RFK approaches the end zone Stadium: The Washington Redskins will play their last game Sunday in storied Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

December 20, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- To some, it was the most highly prized ticket in the nation's capital -- more coveted than a seat at a White House state dinner, more enviable than a ticket to an embassy gala.

It was a seat at the home of the Washington Redskins, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, a Washington football institution seemingly as permanent as the Capitol itself.

Not anymore. Like so many other longtime city dwellers, the Redskins are moving to the suburbs. This Sunday, in the last Redskins game ever at RFK, this year's team won't have any playoff hopes at stake -- just another piece of its history and a share of this city's identity.

"I've got bits of flesh and blood all over that stadium," said George Starke, once a pillar of the Redskins offensive line. "And now, that era is coming to an end, and a little magic is going to get lost. I just think it's sad."

True, the stadium will still stand, a venue for soccer, rock concerts and maybe some college football. But the Redskins gave RFK national stature.

The district's loss is Maryland's gain. The arena under construction in Raljon -- a slice of land in Prince George's County named for Redskins' owner Jack Kent Cooke's sons, Ralph and John -- is designed as a profit-maker. It will feature 78,600 seats (RFK has 56,860). It will include 280 luxury boxes, rented for up to $159,000 a year, and 15,000 club seats costing up to $2,000 per seat per season.

Not that urban areas have given up. Cities are adopting similar high-cost structures to keep or lure pro teams.

A modern arena with executive suites is envisioned for the MCI Center in downtown Washington, where the Bullets and Capitals will move from Landover next fall. Meanwhile, the Ravens' new stadium in Baltimore, to open in 1998, plans club seats for wealthier fans.

All those white-collar niceties and corporate-driven perks were absent from RFK, whose bare-bones frame lacked pricey company seats and whose thick concrete ramps made it look less like a modern high-gloss sports mecca than a monument to sterile 1960s urban architecture.

But in its home near the Capitol, the Redskins' stadium offered a quintessential Washington tableau -- monuments regularly framed by TV cameras, a bundled-up Dan Quayle or George Will ensconced in the owner's box and movers and shakers from both political parties packed in the stands, improbably unified as they called for blood on the field.

With the smallest seating capacity among National Football League stadiums, RFK created a mood that could be surprisingly intimate for a sport as bruising as football. But that coziness, even as it knitted RFK into the hearts of Washingtonians, finally doomed the stadium.

The design was flawed, with seats so close to the field that cameras and sideline crews blocked views and left fans standing for much of the game. Hungry for seats, 50,000 people remain on a waiting list for season tickets that has grown steadily. Even when the Redskins made use of 10,000 portable seats, they couldn't generate the profits desired by the front office.

Still, RFK was small enough that players could recognize season-ticket holders, and fans could watch quarterback Sonny Jurgensen draw plays in the dirt with his finger. With the crowd's roar trapped in the small bowl, opposing quarterbacks' calls were drowned out, and the fans won the title of "the 12th man" on the Redskins. The old stadium had its uses -- the fans could literally make RFK shake by jumping on the movable metal scaffolding that held many seats.

"I don't think they'll ever be able to re-create that atmosphere," said Chuck Gallagher, who is 39 and has been sitting in the same spot -- Section 416, Row 9, Seat 3 -- since he was 7. "You're so close to the players that you feel as if you know them."

John Riggins. Sam Huff. Joe Theismann. Larry Brown. Art Monk. Darrell Green. Ricky Sanders. Fans cannot talk about the stadium without recalling their favorite heroes. And players cannot talk about their favorite games without remembering RFK.

"I just remember coming out of that tunnel, that dugout, and all of a sudden you could hear the crowd roar," said Brig Owens, a Redskins defensive back from 1966 through 1977. "That was every game, that roar. Everyone would stand and cheer. And if you reached up, they could touch you."

For opposing players, it was one of the most feared enemy territories.

Visiting teams took to wearing ear plugs to drown out noise when they got close to scoring. The arch-rival Dallas Cowboys had to be assigned extra security. Management had to put planks over the top of the visitors' tunnel because fans were close enough to hurl objects.

"It's like going into a hell hole when you play there," Drew Pearson, a former Cowboy wide receiver, said in 1981.

"I hated that sign in RFK stadium that said 'Roger Who?' " said Roger Staubach, the Cowboys' former star quarterback. "Those guys had an atmosphere in that stadium that seemed to be very favorable to the Redskins. I hated that sign."

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