April 8, 2008

Beyond Skin Deep

[Reprinted from Extremeskins.com, 4/04]

Over the past few years, I’ve found myself saying—almost apologetically at times—that my love affair with the Washington Redskins is my only true remaining vice.

Comfortably into my forties, my station in life today is husband/father, and as such (amusingly enough, given this all began with an "I do") I’ve come to a place where it’s not a stretch to see myself aptly defined by a list of dont's. I don’t chase skirts anymore; don’t smoke; don’t drink to excess; don’t drive too fast; don’t spend every Saturday on the golf course then return home to a cold ale and long nap ... don’t even disappear for the proverbial Lost Weekend every year with the guys just to talk about all that wondrous stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. If what I’ve "given up" is a couple of big nights on the town, what I’ve gained in return is a lifetime in the sun. I’ve made my Life Choices with eyes wide open, and am sure to my very core that, for me, they were the right ones.

However ... for a number of reasons, I have also decided the time has come to summon what Neanderthal remaineth in me, stand my ground, and throw a gauntlet in the sand (two-for-one sale on cliches at Safeway this week). I want it known, Officially and On the Record, that I will not consider—not for one moment—ever giving up my Burgundy and Gold addiction.

Sorry, world—not gonna do it. That one is simply too deeply rooted. I’d as likely survive a central nervous system-ectomy. Like love of family, like a childlike sense of wonder about the universe and my place in it, perhaps even like the deep appreciation of an icy Killian’s complementing a sizzling rib-eye, the Redskins are hard-wired into my soul ... as much a part of me as an overdeveloped tactile sense, personal values, blood or bone. Layer upon layer, seamlessly woven together, the sum total of my Redskin memories comprise my own original, unique, inner burgundy and gold tapestry.

There are a thousand distinct threads to it, of course, any one of which, gently tugged, will elicit an almost visceral reaction. To pick just a few to bare to the world here, in purported public defense of my gauntlet-throwing, seems, well, almost blasphemous somehow. But then, this particular slice of cyberspace is only so big—and you, gentle reader, only so patient—so if you will kindly indulge me, I shall loose this day but a few of these silken strands upon the ether.

Then I’ll shut up for a time and try to mitigate the damage.

December, 1971. Monday Night Football. The Los Angeles Rams at The Coliseum. Big game, even as registered on my eleven-year-old radar. The Skins were pretty good ... I mean, people—grown ups even—were talking. Me, I watched most of the game from the darkened hallway outside the family room, lest my parents spy me. School night, after all.

There was Roy Jefferson, gliding up the near sideline, left to right, settling under an arcing Kilmer duck, gathering it smoothly over his left shoulder, and long-striding to paydirt. And there was Speedy Duncan, still among my favorite punt returners ever on name alone, breaking off an interception return, and Mom, in a voice rarely used, excitedly stage-whispering, "he’s going to go all the way!" (Eat your heart out, Boomer, you poseur.)

And there was I, literally squirming and biting my lip, fighting myself not to burst and be busted. 38-24, on Monday Night Football!

When I heard the couch creak at games’ end, I scampered down the hall—a swift and stealthy panther in Hot Wheels slipper-pajamas—and leapt into bed. I wasn’t a parent then of course, so when my Dad came in, paused, and whispered, "they won—good night," I figured he didn’t really know I was awake. Just checking in on me, he was ... ‘cause that’s what Dads do. I probably just didn’t catch the smile in his voice.

August, 1972. First live game. Not "exhibition game," as they used to call them; no, in my world, it was the first game. RFK Stadium. The Miami Dolphins—the very same Dolphins I’d rooted vainly for against dreaded Dallas in the previous Super Bowl. I felt that night, for the first time in my young life, the primal roar of an NFL football crowd ... concrete vibrating beneath my Keds, chest pounding against my burgundy No. 18 Sam Wyche jersey, eyes and mouth dry and wide, ears literally ringing with the fury of the noise.

My God, this is unbelievable.

I recall looking up at my best friends’ Dad, who had brought me—my newest hero—and seeing a reflection of the same look in his eyes. A grown up, screaming his fool head off just like me. There was a moment—one I’ve always believed he felt as well—when he glanced down at me out of the corner of his eye, and we made eye contact. It held for a long beat amidst the madness, and then he gave me a quick nod, as the corner of his mouth curled up, just a bit, and his eyes crinkled into a knowing little smile. A man-to-man smile.

Gave me chills thinking about it, then; and when I let myself wander back there, thirty years later ... it still does.

Circa 1973. None other than Chris Hanburger came to our Boy Scout meeting at the elementary school. There were my friends and I—eleven or twelve years old—lining up for a meet & greet, shuffling nervously from foot to foot, and hoping against hope our questions would be good ones (I know mine was; I was going to ask him if anyone ever called him Hamburger). Then, at long last, when it was finally my turn, my 15 seconds to shine ... well, truth is I don’t remember much beyond shaking a massive hand, staring up at this otherworldly being with my heart in my mouth, and just grinning like an idiot.

I didn’t even realize, until I lay awake in bed later that night, still aglow and wearing a silly smile, that I’d never handed him the paper and pen I had at the ready for his autograph.

December, 1973. Sitting by myself on the back patio of the 19th-century, Versailles-style mansion my family lived in for a time in Santiago, Chile. Ear pressed against Dad’s big silver short-wave radio—adjusting the knob constantly, listening intently through the static—as I followed every moment, with a crushed heart, of the Armed Forces Radio broadcast of my heroes just getting killed on the road by the Dallas Cowboys.

Somewhere deep in the fourth quarter, with the good guys trailing 27-0, my brother wandered by, and, doing what older brothers have done since time immemorial, punched my arm and made fun of me. "27-0? Man, what the [ahem] are you doing?!"

