I hate football. I’ve always hated it. My father was a football fanatic. He played at West Point. The Army-Navy game was our annual sacred pilgrimage. The train trip to Philadelphia definitely had its appeal. Win or lose, there wasn’t a dry mouth in the house. But God forbid Army lost. Things would be gloomy around our Army quarters for weeks.
Happily, I ended up at a school for girls and then an all-women’s college and then moved to Europe, so I didn’t think about football for a long time. But when I moved back to Washington, D.C. and started dating a Redskins fan, I was sucked in to the game all over again.
I didn’t mind so much this time. It was actually fun. Sunday afternoons in his group house there was always a big bowl of chili and a gang of friends and the girls I would hang out in the kitchen, gossiping. Even so, the noise, the relentless chanting of the crowds, the referees’ announcements, the shrieks and groans of the men watching—it all really got on my nerves. And the conversations afterward? The rehash from a group of supposedly intelligent journalists was appalling.
I once said to my frustrated boyfriend that liking football was like believing in God. If you couldn’t, you couldn’t.
Then I met my current husband.
We fell in love in the spring. No mention of football. No encomiums about the beloved “Skins.” Ah, I thought. The ideal man.
Boy, was I wrong. Not only was Ben Bradlee more dedicated than my father, but his best friend, super lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, actually owned the Washington Redskins. Ben went to every home game and sat in Fast Eddie’s box. What was I to do? I could either give up my Sundays with Ben or go along to the games.
I chose to go. I was the only girl, carpooling to the old RFK Stadium with the guys as they bonded by insulting each other on the way.
The owner’s box was small, simple, with concrete floors and foldup chairs. Eddie was a devout Catholic, and he filled the front row with Catholic priests. There was always much grumbling among the guys about that, but Ed was never one to hedge his bets.
I was always fascinated by the priests. They were the most avid fans of all. They had been at mass Sunday morning, and now they were confronted by fans worshipping football gods like Joe Gibbs and Sunny Jurgensen.
Many of the players were religious. They were always (as they do now) praying in the locker rooms at the half to win. How could God possibly choose?
I have to admit that I really enjoyed those Sundays. There was a camaraderie and a spirit in that box that didn’t exist anywhere else in our lives. Everyone had high powered, even crushing jobs. We were in the middle of Watergate. My husband was the editor of the Washington Post. I was a reporter. Football was a way to empty the mind and be part of a community. We might actually call it meditation today.
Ben went over the line at one point. We were married on Friday, October 20, the most sparkling fall day you could imagine. We had decided to take our actual honeymoon in the Caribbean at Christmastime, but to drive up to our very rustic log cabin in West Virginia for a long weekend after the ceremony. We had courted there, secretly, before it became known we were together. It was a remote place on a wild river in the mountains with no TV and a phone that only occasionally worked. What bliss!
You can imagine my shock when Ben announced Sunday morning that we’d better get going early or he would miss the game. “What game?” I asked, incredulously. “The Redskins game,” he replied, incredulously. It became clear to me where his priorities lay. I’ll never get over it.
But that’s what religion will do to you.
Then suddenly everything changed for the Redskins. Eddie sold half the team to Jack Kent Cooke, who moved here from California. He immediately expanded the size of the box, put in fancy chairs and carpeting, and hired waiters in black ties to serve little tea sandwiches on doilies and silver trays. It didn’t go over so well with the guys. The place lost its soul. The magic and mystery of the gang, the transcendent feeling of the stadium when we scored, it all went up in a puff of smoke. It was over.
For many years now, Ben has watched the games at home. I never do. Given what we know today about how serious the injuries can be, there are serious moral and religious questions for people watching enthusiastically while others are being hurt. And I don’t think the ‘Skins, despite some great players and some great coaches, have ever been able to recapture the spirit they had when Ed Williams owned them. When I hear the roar of the crowds on TV from the next room or hear Ben exclaim over a good or bad play, I feel a longing for what we once had.
When my father was dying at Walter Reed Army hospital, Ben and I went to see him on his last day alive. He was semi-delirious, but all he wanted to do was watch football with Ben. The Buffalo Bills were playing. I don’t remember the other team, but my father’s fighting name on the front lines during the Korean War was Buffalo Bill. He thought the game was being played for him, and he and Ben cheered and screamed and roared at every play as if their lives depended on it.
When the game was over, Ben left the hospital and I stayed with my father and held his hand until he died in the early hours of the morning. He seemed totally satisfied that they had played one for the Gipper. Though he was religious, Daddy didn’t pray as he drifted into a coma. He just kept talking about the game.
I still hate football. But I finally understand it.