A trip to Hog Heaven
By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist
WASHINGTON (Wednesday, 5 p.m. ET) -- I feel like Colonel Jessup right now. You want stories? You want stories???? You can't handle these stories!!!!
We started off at the venerable RFK, arguably the Boston Garden of football stadiums. Lambeau Field might get the press -- heck, it's the closest thing to a sports cathedral we have right now -- but RFK and Chicago's Soldier Field always reeked of football more than any other place. The seats practically hug the field. The sections look like they might collapse onto one another. There's enough concrete and metal going around to start your own construction company. Even now, even after they tried to jazz it up for soccer, it still seems like this place hasn't seen a paint job or tweaking since 1342 AD.
Once everyone arrived, we headed right out onto the field, ignoring the chilly breeze and light drizzle. As May said, "This is perfect. This is our weather." You could practically smell the nostalgia. And then the stories started coming, one after the other.
Starke remembered the playoff game with the Rams in '83, when 'Skins offensive line coach Joe Bugel told the team that the Rams players had wrapped up a Saturday practice by peeing on the Redskins emblem on the 50-yard-line. Incensed, the defending champs decided to hand out an obligatory butt-whupping. "We won that game something like 52-7," Starke said. "They never had a chance." Of course, Bugel made up the story ... but the players didn't find that out until later.
That game paled in comparison to the '82 NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys. As the Hogs tell it, the fans had been chanting, "We want Dal-las! We want Dal-las!" during the playoff run, which transformed into something much more primal during the late stages of a convincing victory over Minnesota in round two. Near the end of that game, the chants intensified and 'Skins fans started bouncing up and down in unison. May remembers looking up from the field, seeing the sections swaying and wondering if the stadium was going to collapse like a house of cards.
Everyone nodded. You don't forget things like that. Somehow everyone made it out alive, but legend has it that the first and second sections actually compacted closer together by nearly a foot. When was the last time that ever happened at a football game?
And then there was the Dallas game, the definitive RFK moment during the Hogs Era. If you recall, that '82 Cowboys were on the last legs of their decade-long dynasty, while the Redskins were embarking on the first Super Bowl run of the Joe Gibbs Era. The fans and media had been gunning for the 'Boys all season. According to Warren, before that one, a hungover John Riggins -- the legendary running back, honorary Hog and Super Bowl XXVII MVP -- pulled all the lineman aside and told them, "I don't want to embarrass myself today. Don't give me any huge holes -- I don't want to get chased down from behind. Just give me little creases and let me bang off people. That's all I need. No huge holes." He was serious.
Walker remembered seeing the popular Riggins jog out of the tunnel before the game, as the RFK crowd emitted a sound that he hasn't heard before or since. "It was over right then," he says. "It was over."
That game sparked more memories than just about anything. Starke remembered how Bugel had quit smoking that season, but as the game grew closer and closer, he suddenly slipped off the wagon and became a chain-smoking maniac: "All week, Buges had been urging us to keep our composure, stay in control, and then by the third quarter, he's holding up both middle fingers, pointing them across the sideline and telling (Cowboys defensive coach Ernie) Stautner, 'F--- you!!!!!' He was more out of control than anybody!"
Walker remembers a crucial short-yardage play when Grimm told Riggins, Just bring this play right over my ass. Hit me from behind -- aim for right between the numbers on my jersey. I'll do the rest. So Riggo took the handoff, followed instructions and nailed Grimm so hard that they both went flying, ending up helmet to helmet right on top of one another. Of course, they got the yards they needed, but Grimm was seeing stars. And Riggins was smiling at him. "Bullseye," he told Grimm. "Right between the numbers."
Speaking of White, he was renowned for buying bubble wrap, taping it real tight around his arms, then wacking people in the head with his juiced-up forearms. He wasn't the only one who tried to cheat against the Hogs. Other defensive players covered their jerseys in silicone, making it impossible to hold their jerseys. One Colts player even taped thumbtacks to his fingers, then clawed holes into Grimm's arms for an entire quarter before the 'Skins realized what was going on. Grimm kept dabbing the blood off his arms and saying, "Man, this guy has long fingernails!"
