Sunday, April 25, 2004

Nothing says springtime in our nation’s capital like “Redskins Draft Party.” Accordingly, FedEx Field was populated on a spectacular Saturday afternoon by thousands of fans basking in the eternal sunshine of the spotless won-lost record.

The Redskins are unbeaten and untied, as they always are this time of year. But hopes are running higher than ever, what with the return of coach Joe Gibbs, a new staff and the latest batch of free agents. The draft would provide the final pieces to what certainly and without fail will be a winning year. Or so it is hoped.

The Redskins had just one draft pick yesterday, the fifth overall, yet a crowd estimated by team officials at 20,000 showed up. They watched ESPN’s coverage on the Jumbotron screens located in each end zone and on dozens of TV sets scattered throughout the club level. They thrilled to the sight of Gibbs himself, accompanied by assistants Gregg Williams and the beloved Joe Bugel, who also is back, exhorting the crowd.

The three arrived via a helicopter that landed outside the stadium and returned them an hour later to Redskin Park (a snappy, 15-minute ride) after the coaches conducted a brief inspection of the home dressing room. Gibbs, clearly enjoying the ongoing lovefest that began — or resumed — when he was hired in January, even took several questions from his people.

And make no mistake. These are Gibbs’ people. As the coach and the others rolled onto the field in a golf cart, the band struck up, “Hail to the Redskins,” but it might as well have been “Hail to the Chief.” Gibbs got out and began working the crowd, which was pressed against a barricade, like a politician works a rope line. Except that Gibbs is a lot more popular. As he bounded onto a stage set up for the occasion, the people started chanting, “We want Joe! “We want Joe!”

Positively beaming, Gibbs yelled back, “You got me whether you want me or not!” This got everyone even more riled up.

A new chant began, “We want Dallas!” Gibbs looked back at his coaches. Amazing, his expression seemed to say. When a fan asked why the three Super Bowl banners won by Gibbs were not at the stadium, he replied, “To be truthful, I’m kind of focused on another one.”

Perfect. But it didn’t really matter what he said. Gibbs had them. These were fans, who, after years of inept coaching, playing and owning, believe something special is about to happen, again. They could taste redemption — not to mention the beer that was being sold for $3 a pop or the $2 hot dogs, available this day only.

Back in the tunnel afterward, Gibbs, whose last season with the Redskins was in 1992, before such extravaganzas were held, said, “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. To get that many people to give up their Saturday and say hi to us … It’s the most amazing group of fans in any sport.”

Many were inside the fancy club level experiencing, if only for a couple of hours, how the other half lives. They sat in cushy chairs and walked on shiny floors and drank their $3 beers and waited in line for autographs from Redskins like LaVar Arrington and Fred Smoot.

A comparative few chose to sit in the seats, although what they lacked in numbers they apparently made up for with spirit. A loud discussion was going on in Section 239. It was hard to make out the topic exactly, but one fellow, wearing a blue Dallas Cowboys jersey bearing Emmitt Smith’s No.22, was making a point simply by screaming louder than everyone else. After things quieted down, he said, “If I didn’t come, who would y’all have to argue with?” — thereby getting in the last word.

But the real action was taking place down on the field, opened up for the first time for one of these things. In what will be a rarity this year, before Gibbs starts pounding the ball like he loved to do and probably will do again, the air was filled with footballs — fathers and daughters, mothers and sons — all playing catch. Guys were running real patterns, skinny posts and deep outs while dodging other fans. A bunch of youngsters even started a game of touch.

Before it was the Redskins’ turn to make a selection, few paid attention to the screens, except when ESPN did a tribute to Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals player who was killed in Afghanistan on Thursday. There was a murmur when San Diego drafted quarterback Eli Manning, who had said he would not play for the Chargers, but little reaction to anything else until NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue informed the world that the Redskins drafted Miami safety Sean Taylor.

There was a collective yell of delight. The crowd went wild. Mark Brunell to Laveranues Coles for 70 yards and a touchdown wild. The Redskins had been talking about taking Taylor’s teammate, tight end Kellen Winslow II, but this clearly was the popular choice.

“I love it,” said fan Kenneth Stevenson, speaking for the masses. “Sean Taylor, they need that defensive plug. I was kind of shocked by the pick, but they need it. When they were talking about Kellen Winslow, I heard a lot of people say, ‘No, don’t take him. Don’t take him.’ But everybody is happy with Sean Taylor.”

Stevenson, the postmaster of Fort Washington, was accompanied by his 14-year-old son, Travis, who also voiced his approval of Taylor. “Real good, real good,” he said. “That’s who I wanted.”

But this day really wasn’t about Sean Taylor. The Stevensons, both of them, are highly optimistic that this is the Redskins’ year. And basically it comes down to one reason.

“Joe Gibbs,” Kenneth Stevenson said. “He’s the man.”

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