Naming the stadium after Bobby Kennedy was an inside baseball affair, bureaucratic infighting at its best. The name change also signaled a change in the fortunes of a franchise. Curly R's special series on the history of RFK Stadium continues.
Part One: Faded Glory
Part Two: Government Intervention
Part Three: Football and Race
Part Four: A Complex Relationship
Part Five: Ernie Davis, Bobby Mitchell and Ron Hatcher
Part Six: Palace Intrigue
Part Seven: The Stadium Becomes Legend
Part Eight: Friday
That first season in the newly renamed RFK Stadium, 1969, serves as a bridge to what fans of a certain age think of as the start of the modern era of Redskins football. Vince Lombardi had come to Washington as head coach. Larry Brown, Pat Fischer, Chris Hanburger, Sam Huff, Sonny Jurgenson, Brig Owens and Charley Taylor were all on a team that suffered fewer losses than any Redskins team in fourteen years. RFK sold out every game. Within two years, Billy Kiilmer, Jack Pardee and Richie Petitbon would be on the team that made it to Super Bowl VII, eventually losing to the only undefeated NFL team of all time, the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Many of the traditions we took for granted in the 1980s and 1990s were established in this period: Tailgates in Lots 7 and 8 by the river, walking the promenade of vendors from Metro to RFK's front door, bouncing the north side bleachers, asking the guy with the portable radio what just happened because the sound system was always so awful at RFK.
And that is part of what made RFK so great as a football venue, so appropriate for those great Redskins teams of the 70s, 80s and 90s; it was a downscale facility in upscale town. The team and the stadium never seemed to take themselves too seriously even when no city takes itself more seriously than Washington, DC.
The design of the stadium itself became a character in the drama of Redskins football. From above, RFK is a perfect circle, but viewed from the edge, as you would on approach from parking lots or the Metro, the cantilevered roof has curves, like a 1960s calendar girl laying on her side, a lipstick kiss over the month of September. Inside the halls were cavernous, the food basic and the beer cold. Rowdiness of the type seen commonly at FedEx Field today would not ever come to RFK Stadium.
Built for use as a baseball or football venue, the north bleachers swung in and out on an arc rail to clear the outfield. Once the Senators abandoned RFK for good following the 1971 baseball season, the bleachers stayed in place, even though they were not meant as permanent seating. Their attachment to a rail assembly and not the ground itself made them less stable than permanent bleachers, and fans figured out early when things were going well that bouncing in unison would yield a resonant frequency, the visual effect and resulting noise were somewhat startling and lent to the home field advantage.
Looking up, the inward bow of the cantilevered roof was perfectly angled to bounce reflected sound from the stands directly below onto the field, making the venue much louder for the visitors than an otherwise open air stadium of fifty-six thousand might be. This specific design is cited by many Redskins fans as a key weakness of FedEx Field; despite being more than thirty thousand seats larger, all noise generated in the new stadium simply escapes into the open air above. And the cantilevered roof of RFK gaps over the upper deck, offering those in the last row views outside the stadium of the surrounding area, including the US Capitol.
Small and quirky and without a bad seat in the house, Redskins fans wish it never had to end for RFK.
Political Venue: The History of RFK Stadium concludes tomorrow with part eight, Coda.
RFK Stadium: Dudley Brooks / Washington Post photo from here via here.