Disengaged District: A History of D.C. Sports

Disengaged District: A History of D.C. Sports

By:
03/18/2016

Ed Cole remembers January 30, 1983. He remembers grocery stores in his suburb closing early. He remembers sitting with his in-laws around a television. He remembers excitedly thrusting his fist into the air, accidentally punching the ceiling, and wiping the blood off his hands. On January 30, 1983, the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl for the first time.

In moments like these, sports franchises can do more than just reflect the images of their cities. They remake the cities themselves, and shape the outlooks of the people who call those cities home.

“Teams can be great unifiers. That was definitely true of the Redskins in their heyday. They were a great unifying force because people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, different socioeconomic backgrounds, all followed the team with a certain level of intensity and it was something that you could talk about with anybody,” said Cole. ”Just in your daily life, you go to the grocery store and you start up a conversation with whomever. You could talk to anybody about it.”

Cole was born in 1953 in Prince George’s County, Maryland and now lives in Arlington, Virginia. Aside from a two-year stint in Philadelphia, he has lived in the Washington, D.C. area for his entire life. Growing up, Cole supported the Redskins and the city’s baseball team at the time, the Washington Senators. During Cole’s formative years, both teams were, in his words, “really bad.” But, that didn’t stop him from watching baseball and football religiously.

“I think in the 1940s, the team had been really good,” said Cole. “My dad was a season ticket holder for the Redskins and had been for many years. He could remember when the team was really good. But things go in cycles and waves and in those early 60s especially, they were really bad.”

Cole remembers correctly. The Redskins had only one winning season during the 1960s. In 1969, when Vince Lombardi left the Green Bay Packers to coach in Washington, the team went 7-5-2. Lombardi died of cancer before the beginning of the 1970-71 season, but his involvement seemed to breathe new life into the formerly fading franchise. “Around 1970 when Vince Lombardi became the coach, the team and the city became completely reenergized. And that was fun,” said Cole.

The Senators struggled during the 1960s as well. “The baseball team was kind of pathetic as competitors and never had good seasons,” Cole said. “Nevertheless, there were a couple of individual players who were good, like Frank Howard, and as kids we used to get excited when he would hit home runs.”

The Senators franchise that had been in Washington since 1901 left town after the 1960 season to become the Minnesota Twins. They were replaced the next season by an expansion team that would remain in Washington until the end of the 1971 season before leaving for Arlington, Texas and becoming the Texas Rangers.

With the departure of the Senators and no existing basketball or hockey franchises in Washington, the Redskins remained as the only major sports franchise in the city. Conveniently for Cole, the team began succeeding during the 1970s after hiring former Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen. Allen, who served as the team’s coach and controlled personnel management, ran the team by the motto, “the future is now.” Allen aimed to improve the Redskins by trading draft picks for veteran players, and his strategy was largely successful. The team reached the Super Bowl in 1973, losing to that season’s Miami Dolphins—the only undefeated team in NFL history.

They made it to the Super Bowl. They didn’t win under him, but it was thrilling to see your team reach that ultimate game,” said Cole. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe it.’ The team we had watched struggle all those years is now in the championship game of the whole league. That was validating for the city.” The Redskins managed to maintain a winning record for much of the next decade, but didn’t reach the Super Bowl again until 1983.

Many happenings much more consequential than the winning and losing of games occur in Washington, D.C. every day. Yet, sports, functionally meaningless in the lives of many, can change the outlook of a town. For many years, the residents of the nation’s capital had no team which they could proudly support. But now that their teams had reached the pinnacle of their leagues, fans didn’t have to struggle to believe that a championship was around the corner.

***

Rich Micheli remembers January 30, 1983, too. He was only 13 at the time, but as the son of season ticket holders, he had followed the Redskins for years before their triumph. Micheli is 45 now and runs his family’s restaurant in the D.C. Area, where he’s been his entire life. 32 years later, the importance of seeing the Redskins win the Super Bowl is not lost on the long-time fan.

“It was nuts. It was upside down. I was at all those home games … The point is, I was active in the fandom of the team and it was insane,” he said.

The next year, the Redskins earned an NFL-best 14-2 record and reached the Super Bowl again. By now, the mentality surrounding the team, at least for Micheli, had changed.

“I think the very next year, they played Oakland. I didn’t even watch that Super Bowl …   We were travelling so I didn’t actually get to watch the game live. For me, it was a foregone conclusion that they were going to win. But they ended up losing,” he said. “I think that year the Redskins scored the most points in the league. They set a record for points scored and the defense was great … At that point you thought there was going to be a Super Bowl every year. It was like the feeling they must have in New England now.”

In the decade following their first Super Bowl, the team, under coach Joe Gibbs, stood as one of the NFL’s model franchises. The Redskins would win two more Super Bowls and have only one losing season. Washington was buzzing about the Redskins.

During the Redskins’ two decades of dominance between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, they weren’t alone. The Washington Bullets won four conference titles during the 1970s and captured an NBA Title in 1978.

“The Bullets won a championship in 1978, and we were excited for the Bullets, and I do know that the next season we went to a few Bullets games because of that,” said Micheli. “There was excitement. This is a sports town.”

“For so long, the two major sports teams associated with Washington, D.C. … the teams struggled so badly that you just didn’t know anything different. You think, ‘Oh, this is just the way it is supposed to be. We’re just not that good.’ And it doesn’t really connect to the city, and yet, somehow, people make the connection,” said Cole. “And I think as a kid especially, you make that connection … you identify a city’s stature with the performance of its teams. It’s sort of a childish way to look at it and, of course, I was a kid at the time, but I think, honestly, there’s some truth to that with adults across the country, that a city’s stature is connected to the performance of its teams.”

