- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

Let there be no doubt about the drawing power of Joe Gibbs. The return of the Hall of Fame coach spurred the Washington Redskins’ Fan Appreciation Day at training camp to its highest attendance in memory yesterday, and as a result the club is considering holding next year’s event at FedEx Field.

Nearly 20,000 spectators attended the festivities at Redskin Park on a beautiful, dry day. Club officials said “close to 25,000” people passed through the turnstiles, but that figure included repeat customers who went back to their cars and returned through the main entrance.

Regardless of the exact attendance, a variety of turnout figures were staggering:

• Ninety-six cars were waiting to enter the parking lots at 4:30 a.m.

• About 3,000 people were positioned on lawn chairs and blankets by 9 a.m.

• Team-run parking lots, which hold about 2,300 cars, closed before 1 p.m.

• Police began turning back cars on Loudoun County Parkway by 2 p.m.

Even the latecomers were able to park in private lots down the street, though, and most appeared to attend practice and the autograph session anyway.

“We were maxed out,” team spokesman Karl Swanson said on the Redskin Park balcony in the late afternoon as a throng of fans below waited in lines for autographs. “We learned today how many people you can put on this property.”

The overflow crowd, which doubled last year’s Fan Appreciation Day turnout under coach Steve Spurrier, prompted club officials to rekindle talk about holding the event at FedEx Field, where the lower bowl seats about 40,000. In recent years the club has held a draft-day party at the stadium; this year, about 20,000 fans were accommodated in late April without problem.

“We had a brief discussion about whether we should do this at FedEx Field,” Swanson said. “That’s something we’re going to sit down and absolutely consider. If this many people are interested in coming out, that’s potentially the next step, for sure.”

Redskin Park clearly struggled to accommodate so many spectators, and many were left with a poor view of the field — or none at all. In addition, Gibbs held a team meeting instead of a morning walk-through for the offense and defense, leaving early arrivals with a long day of scant entertainment. The marching band and cheerleaders didn’t perform until early afternoon.

But the weather couldn’t have been nicer, with temperatures in the mid-70s and only a few clouds. A series of fans interviewed as they exited the team’s headquarters offered few complaints.

“Although there were a lot of people, you could still see the players,” said Ray, a District resident who declined to give his last name. “There was ample space. The attitude in general was great. … People were courteous, cordial to one another, respectful of available space.”

Williams Athens of Richmond griped that his children couldn’t see when fellow spectators stood up and that the public address system was inadequate. But he said traffic “wasn’t bad” and parking “wasn’t bad,” and he finished his critique on an upbeat note: “I’m still coming back because I love the ‘Skins.”

The driving force for the turnout undoubtedly was Gibbs, who looked like a prizefighter or a head of state as he made his way to the practice field amid a cheering crush of adulators. He addressed the crowd briefly, calling the fans “tremendous” and warning them that practice, a prep for Monday’s Hall of Fame Game against the Denver Broncos, would be “not particularly exciting.”

Gibbs lamented throughout the first week of camp that every fan couldn’t get an autograph, and he even interrupted his post-practice news conference Friday to greet and sign for a group of disabled children from Loudoun County public schools. Yesterday he finished meeting fans at about 7 p.m.,1 hours after practice ended.

“Hopefully, we accommodated as many as we could, made it as fun as possible,” Gibbs said. “I think [the enthusiasm] carries over to players and the organization. I don’t know any [other team] that has fans like that.”

Added defensive end Renaldo Wynn: “It’s unbelievable. This is the most fans I’ve seen — three times as much as I’ve seen in recent years. … It just shows you how much they love the Washington Redskins.”

There is no recollection of such a large camp turnout in Redskins history, even during Gibbs’ Super Bowl days. However, camp in that era was in Carlisle, Pa. It has been held at Redskin Park only two other times (2000 and 2002), and the team’s consistent mediocrity during Gibbs’ retirement seems to have swelled fans’ readiness to embrace a winner.

“I came because of Gibbs,” said Woodbridge resident Tom Nedow, who arrived with his son, Adam, at about 6:30 a.m. “I see them winning more games, at least four or five more. He’s a good coach, a way better coach than the other guy.”

“The other guy” being Spurrier, who resigned after compiling a 12-20 record in 2002 and 2003.

“I won’t say him by name,” Nedow said dryly.

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