Gibbs, Redskins a huge part of D.C.

So, I'm up late Tuesday in my hotel room, after seeing the 'Wolves smoke the Lakers in Minneapolis, and I get on the web, and I'm checking my old paper, The Washington Post, just to see what's going on, when I up and read that the 'Skins are talking about bringing Joe Gibbs back.

See, I don't think you realize what this means to my hometown.

I've written and said it a million times -- D.C. is a basketball town. The love extends from the playgrounds at Turkey Thicket, to Run 'N Shoot in Takoma, to Spingarn, Dunbar and DeMatha High, over to Georgetown and the Terps' new house, Comcast Center, to MCI, where the Wizards are well on the way to their 900th straight appearance in the Lottery, but the folks keep coming back. Baseball? An increasingly distant memory when the Senators played on the regular. Hockey? Doesn't register at all except for the 12,000 or so that go see the Caps. There is a rumor that there are not only one, but two, professional soccer teams in town. And we couldn't care less about football. No real tradition at the high school or college level, though the Fridge is trying to change that over in College Park. In Chocolate City, there's no interest at all in that thing called Number One that caused dyspepsia and angst in Baton Rouge and Norman and South Central L.A. It's not in the local nexus, this obsession with two-deep charts and whether this Jones kid can sling it like his pappy used to. Don't get it. Don't want to get it.



The 'Skins don't count.

The 'Skins are deep in the marrow.

The 'Skins are a culture.

The 'Skins are home.

The 'Skins are the cutters at the barber shop on Georgia Avenue, the ones that have to put up with the loudmouth Cowboys fans who've been talking junk.

The 'Skins are the bus drivers who wear burgundy and gold scarves over their blue shirts on cold mornings, when they drive the early shift to work.

The 'Skins are the secretaries at the law firms and the janitors in the government buildings, who would get to work late on Monday mornings because there were 500 field level tickets (hey, let's be real, they were folding chairs) usually available at 9 a.m. for next Sunday's game at RFK, and maybe, just maybe ...

The 'Skins are the mom and pop stores in Anacostia, the ones with the faded posters of Riggins and Monk and Doug Williams on the walls.

The 'Skins were Theismann and Rypien and Coleman and Clark and the Hogs and the Fun Bunch and Dexter, but more than anything, the 'Skins were Joe Jackson Gibbs.

You are not supposed to acknowledge these things when you are in my business, because we are supposed to be objective and not care about who wins and who loses, but you know, I cover basketball, and I'm plenty objective about the Wizards. (Ask them.) Can I write that the 'Skins have been my team since I was five? Is that okay? Even though, on occasion, I have to go to Ashburn and do a story on them? Can I have one freakin' team to root for, the team of my youth, the team of my city?

Because... on New Year's Eve, 1972, Charley Taylor burned Mark Washington like a stove with a bad pilot light, and it was Washington 26, Dallas 3, and when you're seven, and your team goes to the Super Bowl for the first time, that's a big deal.

Because... Monday nights were for Monday Night Football, but they were mainly for "Redskins Sidelines," the local recap show, and when you got a chance to sit in the studio audience, well ...

Because... you had a 'Skins hat, and gloves, and poncho, and lunchbox, and helmet, and jacket before puberty hit.

Because... your friends went for the Cowboys, or the Steelers, who were going to Super Bowls every other year, and you didn't.

Because... at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra would end its Christmas concert with a rousing rendition of Hail to the Redskins that brought the house down.

But mostly, because Joe Gibbs did something that mayors and city councilmen and senators and preachers and presidents didn't have a prayer of doing, and that's bring my city together. In my city, you're Republican or Democrat (mostly Democrat, by 9 to 1, at last count), you live in Ward 3, where the rich folks are, or in Ward 8, where the poor folks are, you go to public schools or the private ones that dot the landscape, you live in nice neighborhoods or in the projects, you drive in the HOV 3 lane or you take the Metro. Every day, there are divisions, hundreds of them, that keep people apart from one another in D.C. But during the '80s, when Coach Gibbs talked about needing "all you great fans" at RFK next Sunday, and you didn't have a ticket, and didn't know the first thing about how to get a ticket, and were planning to watch on TV, you thought he was talking to you anyway.

The 'Skins were always prepared, always disciplined, always physical, but always intelligent, too. They won big under J.J. Gibbs, who seemed to treat football like chess, and like the prodigies of the chessboard, he always seemed to be three steps ahead of the opposition. Nobody made better adjustments. How many times did Washington trail by seven, or 10, at the half, and you thought to yourself, 'ah, Gibbs'll come up with something.' And he'd come out with some exotic four-receiver set, or a throwback, and Richie Petitbon's defense would contract, and come up with a couple of turnovers, and then they'd give the ball to Riggins nine straight times, and that was that.

See, Joe J. Gibbs gave Washington an identity of its own, if you know what I'm saying. Most of the country, most of the world, thought of Washington as the federal government, which was true, but that wasn't the city, that was a few buildings down on Capitol Hill. Those political folks didn't have anything to do with the city, the city you grew up in. The White House might as well have been on Mars, for all it had to do with your life. But the 'Skins, they were yours. From guys like Mike Nelms, Clarence Harmon, Dave Butz, Russ Grimm and Ricky Sanders, to Charles Mann, Curtis Jordan, Brad Edwards and Charlie Brown, they were yours.

