And so it began, and now it ends. The sports team name that owner, Daniel Snyder said would never change its name, is changing its name at last. The Redskins era is over.
I have to admit even I am surprised.
Like most who was born and raised in Washington D.C., I adored the Washington Redskins. I was, like most, brainwashed into not even thinking that the name was a racial slur and was offensive to many people. It was a sports team and the Redskins, my team, were courageous and played footballl the only way you are supposed to play: hard. I was a fan, hardcore.
The names from the 60’s (the era where I first noticed them) are legendary today — Charley Taylor. Bobby Mitchell. Jerry Smith. Sonny Jurgensen. Jurgensen, one year, proved he was one of the best in history at the QB position and he had three receivers in top 4 in receiving to prove it.
My father, who worked at the D.C. Department of Recreation, sometimes would bring home 16 mm NFL films of the Redskins for my brothers and I to watch with our friends. This solidified our love and enthusiasm for the team. And back then, late 60’s, into the 70’s, no one was barking about the racist name, or saying change the name. The irony is, the team had a discriminatory past. It was the last team in NFL history to get a black player as owner George Preston Marshall, was a staunch segregationist. I knew nothing of that history until decades later.
Sonny J was one of the greats to ever sling the pigskin granted( I even saw him beat the Dolphins at RFK Stadium proving his skills); the team still didn’t win much. But we rooted anyway. Sunday, Monday, Thanksgiving games against the hated Cowboys; it was just beautiful to watch. So what they lost. They played an exciting brand of football. They briefly got good under Vince Lombardi in 1969(he had been lured to D.C. to return to coaching after he stepped down after his great run in Green Bay) and finished 7–5–2. Sonny was Lombardi’s guy and everyone sensed a change: a winning attitude. Then Lombardi died after just one year. His legacy in the city of Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Hospital has a cancer center named after him.
In the 70’s, things finally got better. George Allen came to town. He had been a winner in Los Angeles and he got the team on track by recruiting veterans and stressing defense and running the ball. I didn’t like the style of play but it was nice to root for a winner. Larry Brown, the team’s undersized star running back during this period, became a hometown favorite.
Brown, an 8th round pick out of Kansas State, a tough Pittsburgh kid, who fought for every yard he got, was a long shot. Lombardi had drafted him and he was perfect for a city that by the 70’s was known as Chocolate City because of its over 70 percent black population. He was MVP in 1972 and led the league in rushing in 1970. He made multiple Pro Bowls. Washington, my team, made the Super Bowl one year, but lost to the Miami Dolphins (14–7), when Brown was bottled up and Billy Kilmer, who was not a precise gunslinger like Sonny Jurgensen, at QB couldn’t make a play. Jurgensen had been injured earlier in the year and so, it was up to Billy.
Despite the Super Bowl loss in 1973 in Super Bowl VII, the Allen years had been great. In just the league’s seventh championship game, of the modern NFL, Washington had made it to the Big Dance already. Most teams could not say that. And Allen won every year he was here with a record of 97–61 in 7 seasons, including multiple playoff appearances. The city expected to win now. I was a rabid fan.
It was the Joe Gibbs era that solidified the Redskins’ place in NFL folklore. Gibbs arrived in 1981 with little fanfare but quickly turned the franchise into the winning machine the city still demands today. If anything, Gibbs is why there is so much pressure to win now. The name can go, the name can be debated, but winning? No compromise. Under Joe Gibbs, with Bobby Beathard as GM, and the brash owner, Jack Kent Cooke as the head man in charge of it all, winning had to happen. The stars were aligned at last.
Between 1981–1992, Joe Gibbs led the franchise to four Super Bowls and three wins, with three different quarterbacks. The team became a football success factory, a dangerous place to play, and always a team that surprised the football world. Those Gibbs’ teams are full of greats too — John Riggins, Joe Theisman, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Gary Clarke, Brian Mitchell, Russ Grimm, Mark Mosley, and so many others. The famous Gibbs offensive line was “The Hogs” coached by Joe Bugel, who only died a week ago. Even today, there are few sports moments bigger than the Doug Williams MVP performance of 1988, the first Black QB to make the Super Bowl, the first to win it all.
When Gibbs moved on and retired to manage a NASCAR team, so did the Redskins’ swag and winning spirit. Things deteriorated quickly and in 1997, Cooke had died and the team was up for sale.
By this point, I had finally begun to question the name myself (even with a black QB as its star, the name had begun to bother me). I understood it was a slur, a painful memory for many (not all felt this way) Native Americans of their oppression in the United States. I followed the team but openly insisted the name should change. And when Dan Snyder took an arrogant approach and not an open minded approach to the troubles of the name, I stopped watching for a few years. The only season I even followed closely recently was the year Robert Griffin III mesmerized the locals in 2013 with a season for the ages. Griffin’s magical rookie year was the last bright days for the team and now a new start begins at last. No more racially charged name. Football.
Tomorrow, or soon, a new name will take its place in the football folklore. The Skins, as most call them, had a good run. I eventually came to hate the name but the memories are the memories. So many players I loved. Dexter Manley. Darrell Green. Roy Jefferson. Charlie Haraway. Ken Houston. Don Warren. Many, many more. Take a look at their overall record. As franchises in the NFL go, this is not bad at all.
Some say the curse by Native Americans will finally end and they will begin to win again. Some are just glad, like me, the controversy surrounding the name is over. It should have been handled a long time ago considering. Something seems to have changed (we will see). I can’t quite describe it but something is different, at last in D.C. in regards to their football team. Only time will tell, of course.