As for the Hogs, they prided themselves in playing (relatively) clean and avoiding trash-talking ... except for May, who couldn't help himself. "I had, like, an on/off switch," he says. "When it was on, all hell broke loose." May motivated himself by talking to other players ("Never to his own guy though," joked Jacoby), even feuding with the imposing White during the early-'80s -- which didn't make Grimm happy since he was the one usually stuck blocking White. So when May started yapping at White, Grimm would reprimand him, and they'd start yelling at each other in the huddle. The Hogs argued with one another all the time on the field, which they believed was the sign of a close-knit, friendly team that wasn't afraid to communicate. As Starke said, "Successful football is not about talent, it's about the relationships between men. It's like war."
And everyone agreed with him. These guys were genuinely friends, even buddies; that's why they worked together so well. During practice weeks, the Hogs hung out in a shed behind the practice facility, drank beer, played cards, watched TV and made fun of one another, calling it "The 5 O'Clock Club" (the only non-lineman they allowed was Riggins, who probably would have set the place on fire if they didn't let him in). Joe Theismann applied for Hog membership, but got turned down. "No quarterbacks," sneered Starke. And everyone else left them alone.
And then there were the pranks. They picked on long-time kicker Mark Moseley all the time, mainly because he kept a hair dryer and cologne in his locker. After one muddy practice in the rain, the team was feeling a little cranky, so the Hogs loosened the mood by grabbing Moseley, carrying him back out onto the field and dragging him through the mud in his underwear. And that's one of the few Moseley-related pranks I can actually print.
Another whipping boy was Dexter Manley, the butt end of about 345,923 pranks during his Redskins career. The Hogs would call his room and pretend they were reporters from various newspapers -- "This is Tom Smith from the Milwaukee Gazette ... this is Lou Phillips from the Chicago Tribune" -- and stage mock interviews with Manley, sometimes for 25-30 minutes (as the questions became more and more outrageous) before he finally caught on. Their favorite Manley ploy was to pretend they were newspaper photographers, then ask Manley to get dressed up for a night-time photo shoot and meet the fake photographer in some fictitious hotel room. "He fell for that one every time," laughed Walker.
Nobody was funnier than Riggins, though. His pregame ritual went as follows: A pregame enema, followed by a B-12 shot. Yikes. Unfortunately, Riggins loathed getting shots, so the players could hear him howling in pain in the locker room before every game ("That's when we knew it was game time," said May). The players revered Riggins; nobody had ever met anyone quite like him. Just the mere mention of his name prompted four or five quick anecdotes. Remember the time Riggo hitchhiked to the NFC Championship Game and the coaches inadvertently picked him up? Remember the time Riggo pulled five chairs together, stretched out on them and took a nap during a team meeting? Remember the time Riggo retired and lived in a pup tent on the Potomac River for an entire winter?
Maybe the defining Riggo story: During one team meeting, the players heard a strange noise from inside the locker room, like the sound you hear when it just starts to pour rain. They glanced in the back and there was a groggy Riggins, lying on his back, his pants pulled down, peeing straight into the air all over himself. Gibbs and the poor coaching staff always looked the other way with Riggo, as long as he was coherent on Sundays, but this seemed a little much ... and yet the coaching staff never did anything. "They always looked the other way with him," said May. "It just wasn't Gibbs's nature to constantly battle with a player like that."
"LT could do it all," added Warren. "And if you pissed him off, forget it."
For some reason, LT sparked a round of goofy football stories. Jacoby told one about a pigpile for a fumble that ended with the sentence, "It's amazing what a guy will do when you're holding his family jewels in your hands." Starke told one that involved Dirty Biggs threatening to castrate Giants rookie Doug Kotar. Warren told a story that ended with this exchange:
Walker: "But you were in it!"
