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Original Issue


Formerly a waterboy for his beloved Redskins, now a sports scribe, our author reveals what it was like to grow up under the delusion that Washington was a pro football team. But, baby, look at them now

He never found Waterboy a very dignified title and occasionally he even had to admit that his was not a sacred trust. Had he arrived on the scene six years later George Allen certainly would have assured him that the way he folded T shirts and separated socks contributed mightily toward the Redskins' quest of the Super Bowl. But this was 1966, and winning and Washington were then about as synonymous as Nixon and Democrats.

In those days there were some, like The Waterboy's father, who were able to view the two decades between 1945 and 1965 as a mere slump, rather like the one the town's baseball team had been in since the Walter Johnson era. After all, his father had been one of the 10,000 fans who had gathered at Union Station in the dawn of Dec. 5, 1937 and boarded trains bound for New York. There they had spilled boisterously out onto Broadway, and following George Preston Marshall, who was strutting in his raccoon coat at the head of the Redskin Marching Band, they had clamored up to Times Square, alerting New Yorkers to the fact that this day Washington would win its first Eastern Division title. Which it did 49-14.

By the end of 1945 Washington had played in five world championships in nine years, and children who arrived on the scene too late to view the glory on their own were raised on the tales of the mythical doings of Sammy Baugh, Cliff Battles, Andy Farkas, Dick Todd and Wayne Millner. They were told that when Baugh first came to Washington the Redskin coach decided to test his fabled arm. "Baugh," he commanded, "on this pattern I want you to hit the receiver in the eye."

"Which eye?" inquired Baugh.

But somehow the latecomers could never quite summon the appropriate veneration. What fascinated them about those early years, perhaps because it related more closely to their own experience of the team, was that Washington had once lost a championship game 73-0. Indeed, in the first Redskin game The Waterboy ever attended, in 1954, Adrian Burk of the Eagles tied an NFL record by throwing seven touchdown passes.

In the late '50s it seemed that Washington had one game plan regardless of opponent, field position, available talent, weather, score, state of the union or sign of the zodiac. That is, each series consisted quite simply of line plunge, line plunge, long pass, punt. Without considering the fact that this constant mode of attack eliminated all surprise, there were two basic problems. First, the Redskins had no fullback capable of producing an adequate line plunge. Second, they had no fast ends capable of catching the bomb. Given those limitations, victory was, at best, difficult. The Redskins sank toward an indefinable nadir. Which they reached in 1960 and 1961 when they won two of 26 games.

But let us return to 1966, by which time the Redskins could boast that they were in the declining years of their decline. In January of that year Edward Bennett Williams, a minority stockholder who had become president of the Redskins in 1965, is brooding over the fate of the team in his office in the Hill Building. EBW, as he is known, had graduated first in his class at Holy Cross, first in his class at Georgetown Law, and his legal practice is second to none. Yet on Sundays when Williams takes his friends out to D.C. Stadium they would watch Williams' Redskins run into each other, miss tackles, botch blocks, drop passes, fumble handoffs and lose, lose, lose. All of which EBW, being a man accustomed to success, finds intensely embarrassing. And so now he decides to fire Bill McPeak and hire Otto Graham, a man who had competed in 10 straight championships as a player and who had frequently proclaimed to the world that he would never coach in the pros.

Thus it was that in the summer of 1966, the very same summer that The Waterboy appeared on the scene, Otto Graham arrived at the Carlisle, Pa. training site of the Washington Redskins. On the opening night of camp Graham makes it clear that the lax ways of the past will no longer be tolerated. He lays out new rules. "And that goes for everyone from the lowliest rookie to the biggest star," he says, pausing awkwardly before adding: "Jurgensen...he is our biggest star."

Now this being his first year in the game, The Waterboy fails to understand one of pro football's verities—the omniscience of all first-year coaches. The new man is always much more organized than his predecessor, which is to say he is differently organized. He is much more in command, which is to say that no one has yet figured out how much he can get away with. He teaches the players things they swear they were never taught before. His silences are ominous. And as the Redskin players talk to the press, the people in Washington come to expect an offensive juggernaut. The Waterboy begins to form a dream. He sees touchdowns in all shapes and sizes and above them all he sees the coach, raised on the shoulders of his players, fingers forming a "V" while cameras flash. The Waterboy longs for that opening Wednesday night exhibition against the Colts, when the rest of the world will get a look at these new marvels to whom each day he issues T shirts and socks.

