Introduction by Marty Smith, ESPN NASCAR reporter:
Few personal qualities are more admirable or inspiring than honesty. The reason is simple: scarcity.
These days, press conferences ooze with enough predetermined, clichéd, monotone drivel to drive the Tasmanian Devil into hibernation. And because it’s so rare for public figures to spill truth -- real truth, with candor and excitement and raw emotion, the kind that makes you vulnerable --- we’re plumb-awed when they do.
And when a star spits vulnerable truth, the impact is even greater. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s biggest star. He is among sport’s biggest stars. He is articulate, thoughtful and honest when answering questions. When he talks, sport listens. Not just NASCAR. Sport.
I received a call from Junior on Tuesday, giddy as a schoolgirl to detail his experience at the Redskins-Giants "Monday Night Football" thriller. He was so excited, in fact, that he felt compelled to put his thoughts and emotions on paper. He was bursting with feelings that had to live in the written word. Sometimes saying it just doesn’t suffice. You must write it.
I can relate. It happens to me every day.
So Junior wrote. And what he wrote encapsulates the oft-intangible importance of sport, from the ultra-unique perspective of a man who both consumes that emotion -- and provides it to millions.
There is nothing like winning a race. There is something that’s close.
At least for me. The adrenaline rush, the magnitude of the moment, the electric atmosphere, the appreciation for everything that got me to that moment. I felt it Monday night.
But to get you to Monday night, I have to take you somewhere else first: my grandfather Robert Gee’s back porch in Concord, N.C. The year was 1983, and it was my 9th birthday party. The gift from my mother was a Washington Redskins uniform. I had asked for just the helmet, but she took it to another level. The pants, the jersey, the helmet, she gave me the whole smash, pads and all.
That was when I officially proclaimed my devotion solely to the Redskins. I had watched games before, particularly the 1983 Super Bowl, when John Riggins ran “I-Right 70 Chip” on fourth-and-1. He went 43 yards for a touchdown to put the Skins ahead 20-17. They won 27-17. To say I was intrigued would be understating it a bit. But when momma got me the jersey, from that moment forward, I might as well have been lining up alongside Riggins himself.
For years, the Earnhardt-Riggins combo, nobody could stop it, especially the half-chair cushion that I used as a tackling dummy in my living room in Dooley, N.C. I lined up across from that cushion year after year and mimicked the aggression broadcast over our television every Sunday. Valiant efforts that cushion gave, but Earnhardt in full Redskins gear was too much.
As I got older, my loyalty to the Redskins thickened. In my eyes Joe Gibbs could do no wrong. My role models weren’t holding steering wheels and mashing gears on Sunday. They wore burgundy and gold with names like Art Monk and Darrell Green. I grew out of wrestling for yardage with the cushion. I finished school, raced cars, became a man. Through every second of my life though, I was as die-hard as one could imagine.
I had my chance to catch a few games. Clubs seats and suite passes to some wins, some losses. Those were dreams fulfilled, seeing my Skins play live and in person, gouging and grinding out the clock. I even got an invite in 2010 to sit in the owner’s box and witness a late Sunday-night win against our rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. Only I was so nervous managing the weight of the situation that I don’t recall how much I enjoyed it.
Think about it: I was standing in a buffet line with Joe Theismann. Joe Gibbs was a half-dozen seats away from me with Redskins owner Dan Snyder studying every play, every route, every blocking assignment. I get asked one question a lot: “What celebrity encounter would render you starstruck?” The answer is simple -- anyone who’s ever strapped on a Redskins helmet, much less coached them to three Super Bowls.
So a few weeks ago I got up the nerve to ask Snyder if he had two empty seats in the building for the Monday night game against the Giants. To my excitement, he provided my girlfriend, Amy, and I with two owner’s suite passes in less than a week’s notice. This would be the third game I would watch in the owner’s box. There was that Cowboys game on Sept 12, 2010, and there was the final preseason home game against the Tampa Bay Bucs this year. Dan and his wife, Tanya, couldn’t be kinder, more generous people.
Here the Redskins are playing one of the biggest regular-season games of the year, and I’m sitting in the front row of his suite, with no doubt in my mind this was the best seat in the house. The crowd was in it from the start. The 2012 season has been a resurrection year for the Skins. Robert Griffin III has brought hope and promise of brighter days. The fans' excitement reflects these emotions very well. So we watched, we cheered, we prayed, and in the end we jumped for pure joy over a closely fought victory. Then it hit me.
I was feeling that feeling. That one I can’t describe.
“How does it feel to drive at 200 mph?”
“How does it feel to go four wide at Talladega?”
“How does it feel to win the big race?”
I never thought I would replicate that kind of excitement outside a race car. But there it was: that feeling. And it felt amazing. Everyone has their top-of-the-mountain moment. Outside of racing, this was mine. I was overcome with humility. How did I get from that back porch at Grandpa Gee’s house at 9 years old to here? It just felt incredibly surreal. All my years of being a fan, the ups and downs, tragedy and triumph. Now it made perfect sense.
Thank God I asked for that helmet for my birthday back in 1983. It was the right decision. Because there I was, soaking in elation with thousands of like-minded individuals, screaming victory at the top of our lungs.
Hail to the Redskins!