Redskins went through their first two possessions, scoring touchdowns on both drives. But here’s a truth that people mumbled about in the stands, because as much as on TV we could tell that RG3 was limping. We could also tell the field was in rough shape. People dismissed these things, because it was going so well. Later, in hindsight, they would loom as more meaningful. Around us people thought Kirk Cousins would come in after the first half. We assumed it and were surprised to see Griffin back on the field.
It’s fun to watch him. Not so much when he’s hobbled, but before all that it was interesting to watch as he interacted with his teammates, especially during warmups—the parts that don’t get broadcast. The most exciting moment—apart from touchdowns, of course—was when the team was introduced. Griffin was held for last, as the excitement soared. When he tore out of the blown-up moon-bounce-like Redskins helmet, the stadium exploded, almost literally. The fans shouted, “RG3! RG3! RG3!” and stamped their feet, and skyrockets were set off from the field on both sides of him. Seems like that would be enough to make anyone feel ready to play in a fierce football game, no matter what their knee was saying.