D.C. Stadium is packed with the faithful come to see the latest messiah work his magic against Baltimore. The din from the mob booms at The Waterboy from all sides and thrills him. The players grasp hands, slap each other on the back, exchange meaningful glances and more meaningful words: "This is it, baby...let's get it now...we're ready, babe." The crowd rises in one tumultuous whole for the opening kickoff. This is indeed it. The dream has at last come to life.

At the half Baltimore leads 35-0. Otto manages to salvage a .500 record that season, slips a game below it the next and four games below the one after that. In the course of those years Graham's enchantment wears off. The coach's gesture of approval, which is to clap his ever-present clipboard, becomes a team joke. One day the players make a bet as to how many times he will clap his clipboard. The guesses are high and practice is correspondingly astonishing. The Redskins hustle, they hit, they execute. Clap, clap, clap. Otto is amazed; he pities Sunday's opponent. As practice nears an end one of the offensive linemen realizes he can win the wager if he can excite just four more claps. He rips off the day's last play. Clap, clap, clap. Alas, one clap short; so, turning to the beaming coach, he pleads, "Couldn't we run just one more?"

It is January of 1969 and Graham, having completed the third year of a long-term contract, is sitting in the second-floor conference room of the old Redskin offices at Connecticut and L. His first pick has been a defensive back named Pitt Lips Epps. Now on the eighth round, with little enthusiasm, he has drafted a partially deaf blocking back from Kansas State named Larry Brown. Graham is musing over rumors that Vince Lombardi is coming to Washington. "I'll tell you what let's do," he says, coming to life. "Let's call Green Bay and offer them A. D. Whitfield for Donny Anderson. If they accept, we'll know we're fired." He laughs. The assistants do not; they have much shorter contracts.

Two blocks away, in the Hill Building, Edward Bennett Williams is not laughing either. Seated at his three-sided desk overlooking Farragut Square, he has admitted his mistake. Never again will he trust his instincts in pro football. From now on his moves will be as calculated as those he makes in a court of law where he has defended the likes of Jimmy Hoffa, Adam Clayton Powell and Bobby Baker. With all his persuasive powers, EBW lures Vince Lombardi to Washington.

And so another introduction. Lombardi stands at a lectern in front of his squad, hand held upward so that the three diamonds in the championship ring sparkle toward the players. The lips part and the big square teeth flash in a feral expression. "Let's be winners; there's nothing like it."

For The Waterboy the dream starts again, only it is less difficult to conjure up: the picture of the coach on the players' shoulders is not imagined this time but remembered from many photographs. Only the uniforms are different. To make matters easy, though, Lombardi discards the traditional Redskin burgundy and old gold for a new red and yellow gold creation that is hauntingly familiar. Indeed, if one substitutes green everywhere there is red and replaces the "R" on the helmet with a "G," why then Pitt Lips Epps becomes Willie Wood.

A month later, on the night of Preston Marshall's death, Lombardi sits at dinner in Duke Zeibert's Restaurant with members of the Redskins' board of directors. Slowly he begins to unburden himself. This player is not as good as everyone thinks, he says, the offensive line is slow, the defensive backs are small, and so on and so on. Finally one of his listeners, feeling a vote of confidence is needed, interrupts: "No one expects you to win the first year."

"Now wait a minute," says Lombardi straightening up. "I didn't say anything about losing." By Dec. 14 the Redskins are assured of their first winning season since 1955. Certainly now The Waterboy's dream is only a year away. Less than nine months later Lombardi dies.

On that day, Sept. 3, 1970, Bill Austin, whom Lombardi appointed head coach when he first fell ill, has the team in Tampa, preparing for an exhibition. Driving back from practice, his talk drifts to his family and the incredible costs of education. "And in a job like mine," he says, "if I go six and eight...." Which he does and Edward Bennett Williams immediately fires him.

EBW is brooding again. He will get the best coach that money will buy. And there he has a clue, for if anyone believes in the power of money, it is George Herbert Allen. So, for $875,000, living expenses, travel expenses, a house, a chauffeured car and other frills, Williams is suddenly presenting George Allen to a Washington press conference. A couple of months after that he says, "I gave Allen an unlimited expense account and he has already exceeded it."

It is draft day, three weeks after Allen has taken office, and The Waterboy, primarily because he now resides in Manhattan, is representing the Redskins in New York, which simply means that he must hold a telephone to his ear all day and announce to league officials what decisions are made at the other end of it. A job any boob could do—and made considerably easier by the fact that a few days before Allen has traded his fourth and eighth choices to the New Orleans Saints for their second-string quarterback, Billy Kilmer, and now, moments before the drafting is to start, he has dealt his first, third and assorted other choices to the Rams for a bunch of fossils. This gambit has produced helpless laughter from the other clubs' representatives in New York.

