- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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IT IS A Wednesday night at the Capitol City Brewing Company in Washington, D.C. After-work coed softball teams file in; pints of Yuengling and Fat Tire pass from trays to tables. Meanwhile, the televisions that surround the bar underscore a sudden truth: A region dead to sports is coming alive. The first-place Nationals are on the big screen against the bottom-feeding Mets. So take that, New York. On the smaller screens, the last-place Red Sox (take that, Boston) are trying to play spoiler to the Yankees, a game that matters because at the same time, the used-to-be-nothing Orioles are playing the Rays with the AL East lead in sight. Outside, throughout the city, into the vast, ever-expanding suburbs, the leaves are changing and, take a deep breath now, baseball matters again. The vaunted Phillies are 17 games behind the Nationals -- chew on that, Broad Street -- and the last time the city's baseball team played in the postseason, back in 1933, television barely existed. So take that, history.
In both the fantasy world of sports and the real halls of power, DC is now a battleground. Every commercial break between innings features at least one haymaker from Mitt Romney to the jaw of President Obama (one ad shows the word "Forward" dissolving into ashes, replaced by the slow-motion zinger, "Backward"), countered by an uppercut from the president ("Mitt Romney's not the solution," the voice-over says, with an ominous death pause setting up the roundhouse. "He's the problem"). At the same time, with every game, the capital is also facing a referendum on its status as a sports town. The Nationals have pretty much pulled a wire-to-wire job, in first place all year, the shoe-shine boy as underboss. Now bring in the surging Orioles, the city's baseball caretakers for 33 years, and it isn't actually insane to think that the first-ever Beltway World Series could actually happen. And dwarfing it all is the Redskins and the city's new hope. Already, the District is electrified by the cartoonish bigness of a young man picked to be the signature player for the most dominant franchise in town. He is 22 and hasn't yet played half a dozen games in his professional career. But the combination of the hype, his undeniable talent and the staggering marketing muscle behind him have already made him RG3, avenger. His actual name, Robert Lee Griffin III, sounds more like the cover for his secret identity.
The energy should be perfect; the buzz should be filling the Capitol City Brewing Company and all the sports bars in Metro DC. Except that it isn't. Instead of that noisy, civic testosterone that spikes when a city's sports teams are rocking, DC is sweating with anxiety. The Redskins are maybe a .500 team. Maybe. Due to bad moves and bad vibes, the Wizards have failed to build a following. The Capitals are locked out. Even the Nationals, despite their "Natitude" campaign, don't seem to have a mandate. They've crushed the league but are merely middle of the pack in attendance. Every red Nats cap on the street is matched by a red Phillies cap. And while the game was on at the bar, no one was really watching it -- giving the impression that the city isn't any closer to supporting this franchise than it was the Senators, who
left town not once but twice, in 1961 to become the Minnesota Twins and in 1972 to become the Texas Rangers.
None of it is exactly fair, and yet all of it is fair game, for if there is one defining characteristic of Washington, D.C., as a sports town, it is insecurity. Unlike its muscular neighbors along the Northeast corridor -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia -- the district sometimes frets about whether it's a sports town at all. The result is a certain nervous mumbling that betrays an ineluctable fact: RG3 is the most important player at the most important position on the most important team in the city playing the most popular sport in the country. And along with RG3, there is 24-year-old Stephen Strasburg and 19-year-old Bryce Harper, the cornerstones of the Nationals. There is John Wall, just 22, who will be ably handling the rock for the Wizards. And yes, Alex Ovechkin is still flying through the neutral zone as the city's elder statesman at 27. No city has as much good, young star power across its four major sports -- something its East Coast rivals would announce with bullhorns.
GET INTO THE Range Rover at the corner of 16th and K, White House to the right, Washington Post to the left. Shawn Springs is driving -- through Georgetown, to Adams Morgan, to the U Street corridor. The retired NFL cornerback grew up in nearby Silver Spring, Md., was a star at Springbrook High and had a dad who played for the Dallas Cowboys. When the Redskins were so desperate that they reached back into the trophy case and dusted off Joe Gibbs, one of the first transactions the legendary coach made in 2004 was to sign Springs as a free agent from the Seahawks. But while Springs is down by law here, know this: It wasn't the Orioles, Redskins, Bullets and Caps for him as a kid. Style wouldn't allow it. "Cowboys, Bulls, Yankees," Springs says. "I didn't like the Orioles, and DC didn't have baseball. It was all about the Starter jackets. That's where the rooting came from: Yankees, Lakers, Raiders."