***

Ben Constine and Joshua Baquedano don’t remember January 30, 1983. They don’t remember the Bullets’ championship in 1978. They don’t remember the Redskins’ Super Bowl wins in 1988 or 1992, either. Both Constine and Baquedano were born in 1993, more than a year after the Redskins’ last Super Bowl win, which is also the city’s last championship in a major sport.

Constine’s first memories of Washington sports are from September 2001 when Michael Jordan announced that he would be coming out of retirement to play two seasons with the Wizards. Jordan’s comeback was a promotional success for the team, capturing the interest of many fans and though Jordan was far removed from his prime, he averaged over 20 points per game during his two seasons in Washington. Still, the Wizards, far from contending for a title, missed the playoffs in both of Jordan’s seasons with the team.

The Wizards and the Redskins both struggled during the early 2000s. But the emergence of Wizards star point guard Gilbert Arenas reenergized the team in 2004. As one of the NBA’s top scorers, Arenas led the team to four consecutive playoff appearances from 2005 to 2008. Though the team only won one series, against Chicago in the 2005 playoffs, Arenas was one of the league’s most eccentric personalities, known for hitting game-winning shots and giving himself nicknames, “Agent Zero,” and “Hibachi,” among others.

“I loved that. Unless [John] Wall turns into some incredible player and we win championship after championship, I don’t think any team is gonna be stronger in my memory, than that three or four year Gil, Caron [Butler], [Antawn] Jamison stretch. I just loved that team. Gilbert is still my favorite Wizards player. The way he played…the confidence, the arrogance…just everything about him,” said Constine.

“I remember 2007, I think, against Utah, when he jacked a shot at the buzzer from half court, and just turned around as the shot went in. I still remember that exact play. I remember the jersey Utah was wearing. They were wearing their horrible powder blue jerseys.”

Yet, the Wizards’ glory during the Arenas years was relative and short-lived. In each of the next three seasons, the Wizards would lose to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. Arenas’ career was derailed by injuries and off-court incidents and the Wizards dropped to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

“It was fun that the most entertaining player in the league, it seemed, was playing in Washington. It was perfect because it was the beginning of the era of following sports on the internet and he had a cool blog on NBA.com that I remember reading when I was in middle school,” said Baquedano. “He would share funny stories on this blog and it turned out that he was a crazy person, obviously, but we were happy that he was scoring points and that the team finally made the playoffs. There was that streak where he hit three or four buzzer beaters in a few weeks, but the fact that that’s the most exciting thing that happened is pretty sad, right?”

The Redskins and the Washington Nationals, which came to Washington in 2005, had struggled during these years as well. The Capitals found regular season success after drafting winger Alexander Ovechkin, who became the first athlete from a major professional Washington sports team to win an MVP since Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann in 1983, but never advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As the decade came to an end, excitement for Washington sports was largely in decline.

“You always felt like you would watch the Redskins game during the day and it would be bad football, maybe they would win, and then on Sunday or Monday night you’ll watch the Colts play the Patriots and that was the real big leagues,” said Baquedano. “There has always been such a gulf in quality between the teams that we rooted for and the teams that actually won.”

Now, all four of Washington’s four major sports franchises have the potential to make the playoffs each year, but very few would call any of the teams legitimate title contenders. The Nationals have had the most promise. They have the reigning National League MVP in 23 year-old Bryce Harper along with a roster full of top flight talent. In recent years, the team has often been the odds favorite to win the World Series in March. But in the past four years, the team has failed to even reach the NLCS, twice losing in the NLDS, and twice missing the playoffs altogether. No team from Washington has even reached a conference finals since the Capitals won the Eastern Conference Playoffs in 1998.

“Last year, I thought it was possible that we could make the Finals, but I’ve never thought the Wizards could win a championship in my lifetime. Last year there was a small window where we were winning the series against the Hawks and the Cavs had started their series slowly. But, it was the same thing as ten years earlier,” Baquedano said when asked if he has ever believed that one of his teams could win a championship. “We were just trying to talk ourselves into believing that we could beat LeBron in a playoff series even though we know that we can’t do that.”

Constine gave a shorter response to the same question.

“Never. A championship has never been anything close to real.”

***

There’s a certain resignation in the way that Constine and Baquedano speak about their teams. The excitement that you hear in Cole and Micheli’s recollections of championship seasons is completely absent. Though the disappointment of the past two decades has been real for both the young and the old, it seems that the successes of the past have instilled an unbreakable optimism in those who have experienced victory firsthand.

For the twenty-somethings in the D.C. area, “it” has never happened. Super Bowls and NBA Finals have been like fictitious events. But even as a generation of fans grows more disillusioned with their teams each year, a single taste of victory could change the way that they view sports.

“It’s very satisfying to see your team win it all. Looking back to those younger years, I thought, ‘Oh, wow, wouldn’t it be great if our team, one day, could win it all,’ but you think that it’s never going to happen,” said Cole. “Then, eventually it does happen. When you’ve been following a team and you feel connected and engaged with the whole process, you think that if it never happens again, at least it happened once.”

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Chris Almeida Chris Almeida was an editor for The Georgetown Voice and graduated in 2016.


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