Everyone waits for Allen to deal off the second choice, too, but he still owns it by the time the 15 minutes that are allotted each club for its second-round draft choice starts for the Redskins. Allen is trying to work out a trade with the Cardinals, but with about five minutes left The Waterboy is told that if none can be made the selection will probably be Cotton Speyrer, a diminutive wide receiver from Texas. Dutifully he writes this name down on the card that he must submit when a choice is officially made. A league executive walks to his desk and says, "One minute." The St. Louis Cardinal representative, seated just in front of him, turns and says, "Tell 'em we'll give 'em Dave Williams." The Waterboy repeats that name into the phone and hears pandemonium break loose in Washington.

Then from the front of the draft room, he hears an official declare: "Washington passes in round two." All eyes turn on The Waterboy, and there are mean murmurs. Does this mean, he wonders, that Washington has blown its draft rights for the whole round? The answer to that is no, the team has just lost its place for the moment, but at the time no one in Washington answers The Waterboy's anguished plea for this information. In desperation, he hands the league official the card, and when the man in front of the room reads, "The Redskins choose Cotton Speyrer," a gasp, louder and more horrifying than the last, arises.

Finally there is life at the other end of the line. "Who is this?" asks a voice The Waterboy has never heard before. It belongs to George Allen. "Well, listen," the voice continues, "I don't want Sprayer or Spryer or whatever his name is. Let me talk to the Cardinals." But it is too late.

Nevertheless, day after day in training camp that summer the new coach praises Speyrer. And then, as suddenly as he was selected, he is traded, along with one of those future first-draft choices, for Roy Jefferson, a big, talented wide receiver. Privately, Allen lets it be known that he has fitted the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle.

By mid-October of 1971 the Redskins are 4-0, the only undefeated team in the league. They practice now in the seclusion of Redskin Park, a development near Dulles Airport that set Allen's unlimited expense account back half a million dollars. Practice is invariably a lackadaisical affair. Some of Allen's old Rams lie in the grass in brightly colored painters' hats while around and around the track on a bicycle goes Maxie Baughan, an aging red-haired linebacker in an engineer's cap. He jingles the bell on the handlebar and waves to his teammates. Out on the field George Allen is quietly talking to his defense, showing them diagrams after each half-speed play, exciting little enthusiasm, making little noise.

It is hardly inspiring, yet that Sunday the Redskins take victory No. 5 with a 20-0 shutout of St. Louis, and Redskin fans, who for years have accepted mediocrity with the same resigned smiles they wear during rival political administrations, get close to hysteria. But injuries begin to plague Washington. The Redskins play only .500 the rest of the way, and although they make the playoffs for the first time since 1945, they are immediately eliminated, extending George Allen's sorry record of never having won a playoff game.

But 1971 is not the last gasp for Allen's "old geezers." In 1972 they get even better and go 11-3, win their first division title since 1945 and their first playoff since 1943—and Allen's first ever. The town's football fans no longer tolerate defeat, and on New Year's Eve they bellow deafeningly as Washington buries Dallas 26-3.

Moments later, in the Redskin locker room, one of the oldtimers tries to explain Allen's genius. "Take Ray Schoenke," says the veteran. "He sat on the bench all year and he had to know the plays for every line position. Last week he filled in at guard and did a great job. Now today he has to go in at tackle and do another great job. You think George Allen will ever forget that? Ray Schoenke will be on pension with the Redskins for the rest of his life."

EBW is grinning from ear to ear, hugging two friends in his enormous arms. "You know," he says, "when we were losing, everybody loved us. I'd go to league meetings and they'd say, 'Ed-d-d-die,' and slap me on the back and hug me. I was almost as popular as Art Rooney. Now they see me and they growl 'Those S.O.B.'s.' " Williams' smile is growing too large for his face. "They hate us," he shouts gleefully.

And as The Waterboy stands looking at the now-empty field, one image keeps returning. At the final gun on New Year's Eve, the 1972 Washington Redskins run off the field with George Herbert Allen on their shoulders.



TWO DAYS before the 1940 title game, the Redskin backfield—Frank Filchock, Andy Farkas, Sammy Baugh, Dick Todd—showed its stuff. Helped by the home-field advantage, Washington held the Bears to a 73-0 victory.