Chad Costa is a perfectly friendly guy, but he has a penchant for getting booed when he cuts his grass. His neighbors don’t take kindly to the burgundy-and-gold signs and flags splayed across his front yard, nor do they think the American Indian logo tattooed on his ankle is particularly attractive.
Costa’s 15-year-old daughter, meanwhile, proudly wears a “Dallas Sucks” T-shirt to school in hopes of recruiting fellow fans, but no one around their home in Frisco, Texas, ever seems to think very highly of her cause.
About 1,300 miles northeast, in the nation’s capital, Mike Jelencovich strolls down the street wearing a baseball cap that draws glares from passers-by. Many of his friends can’t stand the sight of that hat, whose single blue star belies its owner’s Maryland roots. By most accounts, he is also a well-intentioned guy, but sometimes he thinks he might be the most hated man in town.
While on opposite ends of the spectrum, Costa and Jelencovich have one thing in common: Their defiant devotion to their football teams epitomizes a rivalry that never wavers, no matter how it plays out on the field. Their dedication will be out in full force when the Washington Redskins pay a visit to Cowboys Stadium in Dallas on Monday night.
Cowboys and Redskins fans are far removed from the glory years, when greats such as Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach, Dexter Manley and Joe Theismann ruled the gridiron with equal parts skill and nastiness. From 1971 to 1996, 18 out of 26 NFC championship games featured either the Cowboys or the Redskins. They met twice in conference championship games - with the Redskins winning both.
Since that period, the two teams have combined for a total of four playoff wins.
Even if the rivalry might have lost some verve on the national scene, it remains as strong as ever in Dallas and D.C.
“I think the fans in this area keep the rivalry alive regardless of what their record is,” said Jelencovich, 35, a Cowboys fan who owns a pair of restaurants in D.C. “Even when the Redskins are out of it, Redskins fans will show up [at my bar] just to cheer against the Cowboys. Their hatred for the Cowboys is just unreal.”
Growing up just outside the District, Jelencovich has long witnessed the ceaseless scorn of locals toward his beloved team. His dad gave him a Dallas Cowboys helmet when he was 3, sparking a lifetime of maniacal allegiance that has lent him a permanent sense of otherness amongst neighbors.
Yet in a city known for holding the largest concentration of Cowboys fans outside Dallas, Jelencovich is anything but an outcast. Anyone who has walked the streets of D.C. knows the city is teeming with enemy supporters, some of them displaced Texans, some of them bandwagon jumpers.
The theories floating around this curious irony abound. Some attribute it to the transient nature of the city, which attracts travelers whose sporting loyalties are already grounded elsewhere. Others see the Redskins’ regrettable status as the last professional football team to integrate its players as another factor (many older fans remember the team’s fight song originally belting out “Fight for old Dixie” rather than “Fight for old D.C.”). Others simply view it as a stubborn act of nonconformity.
“I think a lot of the Cowboys fans in this area are just anti-Redskins fans,” said Sunshine Hogette, a lifelong Redskins devotee from Front Royal, Va., who declined to provide his real name. “They pick the Cowboys as their team just to irritate us. There is a strong base of Cowboys fans here, but a lot of them like the Cowboys just to go against us Redskins fans.”
As the founder of the largest Dallas Cowboys fan group in D.C., Jelencovich stands near the forefront of the Cowboys rebel base. Started five years ago, the group currently boasts about 600 members, many of whom have been congregating every Sunday at one of his restaurants, Mezza Luna, to cheer on the Cowboys. Crowds average about 200 blue-and-silver-clad fans every week, but that total always spikes when the Redskins come into the picture.
“The support for the Cowboys in D.C. is unbelievable,” Jelencovich said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Casual observers might assume the atmosphere in Dallas to be considerably more tepid. After all, the Cowboys enjoyed a recent period of thorough domination against their Washington counterparts, winning 13 of 14 meetings from 1998 to 2004.
Instead of fearing matchups against Super Bowl-winning teams headed by John Riggins and Art Monk, Cowboys fans have recently looked forward to games against a franchise that has cycled through seven head coaches and just three winning seasons during the 12-year tenure of owner Dan Snyder.
Fans of both teams, however, assure that such a one-sided outlook on the rivalry is misleading. Hatred for the Redskins still runs high in Big D, where burgundy and gold sightings are not overlooked by the city’s proud fan base.
“I’ve done a lot of work in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, and I’ve worn my Darrell Green jersey and walked the streets, and I promise you I’m not seeing any apathy when I’m down there,” said Ken Meringolo, a contributor to Redskins blog Hogs Haven. “They definitely care. It’s a juvenile thing to suggest we care about it more than they do.”
Nick Stewart, 22, a Dallas resident who describes his support for the Cowboys as a lifestyle, says that while many younger Dallas fans now view the Philadelphia Eagles as a bigger rival, antipathy toward the Redskins endures. Much of that, he says, stems from the rivalry’s competitive nature. After all, the final margin of the past nine contests between the two teams has averaged less than a touchdown, and the Monday night record is even at 7-7.
“Every year, no matter how good the Cowboys are, you go into a game against the Washington Redskins and it’s a battle,” Stewart said. “It goes down to the wire, no matter how bad either team is. That’s why I don’t think the rivalry is in decline. If you’re a true Cowboys fan, it’s always a big game, no matter what the record is for either team.”
With Washington riding high on a 2-0 start and Dallas reeling from injuries, many Redskins fans believe Monday night presents a prime opportunity to reinvigorate the rivalry even further. A win might change Dallas fans’ perceptions of their division foes - no longer the team they are supposed to beat, but the team they need to beat.
“There were a couple of years there where I would walk in the store and they would just kind of look at me and roll their eyes and not even say anything,” Costa said. “Whereas now, they’re starting to initiate it. The last two years, we didn’t beat them in Dallas, so they still think they own us.
“They still have that cockiness, but that will change if we beat them Monday night. And I think we will.”