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


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."

When it was built in 1961, then known as D.C. Stadium, it was billed as state-of-the-art -- the first-ever arena to combine baseball and football fields. Although the baseball Senators left town in 1971, the Redskins still run out of the old baseball dugout at the start of the game.

A 1961 press guide heralded "America's new stadium -- and the world's best!" It touted the 240-foot-wide scoreboard that "flashes messages to the crowd," boasted that "every seat in the stadium is a comfortable chair with restful back and arm rests" and promised perfect views from every seat.

The stadium proudly bore the signature of its city -- it was renamed in 1969 for Robert F. Kennedy, and it filled with many upscale fans with jobs in federal government. The stadium is distinctly Washingtonian, built along the city's low-lying design guidelines that keep new buildings from overshadowing the monuments.

Indeed, RFK is so low that its locker rooms are underground. On the visitors' side, which dips slightly closer to the water line, a slimy layer of moisture used to accumulate by a wall near the lockers. Former Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs used to say he liked the image of the opposing team walking by the ominous, oozing wall.

There will be no slime in the new stadium. It will feature a nod to yuppiedom, with at least four types of ethnic food, a microbrewery and a huge television hanging by the field. It even offers a hint of political correctness with "potty parity" -- an equal number of men's and women's restrooms.

By comparison, RFK is more than a little outdated and, by most accounts, kind of unsightly. But even these shortcomings are the stuff of nostalgia these days.

"It was so damn homey," Danny Densmore said as he slugged back a Rolling Rock at a local sports bar. "It was like that old neighborhood dive bar. You don't care what it looks like. You want to go because you know everybody who's going to be there."

There was the fan who kept screaming "Come on, Sonny" for years after Jurgensen left the team. And the perennial drunken fan who bought beer for the 80 people in his section whenever the Redskins were winning.

The crowds stayed largely the same from year to year, since season ticket holders rarely yield their seats. Those tickets were passed through generations, left in wills and snatched away in divorce settlements.

The corporate sky boxes, club seats and suburban locale leave some wondering where the real fans will go. "I'm not interested anymore," Densmore said. "It's definitely set up for the rich now."

But others see the stadium as having just the opposite effect -- bringing in the nouveau fan and unsettling the old spectator order.

"Much of what you went to the stadium for was the society, and that society is now going to be broken up and changed," said Vincent J. Femia, a 60-year-old former Circuit Court judge in Prince George's County who has held season tickets since the )) first Redskins game at RFK.

This Sunday, current and former Redskins will gather at the stadium for a farewell. They will pick up a ceremonial patch of grass to be transplanted at the new stadium. If nobody's looking, Starke, the former Redskin tackle, may just sneak a piece for himself.

"That's consecrated ground," he said. "And I never want to forget it."

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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