Then we were talking about RFK. Starke remembered the time in '76 when Billy Kilmer was so hyped up during overtime of a Monday Night Football game against the Cowboys that he accidentally started calling plays from offenses in San Fran and New Orleans (his previous teams) ... but he was so wired that everyone was afraid to tell him. So Kilmer kept calling the plays and the O-line ad-libbed blocking assignments and receivers made up their own routes. Somehow, they ended up winning the game on a QB sneak. "And we never ran QB sneaks," Starke added. "That was one of my favorite games."
Jacoby remembered an Atlanta game when RFK handed out free seat cushions ... which inevitably got hurled onto the field by happy fans during a blowout victory ("You looked up and the seat cushions were flying from the sky from every direction"). Starke loved a regular-season rematch against the Cowboys in '83, when Danny White audibled out of a no-play (when an offense tries to fake the defense offside on fourth down but never plans on calling a play), the Cowboys didn't get the first down, and the normally placid Tom Landry whipped his hat to the ground ("It was worth it just seeing him yank that hat off," Starke giggled). Walker had a soft spot for a comeback victory over the Raiders in '83, when the 'Skins made up a 15-point deficit and sent RFK into a frenzy.
"This place was the nearest thing you could get to a college atmosphere," Starke said. "Look at the field. Look how close the seats are." All of them believed that it gave the 'Skins an enormous psychological advantage, especially when visiting teams would emerge from the tunnel and come out to 60,000 screaming fans. "And they could hear the fans from the locker room," maintained Jacoby. "It was that loud. Then they'd have to walk through that long, dark tunnel to get to the field. That definitely helped us."
None of them like FedEx Field, the new home of the Redskins, a typically generic state-of-the-art football stadium. Current 'Skins owner Daniel Snyder proved even less popular with the group, given that he's gone out of his way to avoid embracing the tradition of the Gibbs Era ("He's never even offered me a ticket to a game" said Starke).
As they discussed Snyder and RFK, it suddenly dawned on me that two old-time dynamics were coming into play:
Now we were eating lunch -- just me, May, Jacoby and Starke (Walker and Warren couldn't stay) -- at Alpine's Ristorante in Arlington. As I was mulling over this "Man, sports sucks now" stuff and having an epiphany, the Snyder conversation gave way to an extended discussion about Washington's legendary billionaire owner Jack Kent Cooke (by all accounts, a character straight out of the old TV show "Dynasty"). "He was so mean, he never even had anyone to eat with, much less be friends with," Starke said. "Just a mean, vindictive, evil person. If you played for the Redskins, he loved you. If you ever tried to cross him, he'd go out of his way to screw you."
Cooke was the kind of guy who fired an employee just because they accidentally parked in his parking space. And as the Hogs talked about him, that triggered an extended tale about how most of the Redskins received little performance bonuses ($100 for a sack, $100 for 100 yards rushing, etc.) except for the offensive lineman (whose contributions were much more difficult to quantify). Feeling a little underappreciated -- mainly because, as Starke said, "Dexter Manley would take 90 percent of the game off, fall into a sack and suddenly make himself $100" -- they decided to treat themselves to a lavish champagne/steak/lobster dinner at the Palm (a chic restaurant in D.C.). Of course, Starke made the mistake of signing Cooke's name to the check, nearly getting himself, Gibbs and Bugel fired in the process.
But that's not even the point. Starke remembered how the booze was flowing at the Palm, how the Hogs started singing a generic, rah-rah, "Here's to Brother so-and-so ..." song, fitting the song to different players ("Here's to Brother Mark, Here's to Brother George...") and carrying on like college kids. And as Starke was singing the song again, Jacoby and May joined in, and suddenly all three of them were singing in the back of Alpine's Ristorante together. One of those impromptu, nostalgic moments that reminded me why I was there in the first place.
And that's what I took away from this whole day. These guys were buddies. They played together, captured three championships together, made some money together, even started a little business together (Super Hogs, Inc.) and turned themselves into a small-scale cottage industry. And they still have the rings, and some of the money, and a little of the notoriety ... but their friendships endure over everything else. More importantly, so do the memories. Like a little treasure chest. You just have to open it every once in a while.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. His final column from D.C. will be posted Friday.