Friday, October 07, 2011

Political Venue: The History of RFK Stadium, Part One

What came before

Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, former home of the Washington Redskins, celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 2011, on October 1st. Fifteen years gone are the stadium's football days of tailgates, bouncing bleachers, noise and home field advantage. Today RFK sits, an aging memorial to past glory, slowly decaying by the Anacostia River, still looking down East Capitol Street toward Capitol Hill and the government that gave birth to it, then nearly took it away.

Part One: Faded Glory
Part Two: Government Intervention
Part Three: Race and Football
Part Four: A Complex Relationship
Part Five: Ernie Davis, Bobby Mitchell and Ron Hatcher
Part Six: Wednesday
Part Seven: Thursday
Part Eight: Friday


When quarterback Ralph Guglielmi and the Redskins jogged off the field for the last time to end the 1960 season, a 38-28 loss to Sonny Jurgenson and the Philadelphia Eagles, the once-proud Washington NFL franchise was in complete freefall. The team had won one game that season, and a total of four over the two season tenure of head coach Mike Nixon.

Season ticket subscriptions had been below ten thousand for three years and Griffith Stadium, the twenty-five thousand seat baseball stadium the Redskins had called home since moving to Washington in 1937, was showing every bit of its fifty years of continuous service.

Much as it must seem a generation ago to today's fans that the Redskins were a feared team in the 1980s and early 1990s, so it must have felt to those fans in 1960 about the dominant teams of the 1930s and 1940s, when Slinging Sammy Baugh and the Redskins appeared in six NFL Championships in a ten year span. The Redskins had fallen on hard times.

The horizon was bright though. Washington had the number two overall pick in the 1961 draft, and were set to move into their new, fifty thousand seat, federally funded municipal stadium just down the street from the US Capitol for the 1961 season.

But before the field that would later be known as RFK Stadium could become the new home of the Redskins, before it could assume its place of honor in the hearts of Redskins fans and be iconic in the NFL community by its name alone, the Redskins would be forced to confront the modern realities of racial integration, risk losing the stadium altogether, and navigate a playing field as political as the city of Washington itself.

In the end the Redskins would integrate, the last NFL team to do so, and be rewarded immediately with a future Hall of Fame player. Later the team would be forever linked by tragedy with the man most responsible for the team's racial integration.

This is the story of RFK Stadium.

Political Venue: The History of RFK Stadium continues tomorrow with part two, Government Intervention.

RFK Stadium: Dudley Brooks / Washington Post photo from here via here.