FROSTBURG -- The love affair between this Appalachian town and the Washington Redskins began in the summer of '95. Only now is the meaning of their relationship becoming clear.
Now, that is, that the team may never come back.
Almost 35,000 visitors -- wired-up 'Skins fans from as far as South Carolina -- flocked here annually. Sports reporters from Washington began newscasts by describing the weather and happenings in Frostburg, population 9,000. The team passed evenings at local watering holes, where bartenders considered players new-found friends and let them mix drinks, tend bar, grill burgers.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is considering moving camp to Virginia this summer, but no decision has been announced.
Snyder has roiled town and university officials by refusing to fill them in on his thinking. The owner didn't send a thank-you note when Frostburg's mayor sent balloons, a box of homemade chocolates and a plea to stay. Such treatment doesn't sit well with residents of a close community where returning phone calls is considered standard courtesy, no matter how important you are.
Maryland politicians are miffed because they say Snyder, if he leaves Frostburg, would be bowing out of a 10-year contract with the university. The agreement, which includes an escape clause for the team, was part of a deal in which the state helped build the franchise a new stadium in Landover.
If the team moves, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development says, Frostburg's economy could lose $2.9 million a year. But even politicians and officials acknowledge that the town's pride would suffer an even bigger loss if the team bolts.
"The fact that a major NFL team would choose Frostburg, a mining community in Appalachia ... they helped us believe in ourselves," says Mayor John N. Bambacus. "We've been left in the lurch."
There is still hope, of course, given that the Redskins haven't officially left.
But team officials have spoken fondly of holding camp at their headquarters in Loudoun County, Va., drawing local fans easily and enjoying more practice fields and access to artificial turf. The April 15 deadline to give Frostburg State its schedule came and went, with no correspondence from the Redskins.
"There is nothing to contact them about because no decision has been made," says Karl Swanson, Snyder's spokesman. He says the team should know within a few weeks. "And if we don't find an acceptable alternative, we'll go back to Frostburg."
The community is pessimistic. "Without [the Redskins] is like -- I can't even remember without them," says Ruth Ann Mayhew, who owns Duncan's Bar & Grill. "It was dead."
The mayor no longer wears his Redskins cap when he dines at Giuseppe's Italian Restaurant. Team flags, once fluttering fixtures over City Hall, were removed two weeks ago. Business owners, who affixed mountings to their storefronts to fly 'Skins flags -- printed by the town's embroidery shop and sewn by a seamstress up the street -- say they will be flag-less.
At J-R's Custom Screenprinting and Embroidery, owner John Robinson has his rack of "training camp" T-shirts and hats in the back of the store, rather than in the front as usual. He says if they don't sell, he may begin giving them to charities. Training camp brought Robinson about 75 extra customers a day. This summer, he says, he'll just have to push local angles -- like his "Frostburg Ambulance Company" and "Frostburg Rangers Soccer" caps.
Frostburg has long depended on the university and its 5,000 students to attract attention, keep its one-lane streets busy and provide income. The Redskins' camp, local business owners say, was a shot in the arm during a season when the college is largely closed.
Before 1995, the Redskins trained in Carlisle, Pa. They moved to Frostburg in an exchange agreement in which the state of Maryland provided $70 million for the Redskins' new stadium. The team, having won a paltry three games the season before, arrived by train in Frostburg in July 1995 and was greeted by more than 10,000 cheering residents and fans.
It was just about a dream come true for Argyle Lancaster, 53, a longtime fan whose apartment above a bar on Main Street is plastered with everything 'Skins -- including a "Hail to the Redskins" poster above his bed. He owns nine Redskins hats, seven jackets and 10 T-shirts. He never went to a game because it was too expensive and Washington was too far.
"All of a sudden they're in my hometown, I can reach out and touch them," recalls Lancaster, a bartender. He says he understands that Frostburg doesn't draw as many fans as Virginia would. "But I'm a little hurt. What can you do?"
Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke -- as well as his son, John, who took over the team after Cooke's death -- were adored here. When Frostburg was hit by a destructive tornado in June 1998, John Kent Cooke reached the mayor on a cell phone and asked how he could help. He had coach Norv Turner and four players sign autographs for victims and deliver a check from the team for $25,000 for recovery efforts.
But ask almost anybody about Snyder - who bought the team last year --and expressions turn mean. "Snyder, he knows best," says state Sen. John J. Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican. "He's got an attitude problem."
Frostburg State President Catherine Gira, who negotiated the contract with Jack Kent Cooke to bring the team here, says Snyder breached it by not giving her word by April 15 about his plans. "This has been a very welcoming place," Gira says. "It's absolutely inconsiderate. It is incivility."
Under the 1995 contract, the team paid Frostburg State $330,000 a year for the use of athletic fields, dining hails and dormitories. Cooke insisted at the outset that the college put air conditioning in its locker rooms for the team. Gira says she agreed as long as Cooke signed for 10 years, thus not making the renovation a waste.
The negotiations were cordial, Gira says.
The contract allows Snyder to part early under a "mutually amicable settlement," Gira says. But if the team does not return this year, she said, it may have to pay the college at least $2 million -- the details would be worked out between Snyder's attorneys and the state attorney general's office.
Gira has written to Snyder for information. He has not responded.
Swanson, the Redskins' spokesman, says he didn't know about an April 15 deadline and that the town will find out when a decision is made.
Residents are mourning already. Along Main Street one recent afternoon, Duncan's Bar & Grill was empty. "See how it is right now," says Mayhew, the owner. "This is how it will be during the summer day and night."
Mayhew says she made an extra $3,500 during training camp. If the Redskins don't return, it will be a,struggle to pay the mortgage on her pool room, which she built in 1995. She says she'll miss the players who tended bar beside her.
"I wanted one more year," she says, pounding her bar-top. "One ...more ... fun ... year."