All over the city, everybody's got a different theory as to why DC doesn't rate as a sports town. Some say downtown is a bad place to find the city's pulse. That's where the tourists and the transplants are, the ones who work for this senator or that lobby. The military, all those college kids at Georgetown, Howard, American and George Washington -- they too are largely transplants with competing loyalties. You'll hear that the district's real fans live outside the Beltway, in Maryland and Virginia, or at the very least a little farther out from Union Station.
But all these truths are secondary to one fundamental truth: DC is defined not by what unites but by what fractures. By the forces of gentrification that have pushed Chocolate City into surrounding counties and diluted the traditional soul of the city. By Marion Barry and the history of rising black political power. By the tensions between police and the residents of predominantly black Prince George's County. By the pride for its most popular team and its incorrect name and dreadful racial history. And, of course, by the steel-cage paradigm that is Republicans vs. Democrats, which turns this town over every two years. All of which makes it hard for the city's teams to build a loyal constituency. "If Pittsburgh is built on steel and Detroit on cars, then DC is built on divisions," says Dave Zirin, a political sports writer who lives in Maryland.
Then there is the losing, the nonstop slog of losing. The Wizards, formerly the Bullets, haven't won 50 games since they went to the Finals back when Jimmy Carter was turning down the thermostat in the White House. That was 33 years ago. The Capitals have never won a Cup in their 37 seasons and haven't made it past the second round of the playoffs since 1998. The Nationals failed to finish above .500 in each of their first seven seasons after their arrival from Montreal in 2005. "You can't just expect people to come out and spend hundreds of dollars after losing the way the teams in this city have," says Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who grew up in the DC area and would become the sports editor of The Washington Post.
But -- and here everyone agrees -- the Redskins are different. This team, with just two 10-win seasons and three playoff wins since hoisting the Lombardi in 1991, is the region's great uniter, despite its ugly past. Original owner George Preston Marshall, who moved the team to DC from Boston in 1937, was adamantly opposed to racial integration. He agreed to draft the team's first African-American, in 1962, only after then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall threatened to cancel the team's stadium lease. But the racial tensions rapidly de-escalated when Jack Kent Cooke became majority owner in 1974. Cooke hired Joe Gibbs to be the Redskins' coach in 1981, and Gibbs, of course, led the team to three titles, including one in the 1987 season that saw Doug Williams become the first black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. Nearly a quarter-century later, a recent Washington Post poll found that 66 percent of black fans hold a favorable view of the team, higher than for any other local pro team.
"People say sports aren't real, but I remember my cousins crying when the Redskins lost," says Springs as he makes his way through DC's snarling traffic. "Look at all the people whose season tickets have been passed down 50 years. The fans? They were authentic. Rich, poor, black, white, blue collar, white collar … Only a few places had that kind of passion. The Dawg Pound in Cleveland, Oakland. And Washington."
And that passion is now being focused upon the 6-foot-2, 217-pound frame of one Robert Griffin III, the second pick overall of April's draft, who won the Heisman and set or tied 54 school records at Baylor. Springs drops his car off at the valet and heads into the Park at Fourteenth, a packed bar/restaurant that caters mostly to African-American professionals. It is Week 2 of the NFL season, halftime in the Bears-Packers game, but when the wall of flat-screens shows a clip of RG3's debut a week earlier, the dancing and the flirting stop as people become transfixed enough, even with the
volume down, to watch TV in a club. "See?" Springs says. "RG3 has a great chance. Everybody wants him to make it. The question is whether the Redskins will do right by him. Everything else is in place. The people are hungry."
You can see it outside of FedEx Field before the Redskins' home opener a week later. While the Skins' season-ticket base cuts across racial lines and a sea of other divisions, the diversity of the Redskins tailgaters -- black, white, side-by-side, all investing emotionally in a young, black quarterback from a two-parent home -- suggests an audacity of its own.
In Lot D is a 69-year-old black woman named Joyce Thompson, a retired elementary school principal. Thompson is from Houston originally but has lived in the DC area since the early 1970s. The day before the game, she bought an RG3 jersey for $100. "We've had season tickets for 11 years, and this is the most exciting year," Thompson says. "This is the first time I've bought the real-deal jersey, so that tells you how I feel, for a retired person to spend $100 on a shirt."
