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Pass On A Return To RFK Stadium

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Fans loved RFK Stadium, but would a return ever work? Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport.
Fans loved RFK Stadium, but would a return ever work? Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport.

The history of NFL franchises are comprised largely of a team’s greatest players, its best coaches, iconic games and championships won. In some cases stadiums, the places where those famous coaches and players roamed and many of those memorable games were played, carve out a chapter in a team’s storybook. Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Soldier Field in Chicago, The Orange Bowl in Miami, Candlestick Park in San Francisco and even Texas Stadium in Dallas all have places in the annals of NFL history — so, too, does RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Opened in 1961 as D.C. Stadium, RFK Stadium acquired its more famous and significant title in 1969 following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. During its life, RFK has served as the last home to the Washington Senators before the franchise relocated to Texas, and is the current home of the D.C. United. It is the stadium’s other one-time resident, the Washington Redskins, that allowed the aesthetically displeasing, un-charming and altogether boring structure to become the most endearing venue in D.C. sports history.

The ‘Skins called RFK home between 1961 and 1996. In those 36 magical football seasons, RFK hosted five NFC Championship Games — all won by the ‘Skins — and was the team’s residence for the greatest period of professional football in the nation’s capital (a little something called Joe Gibbs 1.0). Sonny Jurgensen, Charlie Taylor, Bobby Mitchell, John Riggins, Art Monk, Darrell Green and the Hogs all played there. Hall-of-Fame coach George Allen and his “Over the Hill Gang” called RFK home. Pat Summerall and John Madden called countless NFC East showdowns from the stadium’s press box. Rabid ‘Skins often made the “temporary” football seats shake, and the chant “We want Dallas, We want Dallas” still echoes through RFK’s corridors.

All of those memories, the stuff that makes the ‘Skins franchise one of the NFL’s healthiest (despite recent ownership), covered up every one of RFK’s numerous physical warts. The cracks and crevasses, the chopped up, painted-over turf and hearty tailgaters turning the Anacostia River into a last-minute pre-game trough (or shameless male urinal) all became endearing patina on Washington’s lovable jalopy. For sports-inclined Washingtonians, RFK was the most significant landmark in the entire city. It was D.C.’s true house of the people; there was perhaps no place in city that achieved greater unity than RFK in the fall. Perhaps congress should consider a special session there? What could it hurt?

Ultimately undone by age and the popularity of the NFL, RFK and its meager 55,000-plus seating capacity bid adieu to the ‘Skins in 1996. Ironically (and appropriately), the ‘Skins beat the archrival Dallas Cowboys 37-10 in RFK’s final NFL game, the same team the ‘Skins beat to notch their first win in the stadium back in 1961. After that final NFL curtain fell on RFK, the crowd spilled onto the field and casually strolled around the arena floor that had provided so many unforgettable moments. Fans were clearly lost in the unbelievable moment. Hunks of regal turf were ripped up and committed to private collections. The author might have even secured his own post-game sample of D.C.’s most hallowed lawn (sorry, Mr. President). If he did, the turf would be the crown jewel of his sports memorabilia collection.

And that was that. An era had come to a victorious and tidy end. Or did it? Last week, Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post reported that a focus group assembled to gather feedback on the “R word”, also considered various other burning franchise questions, including the possibility of playing a game at RFK Stadium. According to Steinberg (and as suspected), the suggestion of a return to the Holy Land for ‘Skins fans was met with great enthusiasm.

Why wouldn’t it? Life as a ‘Skins fan has basically stunk since RFK was closed for American professional football. Former owner Jack Kent Cooke died in 1997, and Trent Green got away while team ownership was in flux. Dan Snyder took over in 1999, hawked Jack Kent Cooke Stadium’s naming rights to FedEx and apparently created some sort of karmic calamity in the process. Seven different head coaches have roamed the sidelines, tens of millions of dollars have been wasted on free agents and draft picks have been treated like toilet paper. Vinny Cerrato happened; so did the swinging gate, Michael Westbrook’s tossed helmet and Gus Frerotte’s head butt. LaVar Arrington and Robert Griffin III broke down; Sean Taylor was murdered. And in the ultimate act of desperation to rekindle the good times, Snyder coaxed Joe Gibbs out of retirement — but the magician’s second act proved to be just another disappointing sequel. For all the trouble, gimmicks, false hope, banned signs and horrible tragedy, the post-RFK era can be summed up by this damning digit: one … the number of home playoff wins in 17 NFL seasons.

So why not return to RFK? It’s about the only thing the franchise hasn’t tried; it’s the next logical step. To get back to where you want to be, go back to where you were — literally. Bathe in nostalgia’s pools and drink from her cup. Load up the colors, the band and players, leave the cursed concrete eyesore in Landover, MD in your rearview and cruise back to the District, back to RFK Stadium where good times once rolled. It sounds like the perfect idea for a long-ailing prodigal son, right?

Wrong, it’s a horrible idea. First, the logistics and finances don’t work. FedEx Field seats around 80,000; RFK, assuming a similar set-up, clocks in around 55,000 and change. Do you think Dan Snyder is going to forfeit the gate from 25,000 ticket sales? If he did entertain the idea, it would only be after calculating the “RFK tax” he could tack on to ticket prices. Also, the event would undoubtedly turn into a tacky advertiser’s paradise. It would have an official pizza and an official beer. Fans would park in sponsored parking lots and Porta-Potties would be affixed with familiar corporate logos. Okay, so I’m exaggerating a little (I think), but you get the point.  

Here’s the most compelling reason for the ‘Skins not to return to RFK: The event would almost certainly diminish the old stadium’s legacy. Since taking the ownership reigns, Dan Snyder has reduced the franchise’s standing in the NFL, dimmed Joe Gibbs’ bright star and stressed one of the strongest relationships between the fans and a team in professional sports. Why would RFK be spared Snyder’s depreciation? If anything, RFK’s legend has grown over the years because it has avoided Snyder’s fingerprints and never housed his inferior product. It is an uncorrupted timepiece of the golden period of ‘Skins football. And that is what makes the idea of the ‘Skins playing a game (in any capacity) there thoroughly nauseating. The memories of RFK are pristine, and pristine they should remain.