I gathered what resolve my 13-year-old, gutted-by-the-loss incarnation could muster, and replied, "Hey, it’s the Redskins."

Well, it was the Redskins, and the game wasn’t over. I know you know what I’m talking about. Rusty Tillman proved the point not long after, breaking through the Dallas line and blocking a punt late in the game that the Skins recovered and carried into the end zone—special teams averting the shutout—and justifying a 13-year-old’s long, lonely afternoon of abject misery four thousand, eight hundred and sixty-two miles away.

The mid-70's. Four long years of NFL exile overseas, long before the days of the web. Checking the International Herald Tribune every day during the season, hoping against hope to find a 20-word blurb on the previous weekend’s game. Often, all there’d be was a score, but sometimes, there’d be gold ... "The Washington Redskins defeated the St. Louis Cardinals, 20-10, in heavy rain on Monday Night Football at RFK Stadium. Eddie Brown returned a 4th quarter punt for a touchdown for the Redskins" ... and I’d read and re-read it, until, when I closed my eyes, I could see Brown slogging through the mud, and I could feel the RFK faithful, at full throat, rumbling in my chest.

And then there were those all-too-rare magical days when Dad would come home under the weight of a week or more’s worth of Washington Posts, rolled up in brown paper wrappers—two, three weeks old sometimes—with sports sections. I’d find myself sprawled on the living room carpet that evening, newspapers laid out in chronological order before me ... lemonade in hand, Creedence on the stereo ... and know pure bliss.

January, 1983. The Super Bowl. Our Super Bowl. On my knees in front of the television, shoulder-to-shoulder with the best friends in the world, fists in the air. Unable to distinguish my own yells from everyone else’s as Don McNeal lost his grip on Riggo ... fell by the wayside ... and The Diesel burst free. There was a split second where I was about to celebrate the first down, but the thought—and any actual words I might have uttered—stuck in my throat as my eyes processed the signal; Big John was pulling away from a Blackwood brother ... and there was nobody in front of him.

Each of you slave to your own burgundy and gold addiction knows there are no truly adequate words to convey what happened inside you in that moment, as John Riggins rumbled into the end zone, flipped the rock to the nearest zebra like the too-cool-for-this-world superhero that he was, and got stormed under by his teammates. There aren’t any words for it—and that’s fine. In this company, they aren’t necessary.

November, 1996. Yeah, that was me ... a thirty-something year old man, rolling around on the floor with a True Redskin Brother, whooping in semi-drunken, delirious glee when it looked for all the world like Gus Frerotte was about to marshal a stirring road victory against the Dallas Freaking Cowboys at Texas Stadium. At that moment, all was right with the world again—at 8-4, the S.S. Redskins had clearly charted a course to an inexorable return to glory. I didn’t care one whit right then about the solemn, man-I-hope-I-don’t-turn-out-like-that looks from the kids, the mortified looks from the wives, or the unreadable looks from assorted guests—who, strangely, I don’t recall seeing much after that.

Of course, just a few short minutes later ... that was also me, slumping lower and lower in the couch, eyes distant, shoulders heavy and bile churning, watching the S.S. Redskins hit the shoals, break up, and go down. Again. The women and children, mercifully, had slipped quietly from the room by then. Some things are better left unseen.

Last summer, it was the deep inner satisfaction of working side-by-side with my 12-year-old son, turning his bedroom into the room you and I always wish we had had; deep burgundy around the bottom, pristine white band around the middle and glorious, glowing gold to the ceiling. And the dresser? Forget it—brilliant white cabinet setting off alternate-colored drawers; burgundy, gold, burgundy, gold ...

And this past winter, it was the impossible jumble of feelings—pride, propriety, paternity (that, if I’m not careful, will mist me up in a decidedly un-Neanderthal way)—as I sat with him, clicker in hand, talking him through the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII.

"Watch the play action ... there—see what it did to the defense? And there goes Ricky ... man, poor Lilly—that boy never had a chance. Now check Williams’ ball. Watch how he hangs it up, just a bit, so Rick can run under it ... and boom ... just like that, 28-10."

Well, it’s 2004 now, and my Inner Skin and I, while as ever bound to what’s come before, are also looking with renewed hunger toward tomorrow. And this year or next, when the Washington Redskins are successfully engaging some storied foe on Monday Night Football, I’m thinking I may just have to let the boy stay up. Let him see midnight and beyond on a school night, sitting next to a bleary-eyed Dad sporting a silly, unguarded grin, and revel in the implausibly tangible sense of confederation he will experience watching his team celebrate victory on the sidelines—helmets held high and gleaming in the lights—in front of a delirious, serenading home crowd.

On the other hand, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll send him to bed before the half ... and simply not pay attention to the darkened hallway beyond the family room.

There are tapestries to be woven, after all.

1 comment:

Steed said...

That Eddie Brown touchdown in the mud looms large in my memory too. It sealed the game and was a terrific play but it was the circumstances that make it so significant. Specifically,
They had a terrific rivalry with the Cards, who kind of had the upper hand in mid-decade with terrific stars like Jim Hart, Jim Otis, Terry Metcalf, Mel Gray, Roger Wehrli, and the best O-line of all time.
They lost to the Cards the year before thanks to a very questionable call at the goal line.
It was Monday night in the fourth quarter.
It was pouring rain, the field was slippery.
Eddie was tricky and sly but not the fastest.
The return had twists and turns and as i recall it consumed 10 or 15 seconds. Brown may have even appeared to lose his balance.
Anyway, I've been wishing for years that I could see a video of this play, but have not seen it since it happened.
Thanks for your post.