Night Terrors and Day Drinking: The Self Inflicted Trauma of Being a DC Sports Fan Part 1
Humans have a terrible penchant for having to make sense of things, and heartbreaking sports loses are no different. That Nationals latest ouster from the playoffs is a familiar refrain. Whether it is the Capitals being shutdown by Jaroslav Halak, Pete Kozma with a game winning hit, LeBron James whispering in Gilbert Arenas’ ear, or RGIII laying motionless and broken on the turf DC has had it’s share of heartbreak and we’ve all told stories to make sense of things. Humanity has to make sense of things. We need stories. We can’t accept the fact that the world is really just a collection of random events that happen for no rhyme or reason and sports are no different. Whatever the story you choose to believe that DC is a cursed sports town and nothing will ever go right or that the teams collectively lack fortitude and are all choking dogs understand you’re telling yourself a story to make sense of a collection of events that otherwise makes no sense.
My story of DC sports misery starts with Richie Petitbon. And understand when I say my story I mean it to be a story. David Lynch is one of my favorite directors and in his movie Lost Highway one of his characters says he doesn’t like video cameras because, “I choose to remember things in my own way.” It’s a great line from a decent movie and sums up how I feel. What I say may not be factually true but it is how I remember the events taking place. It’s the story I tell myself. Memory is a funny thing. It is one of the most real and personal things we have and yet completely unreliable. Think about how many documentaries exist on how eye witness accounts can be flawed. We can’t even trust what we see with our own eyes and yet this is how we gather information to build our personal reality.
As I said my story begins with Richie Petitbon. For most of my life Petitbon wasn’t the coach of the Washington Redskins. He was an owner of a restaurant that outlasted his tenor in town. I remember driving past the Oakton location and wondering why it still existed. Petitbon had been long gone by that time and it felt like it took forever for Petitbon’s to become a Famous Dave’s BBQ, but it finally did and his last vestige of existence was wiped from the DC conscience. My memories of that 4-12 season are sparse and come in waves through the voices of Sonny, Sam, and Frank. In many ways Sonny, Sam, and Frank were the voices of my childhood and after the Joe Gibbs years they were used to winning. So the season put together by Petitbon came as a shock, and he didn’t get a second season.
Things were turned over to Norv Turner and that lasted way longer than it should have. As with most memories of childhood I remember one particular moment more than others and why this moment stands out I have no idea. I was in the backseat of the family car and we were driving home from trying a new restaurant in Tyson’s Corner or Falls Church or somewhere in Northern Virginia. The Redskins were losing to the Cowboys but were attempting to come back. I can’t give an exact year to this memory but it must have been after 1995, because of the players involved, so Petitbon had served his term as Redskins coach and Norv Turner was now in charge. The play in question was an onside kick to help complete a comeback. The problem was the Redskins failed to kick it far enough on their first attempt and the ball was moved back a certain number of yards and they got to try again but this time they kicked it into the waiting arms of Deion Sanders who returned it for a Cowboys touchdown. Sonny, Sam, and Frank discussed how typical that was for that Redskins season and my father shut off the radio in frustration.
During my life my father would shut off sporting events in frustration many times. One instance caused a large disturbance between my parents. My mother’s brother and his wife were visiting and Virginia Tech was playing Syracuse. Donavon McNabb was the quarterback at Syracuse and Virginia Tech had the game won but in classic Virginia Tech fashion they went into the prevent defense and McNabb marched Syracuse down the field and scored the go ahead touchdown on a Hail Mary pass. If this sounds familiar it’s because Matt Ryan of Boston College would do the same thing years later. My father shut off the TV and instantly my mother got after him since her brother and sister in law were watching it as well. The cable box we had at the time turned the TV automatically back to channel one and my father couldn’t get back to the game before it was over. Virginia Tech didn’t pull off a miracle and had indeed lost the game on McNabb’s Hail Mary.
Like a bad dream Donovan McNabb would haunt my sports fandom until he left the Redskins after the 2010 season. It was his final insult. He beat Tech, then went to the Eagles and ran roughshod over the Washington Redskins until he finally became a Redskin in 2010 and just wasn’t good anymore. He brought a borderline Hall of Fame career to a sad end by playing his worse for a division rival, but all that is years in the future from where we currently are in my sports fandom. It’s still the mid-90’s and I’m about to be drawn in by one of the best teams this city has ever seen.
Again I can’t tell you the exact year but I remember the moment. It was probably the same year that the Redskins signed “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield. By this time I’d already lost much of my Redskins fandom. Jack Kent Cooke was too busy growing old and having wives deported to care about the team anymore. I was a sophomore in High School and I know that because I measure my high school life by where I hung out with my friends in the morning. Lake Braddock Secondary School is a two story building housing middle and high school. The school was built in the 70’s as an experimental open concept school. It was meant to be a school without walls. Each grade had it’s own pod with odd years upstairs and even years downstairs and as you progressed through you moved from the left end of the building to the right. Moving left to right across your radio dial as Frank Herzog would have said.
My sophomore year we hung out on the lower level outside the classroom of an angry, bearded, obese math teacher. A couple years later I’d have him for an elective math class I would drop because he got upset at me when I was working through some math problems with my seat partner. He was one of the old fashioned teacher that viewed any talking in class us unproductive and therefore it was bad to attempt to share knowledge with a partner to learn more. The only other class I would ever drop in my academic career would be for much the same reason when I learned the only correct answers on the test were word for word what was in the text book and not even paraphrasing would be allowed. Now that I’ve given you some insight into this gentleman’s personality I’m certain you can predict his reaction to a bunch of tenth graders hanging outside his classroom. Everyday he demanded that we lower our voices and everyday he was reminded that we were in a common area before the bell rang. I think he even complained to security once and was told he was in the wrong, and he was one of those authority figures that figured he was in the right simply because he was an authority figure.
I can’t remember if this was early are late in the school year. As you know the Redskins are a year round topic of conversation. I think it had to be early in the year because the talk was how they were going to do in the upcoming season and I recall that it was close at hand. An occasional acquaintance was hanging out with us that morning and was excited about the Redskins and I asked him what I’ve asked many since then, “Why?”
He told me, “Things are going to be different this year. They’ve got Dana Stubblefield and ‘Big Daddy’ Dan Wilkinson. The defense is going to be shutdown.”
I bought in. That is the constant mistake of us DC sports fans. It doesn’t take much for us to get our hopes up. I let myself get my hopes up because of “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield. It didn’t take long for my friend to be proven wrong and the Redskins to limp along through another awful season, but that wasn’t the sport that drew me in around that time.