Redskins Park, 3:59 a.m.
"You guys are nuts," Joe Gibbs was saying to the 30 or so Redskins fans gathered outside Redskins Park at 3:59 a.m. "You guys are crazy."
And yet a few minutes later, there was the Hall of Fame coach, standing in the cold, posing with two of those fans, who happened to be holding a pineapple they had found earlier in the morning outside a home in Alexandria, and who were now asking Gibbs how they could deliver said pineapple to Chris Cooley.
"Um, I don't know," Gibbs said, as the pineapple was handed off to a security guard. "I think he's gone."
"Trying to figure out who's crazy enough to come out here?" Scott Mandir asked me as I scribbled in my notebook.
"Yup," I said, "and that would be you."
"Whatever," he said and laughed.
It's an awful cliche to play amateur sociologist, nattering on about individuals seeking a group identity in this atomized age. Or the one about sport as religion, about its secular glow around which life can be organized. Or the one about these diehards being the real core Redskins, the ones who will never wear other colors or leave for bigger bucks.
Yeah, they're all cliches. Whatever. They're a heckuva lot more interesting than the one-game-at-a-time just-kept-fighting alternatives. Which is why, when I pulled up to the Park at 2:57 a.m.--more than an hour before the team was scheduled to arrive home from Minnesota--and saw that four cars and six people had already beaten me there, that the propane heater was already on and the conversation had already turned to "how 'bout our line today?" and "what a brilliant challenge," I wasn't sorry I had missed my flight to Minneapolis. (And I hope you enjoy that extra $50 I paid for a confirmed seat on the next plane out, which ended up landing 14 minutes before the game ended, Bad Airline That Will Not Be Named.)
"Good morning everyone!" said Chris Lopez, one of the organizers, when he arrived at 3:06. Led by Chris and his wife Christie, fans have been gathering at the Park for sendoffs and welcome homes for three seasons; as few as four or six depending on the arrival time and the result and the weather, as many as hundreds after the playoff loss to Seattle. Sandy Zier-Teitler drove down from Ellicott City last night; she had to be at work by 10 a.m. Someone else was opening a Sears store at 8 and planned not to sleep at all.
There was even an Eagles fan, Matt Dabson, who was there sort of for the heck of it and kept telling everyone how "his boys" had delivered them an early Christmas present. Why were we all waiting in a wet, muddy, dark field in the middle of the night, nourished only by the blessed coffee and donut holes and hot chocolate some wise souls had brought?
"What do you mean 'Why?' " Chris Lopez said. "Why not?"
The security guard came down to usher us up through the gate and to the front door around 3:40; "please refrain from, like, touching any cars, because I do see some new faces," he said. The buses lumbered into the driveway around 3:57, and we were told to stand up on the grass as the cheering began. Then the players embarked, and the fans whooped, and Bubba Tyer shouted "How 'bout them Redskins," and everyone chanted "We Want Dallas," and Joe Gibbs came over to thank those fans he's always talking about in his press conferences.
"You guys are nuts, coming out here," he said. "We've got hats, if anybody doesn't have one. We've kinda given a bunch of stuff away. We weren't prepared for you guys coming out tonight. Hey, I want to say thanks, thank y'all a lot."
"THANK YOU!!!!" everyone shouted.
"If anybody has anything else you want signed, I'll sign it," Gibbs said. "Thank y'all, thanks again guys, we appreciate it a lot."
Sure, some people think it's weird, but in a gazillion-dollar, 90,000-fan-stadium, buy-our-beer-and-burgers-and-official-lawn-ornaments-and-official-garden-rake sport, there was something very small-town- high school about the whole event, something that made this seem less like a corporation and more like a community (minus the orders not to touch the cars or stand on the pavement, I guess).
You're wondering about the pineapple, right? Like I said, some fans found it in Alexandria. I figured it was a display of Southern hospitality; they figured it was a sign.
"We saw it and we thought of Chris Cooley," Frank Doran told me, referring to the Pro Bowl. "What better reason to give someone a pineapple?"
"People have pumpkins outside their houses; why not pineapples?" asked Dan Pearson. "Pumpkins sound stupid in December. Pineapples are where it's at. Especially when you're going to Hawaii."
So here they were, just after 4 in the morning, explaining to Joe Gibbs that Cooley had won their "Pineapple Player of the Week" award. Soon, Pete Kendall came by to say thanks and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Everyone thanked everyone else again. At 4:06, we began to walk back to our cars. The two girls next to me had squealed when Gibbs appeared, and the giddiness was still bubbling over when we left.
"Totally worth it; who would not do this?" 19-year-old Katie Richter was saying to her friend. I asked why.
"Cuz the Redskins are amazing, and if you're a fan you should do anything for them," she said. "Clearly."
I asked whether she ever thought this might be a bit crazy.
"Hell no," her friend said. "Not at all," Katie agreed. "Nothing's too crazy as far as the Redskins are concerned."
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