- - Sunday, February 9, 2020

During a timeout early in Saturday’s opening XFL game, with the DC Defenders hosting the Seattle Dragons at Audi Field, there was a scene that was looked more like summer camp than pro football.

A couple of kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old each, were brought out and tasked with racing across the field, putting on one piece of a football uniform at a time — from the pants to the helmet.

They struggled, but the crowd of 17,163 cheered their support and encouragement, and roared when one made it back to the end zone with all his gear on.

We were a long way from strippers and wrestlers.

The rebirth of Vince McMahon’s football league began in the District, nearly 20 years after the first incarnation of the XFL took off like a pornographic rocket and quickly crashed and burned.

This new beginning on Saturday was like a kite in the park on a sunny February afternoon — full of fun and families, culminating in a 31-19 win for the home team.

“I thought the fans were outstanding,” said Defenders coach Pep Hamilton. “I thought it was a great atmosphere. The energy was great. Our players, they fed off the energy.”

You know, you hear this kind of coach talk all the time and rarely take it seriously. But this time, Hamilton may have been right.

It was hard to ignore the positive vibe in and around Audi Field Saturday afternoon. And it was, as the kids say, organic.

There was little in the way of hype or hoopla surrounding the game day experience. Outside the stadium, they held a simple fan fest, with a few sponsors set up, a band, and some tailgating in the limited parking available at Audi Field. Inside the stadium, there were none of the fireworks or pyrotechnics that, ironically, the NFL took from McMahon’s WWE shows for their game day presentations. There were no Stealth Bomber flyovers, no guest appearances from wrestlers (McMahon’s son Shane was there, but with no fanfare or attention).

The national anthem wasn’t sung by some high profile recording star, but a 13-year-old girl named Dorothy from The Alexandria School of Rock.

There were no cheerleaders — none.

This was football, pared down to little more than the game itself.

Remarkably, that was enough for the crowd, who cheered the Defenders as if they were lifelong fans.

It was hard to ignore the contrast to the football team that plays 12 miles away. There was none of the poison that seems to seep through the experience at Ghost Town Field when the Washington Redskins play. Saturday’s atmosphere was almost like the scene in the film “Brubaker,” when Robert Redford releases solitary confinement inmates outside to see sunlight for the first time in memory. The darkness of pro football in Washington — a product that used to give joy to an entire city — had, at least for one day, disappeared.

This was not necessarily a Redskins crowd at Audi Field Saturday — far from it. The stands were filled with families, groups of young kids and millennials who were attracted by something new and had access to it through the low ticket prices, some as low as $20 (some Redskins games have been cheaper on the secondary ticket market).

But it would have been an envious scene for Redskins owner Dan Snyder to witness the crowds pour out of the Navy Yard Metro Station and march to Audi Field to watch football.

It’s a scene that Snyder will likely never see for his team.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser made the hollow proclamation at “Qatar Sports Day” in Washington Friday that “we can’t wait to welcome back the Washington Redskins.”

That’s going to be a long, long wait.

There is little, if any, support for a new Redskins stadium at RFK among council members, District sources said, and certainly not among residents in the neighborhood around the stadium, which is closer to demolition, as bids are due next week for that project.

As I’ve been saying all along, Snyder’s new stadium is likely going to wind up right where Ghost Town Field is now — a place where the sun rarely shines. According to Maryland Matters, the Redskins owner has been lobbying Maryland officials for a sports betting license for a new stadium.

No, pro football in the District made its return Saturday at Audi Field, the only game you will likely see in the city. How long will it last? I’m still skeptical about the future of any football league not named the NFL. But for one day, the XFL rebirth had a glow about it in Washington, for what it wasn’t as much as what it was.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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