Across the street in Lot E are four senior citizens, all white males. There's Charlie Dennis, 63, a truck driver from Alexandria, Va.; Bill DePuy, 72, a retired insurance claims worker from Springfield, Va.; Phil McConchie, 61, a retired insurance claims worker from Dewey Beach, Del.; and Ned Cotter, 72, a retired insurance claims worker, also from Alexandria. They've been coming to games together since the late 1960s and have been season-ticket holders since 2000.
They arrived at the stadium at 9 a.m. and are grilling brats, eating Krispy Kremes and drinking Yuengling. Dennis is wearing a white Portis No. 26 jersey; DePuy wears a white Darrell Green No. 28 jersey. McConchie and Cotter aren't wearing gear, but they soon will be rewarded with some. Eighteen months ago, Dennis sustained a serious injury on the job. His pals helped him get to all of his doctor appointments and recover, so he plans to
repay them by buying jerseys for the entire foursome today. RG3 jerseys, naturally.
"We haven't had a QB in so long," Cotter says. "Used to be we'd score 10 points and it was a big deal. Now with Griffin, we've got a shot. He's mobile, he's accurate. Win or lose, he'll make a difference. We've been so poor for so long that going 8-8 would feel like going 10-6."
Walking past the tailgate is Byron Harper, 46, and his son Blake. Byron, African- American, is a high school math teacher and basketball coach at nearby Gonzaga College High School. He hasn't been to a game since before his son was born and admits that RG3 is the only reason they are at FedEx Field on this day. "We haven't won in 20 years," he says. "My son is 6, and he thinks I'm crazy to root for the Redskins. But RG3 is touching way more than football. He's touching this whole area."
Yes, the Skins fans are feeling it. Inside the stadium, as the pregame festivities get under way, the first nine offensive players out of the tunnel receive a smattering of applause, maybe a 2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. The 10th man out is running back Alfred Morris, who rates a 5. The 11th and final man out is RG3. The response is deafening, easily an 11. After his name is announced, he stands in the tunnel, salutes and sprints about 60 yards to the opposite 40-yard line, slapping five through the Skins line. And then, as he raises his palms up to the sky to pump up the crowd, they begin chanting. RG3 ... RG3 ... RG3.
Of course, as this town knows all too well, every would-be savior has his limits. Though Griffin is the image of awe-inspiring motion on this afternoon -- throwing for 221 yards, rushing for 85 more, scoring through the air and on the ground -- he comes up short on the Skins' final drive, getting his team to the Bengals' 19 but no further in the 38-31 defeat. In the postgame news conference, the rookie comes on last, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of about 70, about 20 more than listened to coach Mike Shanahan.
Dressed in dark jeans, squeaky-clean white sneakers and a burgundy polo with the Skins logo on the left side -- looking more like a coach than a player -- he stands flat-footed, with his hands grasping either side of the podium. "It was a great atmosphere," he says. "Great vibe for us. But we need to give them a better showing. I know we scored 31 points, but we didn't win the game. The bottom line is, the fans showed up, and we need to show up as well."
It's clear that Skins fans don't share Griffin's dejection. The sea of No. 10 jerseys that emerge from the stadium after the loss will be seen all over the city the next week, from Dupont Circle to Kingman Park. He remains the hero their team has been waiting for.
Too much? Who knows? Who cares? All that matters now is that he is offering this ring-starved town an opportunity to wipe away the past, start something new and make it right. A chance to elevate not just the Redskins but the town's sports profile. Over the next several months, leading into the next several years, DC, as a sports town, will be defined by what its teams do with this chance of a lifetime. If the Natitude can be sustained through this year's World Series and beyond, if the city's dormant love for basketball re-emerges due to the promise offered by John Wall, if Alex Ovechkin returns from the lockout rejuvenated -- maybe DC is ready to rewrite a story that hasn't had a happy ending since Bush I was in office.
It is an awesome proposition, a grand challenge. But on this Sunday, with this quarterback, you can already see a small sign of a bigger movement to come. Held aloft by a Redskins fan before kickoff, it reads:
GRIFFIN III FOR PRESIDENT, 2012
Additional reporting by Eddie Matz.
In ESPN The Magazine's DC Issue, Howard Bryant asks if the arrival of Robert Griffin III finally let Washington, D.C., relax and become a sports town not defined by losing.