Fifty-one years of RFK

Future of RFK Stadium is uncertain since 'Skins relocated in 1996

Originally Published: October 5, 2012
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

RFK StadiumDiamond Images/Getty ImagesRFK Stadium was the first of 11 "cookie-cutter" stadiums that would pop up around the nation.

STANDING 100 YARDS APART from one another at the main entrance to RFK Stadium are tributes to Robert Francis Kennedy and George Preston Marshall. Kennedy's is a beautiful bronze bust that happens to overlook the faded sides of Washington Redskins helmets. Marshall's is a red granite monument that would have been moved years ago to make room for a concession stand, except that nobody wanted to pay the $30,000 in shipping costs.

If these memorials to the former U.S. Attorney General and the longtime owner of the Redskins could talk, well ... they probably wouldn't.

As it happened, the rich 51-year history of what was first called D.C. Stadium began with a contest of wills between the newly installed Kennedy Administration and the hidebound patriarch. (That battle, better than any the Redskins had during that inaugural season in 1961, is well-documented by Nichols College professor Thomas G. Smith in an essay that first appeared in the Journal of Sport History and later on ESPN.com.)

When the Redskins moved into the stadium at East Capitol Street, they were the only NFL team without an African-American, even though the league had re-integrated in 1946. The team colors were, as Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich wrote, "burgundy, gold and Caucasian." Marshall, for his unrepentant part, said he would integrate "when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

Aside from racism, Marshall had another problem. Before the stadium opened, he signed a 30-year lease, and his landlord was the United States government. It was built for a then-staggering $24 million with public money, on the federally owned Anacostia Flats. In March of 1961, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall informed Marshall that he had to integrate the team or else face eviction. As Udall later said, "I considered it outrageous that the Redskins were the last team in the NFL to have a lily-white policy."

[+] EnlargeWashington's Trent Williams
Geoff Burke/US PRESSWIRETrent Williams is no stranger to loud fans, but when the Redskins played at RFK, the sound was deafening.

Indeed, there were 83 black players in the league in 1961, none of them on the 'Skins. With the backing of JFK and RFK, Udall applied public pressure until finally, in August 1961, Marshall agreed to begin integration for the 1962 season. In the meantime, the President refused to go to the stadium, the Redskins went 1-12-1, and both white supremacists and civil rights groups staged protests in the area where RFK and Marshall now hang out.

Marshall kept his promise by making Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis the first pick of the NFL Draft on Dec. 4, 1961. He then traded him to the Cleveland Browns for established running back Bobby Mitchell and first-round pick Leroy Jackson, another black halfback. Newly integrated, and sparked by Mitchell, the Redskins improved to 5-7-2 in 1962. But it wouldn't be until 1971, two years after Marshall's death, that the Redskins would fully overcome the owner's intransigence by making the playoffs. For his part, Mitchell spent 40 years with the Redskins as a player, scout and front-office executive.

Kennedy and Marshall may not be talking, but the stadium still does. The first of the 11 so-called "cookie-cutter" stadia that popped up across America, it was named for RFK shortly after his assassination in 1968 -- much to the disappointment of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted it called, ahem, LBJ Stadium. Among its aesthetic pleasures is the direct sight line to the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, and a gently undulating roof designed by George Dahl that accidentally echoes the "bouncy" bleacher seats.

Over the years, RFK has been the home not only of the Redskins, but also of two different Washington baseball teams, the Senators and the Nationals, and several different soccer teams. It hosted both the Roy Jones vs. Bernard Hopkins middleweight title fight in '93 and the mass wedding officiated by Rev. Moon in '97.

"You should have seen it in its heyday," says 84-year-old Charlie Brotman, the long-time PA announcer for the Senators, as well as the Opening Day escort for several Presidents. "When the 'Skins played, there was no louder stadium in all of football. And those bouncy seats!" Because the bleachers had to be moved when converting from football to baseball, they were put on cantilevered railway tracks, creating seats that did their own wave when the fans were so inclined.

At first glance, RFK looks a little weary, especially in the seldom-used upper deck; there are still concession booths with the Nationals logo on them, even though the team moved to its new stadium in 2008. (The Redskins left for FedEx Field in Landover, Md. after the '96 season.) The sea of washed-out yellow seats in the upper deck is broken up by three peeling white seats to commemorate titanic blasts by Senators slugger Frank Howard -- which, according to legend, led former Nationals manager Frank Robinson to observe that "the white ones are for his home runs, and the yellow ones are for his strikeouts."

It was on this diamond that Senators fans rioted during the last home game in '71, necessitating a 9-0 forfeit. On this gridiron, Lawrence Taylor infamously broke Joe Theismann's leg in November of '85. The ghosts are many. Vince Lombardi, who coached the Redskins to their first winning season in 14 years in '69. Ted Williams, who managed the Senators for three years. Luke Appling, who homered as a 75-year-old off Warren Spahn in the 1982 Cracker Jack Old-Timers Game. John Lennon and George Harrison, who played here with The Beatles in August of '66, and Michael Jackson, who performed here with the Jackson 5 and as a solo act.

"We even have the old usher uniforms back from when the Senators played here," says operations chief Troy Scott. "I kind of miss the sleepless nights when we would switch over from baseball to football or soccer, and vice versa."

Those halcyon days are long gone. But Events DC, which operates the facility, has kept it vital with college football games, the Maloof Skate Park on an adjacent parking lot, the DC101 Chili Cook-Off concert that draws 31,000, and soccer -- both international exhibitions and the D.C. United. Teri Washington, the director of communications for Events DC, appreciates going to work in the stadium where she attended Redskins games with her late father, Edward. "I still love the place," she says. "This is where I saw the Jacksons' Victory Tour in 1984. A lot of special memories."

The future of RFK is uncertain. It is aging, but it's conveniently located, and, more importantly, it's part of the DNA of Washington. Residents and fans would welcome a return of the Redskins, perhaps to a new stadium built on the old footprint. The catch is that owner Daniel Snyder still has 15 years remaining on his lease at FedEx.

For now, though, there is Major League Soccer, more specifically, a mid-September night game between the New England Revolution and D.C. United. The crowd of 15,104 is a delightful mix of youth soccer players enjoying the foosball game in the large VW Garage at the west end of the field, the impassioned Screaming Eagles waving their huge flags in support of the team, and aficionados of all colors who warmly welcome coach and former player Ben Olsen into the club's Hall of Tradition. Maybe it's the playoff push, maybe it's the joy from being in on the secret of soccer, maybe it's the bouncy seats, maybe all of the above -- when midfielder Lewis Neal scores at the 63rd minute to put the United ahead for good at 2-1, RFK seems like the happiest place on earth.

It may not be what George Preston Marshall had in mind for the stadium. But as Robert Kennedy himself once said, "Ultimately, America's answer to the intolerant man is diversity."

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Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer