- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Is anything in professional sports less appealing than exhibition football games? Too bad the lockout was settled so early. A better time would have been six days or so before the start of combat that counts.

Baseball’s spring training games are conducted mostly in sunny Florida and Arizona, where daily media accounts warm the cockles of a shivering fan’s heart up north. To those of us who cherish rounders, there’s even magic to the otherwise mundane phrase “pitchers and catchers report.”

Where weather is concerned, football is just the opposite. In most, if not all, NFL cities, folks who buy season tickets also are required to shell out for meaningless exhibitions played in steaming stadiums where customers are in danger of both heatstroke and ennui.

Excuse me. I forgot that football teams play preseason games rather than exhibitions. Former commissioner Pete Rozelle, a PR man from tootsies to toupee, issued that decree several decades ago in an attempt to convince fans they weren’t being regally reamed.

Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, however, there was some validity to summertime scrums, at least for the teams. In those days, believe it or not, NFL clubs played six practice games, meaning the exhibition schedule was half as long as the regular season. The reason, in case you can’t guess, was money.

From 1946 to 1962, the Redskins trained at Occidental College in Los Angeles and played an annual game against the Rams that usually drew 90,000-plus to the L.A. Coliseum. Though it was billed as a charity affair, the Redskins’ cut of the proceeds likely paid all their training camp expenses.

Elsewhere on the exhibition trail, the Redskins drew well in towns eager to host any sort of pro football game in the days before network television put the sport in everybody’s living room.

Because it took time to convert old Griffith Stadium from baseball to football (changes included the installation of temporary stands in right field), the Redskins never played at home back then until the third week of the regular season. Thus it was mid-October before local fans got a peek at their team — probably fortunate considering how lousy the all-white Skins were throughout most of the ‘50s.

Sometimes the Redskins made more news off the field than on during their yearly sojourn to the Left Coast. In 1954, a hotel screaming match ensued between owner George Preston Marshall and coach Curly Lambeau after Washington lost its exhibition opener to the Rams. When it ended, Curly was unemployed — never mind that he was a true NFL pioneer who had built the Packers into an early NFL power.

Two years later, star halfback Vic Janowicz suffered injuries in a late-night auto accident that ended his career and nearly his life. No wonder the Redskins moved their preseason proceedings to quiet Carlisle, Pa., in 1963. At least Carlisle was quiet until Sonny Jurgensen joined the team in 1964 and coerced some teammates into exploring the local night life, such as it was. Which leads to a story.

In 1966, the Redskins traveled south for an August affair at D.C. (later RFK) Stadium. Venturing into a D.C. bar the night before combat, Sonny encountered a wretched scribe he didn’t know.

“Boy, I need this,” Sonny said, draining his first beer in about two swallows. “Training camp has been just awful with no-drinking rules and all. [First-year boss] Otto Graham may have been a great quarterback, but he’s the dumbest [expletives deleted] coach I’ve ever seen…. But enough about my problems, Dick - what do you do?”

My mother taught me never to lie, so I said, “I’m a sportswriter for the Washington Star, Sonny.”

You’ve never seen anyone’s face turn so pale so fast. And you never will unless the heat gets to somebody near you at Friday night’s exhibition — oops, I mean preseason game — against the Pittsburgh Steelers at toasty FedEx Field.

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