In Frostburg, residents get taste of life without Redskins training camp

As NFL team trains in Va., university holds cookout

July 23, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

FROSTBURG -- Like a jilted lover who dries her tears and plants a determined smile on her face, this feisty Western Maryland town and its university threw a party yesterday to tell the world they're going to be just fine, thank you very much, without the Redskins.

Furious at the way the team's new owner moved the 'Skins summer training camp to Virginia without so much as saying thanks and goodbye, Frostburg State University officials held a picnic just as they did for the Redskins for each of the five years they practiced on campus. They deliberately timed their "Jack Kent Cooke-out" - named in honor of the late former owner who brought the camp here in 1995 - for the first weekend of the team's new camp in Loudoun County.

"We wanted people to know Western Maryland is a place of true grit," declared Catherine R. Gira, the university president, to a lively crowd of 200 gathered on the sunny campus. "We don't sit around licking our wounds."

And then the crowd tucked into some of the food named on a tongue-in-cheek menu: "(S)cornbread and Butter," "Fan-friendly Fruit Salad (No sour grapes)," and "Iced Tea (Not bitter. Really, it's not!)"

The folks working the barbecue pit wore aprons that read "Hail to the Redskins," but "Redskins" was crossed out and "Bobcats," the Frostburg State mascot nickname, was substituted. Among the winners when the aprons were raffled off was Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., the Democratic delegate from neighboring Cumberland who helped engineer the deal that brought the Redskins' camp from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., to Frostburg five years ago.

A state study last year estimated that the Redskins' month-long presence brought $2.9 million to the Western Maryland town, as fans flocked to Main Street restaurants and bars after catching an up-close practice or scrimmage. But Taylor said the Redskins' presence brought much more than money to a place that is working to overcome a rust belt history of closed manufacturing plants.

"I think it was symbolically very important," Taylor said. "It did wonders for the community's morale."

After word leaked last year that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was considering breaking the team's 10-year contract with Frostburg State and moving to Northern Virginia, local officials pleaded with Snyder to reconsider. Gira, a Shakespeare scholar, sent Snyder a videotape of highlights of the camps and a letter proposing a gala return in 2000 to rival the train ride and Main Street parade that had welcomed the team in 1995.

The reply? "Silence," she said.

On Valentine's Day, Frostburg Mayor John Bambacus, who had welcomed the team's arrival as "the most significant thing to occur in Frostburg in 100 years," sent the owner a box of chocolates to symbolize the community's romance with the 'Skins. He didn't even get a thank-you note.

Taylor, too, tried to get an audience. "I got nowhere," he said.

Finally, just 12 hours before the Redskins called a news conference in late May to announce their move to the Loudoun County complex, Gira got a two-sentence letter from a team lawyer saying that the relationship was over. Now the state attorney general's office is negotiating a settlement in which the franchise is expected to pay to get out of the final five years of its $331,000-a-year contract with Frostburg State.

Officials say the university, which expects the largest freshman class ever to enroll this fall, will not suffer much from the economic impact. New basketball and dance camps are making up some of the slack. But in the competitive world of higher education, it will be hard to match the publicity value of the daily television coverage Washington and Baltimore stations gave the 'Skins camp.

"Every night it was live from Frostburg," said Gary Horowitz, vice president for university advancement.

In town, business owners were keeping their upper lips stiff, although they noted that the summer training camp was a nice boost for the summer weeks when most of the university's 5,000 students are not around.

"We had the `Hog Dog' and the `TD Burger' and we had the whole place decked out in burgundy and gold," recalled George Pappas, 49, whose family has operated the Princess Restaurant on Main Street for 61 years. Now that Snyder has snatched away the team, he says, "I'm thinking of coming up with a weasel stew."

Pappas rolled his eyes at the news that fans must pay $10 to park and $10 more to get in to the Loudoun County practice sessions. At Frostburg, parking was never more than $3 and admission was free.

The Hampton Inn on the outskirts of town, which last year at this time might have had half the rooms occupied by Redskins fans and press, was full last night even without the team. Sandy Andrews, 56, the executive housekeeper, said the place doesn't lack for business but misses the fun.

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