And when Riggins broke Don McNeal's tackle in Pasadena, and went 43 yards down the sideline in Supe XVII, well, your neighbors claim they heard you through the closed door, and the walls, and the yard, and you didn't believe them, but, well ...

For black folks in D.C., this was a big deal. See, the 'Skins weren't always ours. The 'Skins were the last team in the NFL to integrate, when the owner was a cuss named George Preston Marshall, who fought tooth and nail to keep black men from playing for his team, and lots of black folks rooted for somebody else, anybody else, for a long time because of that. But the owner changed, and the attitudes changed, and then the coach changed, and Joe Gibbs came to town, and he hugged black kids in church, and when he not only won a Super Bowl, but won one with Doug Williams as his starting quarterback, well, you simply have no idea how big a deal that was in my hometown.

So, when Doug had the 15 minutes of his life in San Diego, and some kid named Timmy Smith ran the ball like, well, Riggins, and Washington put up 35 -- 35!! -- in the second quarter against the Broncos to salt away the 22nd world championship of professional football, and you had to explain to your girlfriend why the newborn at the party was christened the Redskin Baby, well, it kind of made sense.

And when the '91 squad got out of the gate 11-0, and everyone knew that Mr. Gibbs had the best team in the NFL, it was like a three-month parade that couldn't end any other way than with the Old Man, the Squire of Middleburg, Jack Kent Cooke, holding up some more hardware and talking about "the best bloody coach in the world," and boy, this could go on for a while, and then, suddenly, Joe Gibbs was gone. Burned out. Retired. Sick of football.

And you felt... strange. Because now, your job -- your job!! -- was to go to Ashburn every day and be a beat reporter covering the team of your youth, for the paper you'd read every day for as long as you could remember (was there another eight-year-old whose heroes were Woodward and Bernstein?), and so you put all the memories in a box somewhere in your mind, because you couldn't be a fan anymore, because that wouldn't be right, or fair. You had the luck of covering the 'Skins the year after Joe Gibbs left, when the head coach was Good Ol' Bone, the loyal lieutenant who'd waited so long for his chance, and when the 'Skins crushed Dallas on Monday Night to open the '93 season, it seemed like things were just the same, but you soon figured out that wasn't so, the Skins had nothing left in the tank, and no genius around to figure something out. And you had to cover the Fall of Ashburn.

And the Old Man had to get rid of Good Ol' Bone, 'cause it wasn't working, and that was sad, but you had to do your job, and that was to cover the new guy, the guy who was going to make everybody forget about Coach Gibbs, the new, hot young assistant coach.

Who was... from Dallas.

And of course, that didn't mean anything.

Except, it sort of did.

You could tell, the way everyone would ask, 'Well, what is he like? I mean, it's hard to root for them now. 'Cause, you know, he's from Dallas.' And you'd try to tell them that Norv Turner was a good guy, but they weren't really listening.

And it's never easy to cover a team that loses, and boy, did the 'Skins lose during the '90s. They lost by margins big and small, to teams good and bad, and Norv would come out after every game, and talk about how hard his guys were playing (which was true), and how much they'd fought (true, again), and how close they were to turning this thing around (well, not so true), and it was a long, long way from Joe Gibbs.

And then, because most reporters don't cover one thing forever, you went on and covered something else, and you'd been gone for a while when this guy Snyder bought the team. Snyder's checkbook spends as well as anyone's, and he's brought in some good players here and there, but it hasn't gone well for Snyder when it comes to coaches. He tried the status quo, and that didn't work, and so he brought in a discipline guy and gave him total control, and that didn't work, and so he took more control of the team, and hired the coach of his dreams, his very own Joe Gibbs.

Who was... from college.

Except this guy wasn't Joe Gibbs.

He wasn't Marla Gibbs.

What he was, was a disaster.

Dan Snyder seemed like the worst kind of owner -- the one who didn't know what he didn't know. And the 'Skins were a national joke.

But then Tuesday night came, and the word got out. Coach Gibbs, back in town on a charger, to bring back the tradition, the pride. To a city that has gone through so much. A mayor smoking crack on camera. Madmen flying planes into our buildings. Madmen putting anthrax into our mail. Madmen shooting at everyone from parked cars, under cover of darkness, in broad daylight. There haven't been a lot of laughs here lately.

Got home Wednesday and everyone in town was... giddy. With excitement. With hope. See, Marbury is going home to play with the Knicks, and I know that's a big deal in New York, 'cause he's probably the best player to ever come out of that basketball-mad town. But he'd never won a championship as a pro there. This? This is Chuck Noll going back to the Steelers, Ice Cube going back to NWA, Dick Van Dyke hooking up with Mary Tyler Moore again. Everything old is new again.

I know. We ask sports to do so much, too much. What 11 men do on a football field has nothing to do with feeding your kids, or taking care of your grandma, or paying the rent. But in my hometown, the 'Skins make a difference. Joe Gibbs, a good and decent man -- and a great football coach -- is back in town.

I guess this means I renew my season tickets.

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.