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A fan for the ages

For some, it's a three-century wait to get a Redskins season ticket

I am No. 17,447 on the waiting list for a pair of Washington Redskins season tickets. Since the waiting list moves up an average of only 50 places a year, I will get my tickets in the year 2336. The waiting list is 353 years long. Really.

This is why I, like thousands of other Redskins fans, spend more time trying to get tickets to games than watching the games themselves. We all rely on a black market that has become a cottage industry and a tradition in a big town with a stadium of limited size.

"Meet me in the phone booth behind the Exxon station at the Langley, Virginia, off-ramp on the parkway," the voice on the phone instructed. "Tonight at eight. Have $250 cash. I'm George. White station wagon." I had found two tickets to a Redskins-49ers game at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. I worried that George might be a homicidal maniac—or worse, that the tickets might be bogus. I could have gotten two seats for the same price from a ticket broker in Maryland, but the tickets were way up in the nosebleed section on the five-yard line, and the broker was an hour's train ride away.

This is how it is every game, every year, for les unticketed misèrables. A scalped end-zone ticket to see the Indianapolis Colts play in RFK Stadium in a blizzard would cost $100. The night the Giants' Lawrence Taylor & Co. broke Joe Theismann's leg, my seat was a folding chair on the field, behind the photographers. I didn't see a single play. The ticket had been a steal at $50 from a guy who works at RFK.

RFK Stadium's 55,750 seats have been sold out since Oct. 23, 1966, when then quarterback Sonny Jurgensen spiraled victorious over the St. Louis Cardinals 26-20 (current quarterback Jay Schroeder was in kindergarten that year). It was an ordinary game in a 7-7 season. And the last time anyone strode up to the ticket window and said, "Two please."

When the Redskins' season opens on Sept. 13 against the Philadelphia Eagles, a television camera will sweep the crowd as the announcer dutifully proclaims, "This is the 159th consecutive sellout at RFK Stadium, an NFL record." The Redskins say that it is a world record for any professional sporting event; it would sound a lot more exciting to Washington fans if most of us weren't on the outside looking in.

When I first phoned about season tickets some years back, the list was about 100 years long. Still, I went ahead and signed up earlier this year, only to learn that when I get the official letter that starts, "Dear Fan, Good News!..." I'll be 387 years old.

"Why do people even bother to apply?" I asked a Redskins ticket person, even as I was applying. "Uh, I guess they're waiting for a bigger stadium or something," was the response. The "or something" would have to be the relocation of the entire federal government to Des Moines. And this was the bigger stadium; RFK opened in 1961, replacing the 32,000-seat Griffith Stadium.

Hope springs eternal. One year the ticket office conscientiously put a newborn baby on the waiting list. "His parents wrote as soon as he was born asking us to put him on the list as Baby Boy," recalls ticket manager Sue Barton. "They wrote again when they'd decided on his name. They didn't want to lose those few days in between."

There are other ways to see a Redskins game. I could apply to be a hot dog vendor at RFK, but there's a waiting list for that, too. At a preseason game some years back, a young fan from Maryland was just cruising the stadium when he spotted an open space big enough to hold a short row of seats. He pointed out this careless waste of space to stadium officials, who installed the seats and gave him lifelong rights to two.

The fans' ticket tenacity has created legal, moral and ethical dilemmas. The Redskins see the tickets as leased property on which renewal rights can be claimed by a survivor in the immediate family, should the holder die. Their custody can be hard-fought. "In divorce cases," says Redskins spokesman Ronn Levine, "the Redskins tickets are right up there with the kids and the house."

In July an Alexandria, Va., circuit court had to decide the case of a mother who was suing to make her son return the family's season tickets, which she claimed he had stolen. After the son had said he would go to jail rather than give up the tickets and appeared headed for the slammer, Ma relented, although she had already won the case. Well, sort of relented. She will let her son use two of the family's five tickets.

The Redskins ticket staff—three hardworking souls in a noncomputerized office—keeps busy "counting, perforating and stuffing the tickets into envelopes." And every week it adds new names to the waiting list.

I whiled away several summer hours scouting this season's scalpers' prices. End-zone seats are running $100 each per game, and the price goes up roughly $2 a yard to the $200 seats on the 50-yard line. Add 25% if the Redskins are playing Dallas or San Francisco. Perhaps I should buy just one of those cheap seats behind the photographers and, like that fan from Maryland, poke around the rafters of the stadium for someplace where a few new seats might be wedged. It's my only hope.

The 353-year wait is growing. This year, every single season-ticket holder renewed. "And so," ticket manager Barton sighed, "no one moved off the waiting list. Absolutely no one."