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Elder Wisdom

A Dead Fan’s Notes

A view of RFK stadium during a football game
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

What would I wanna be buried with? That’s what I’ve been mulling since going to my old buddy Wally’s funeral yesterday. He took his fandom of the local football team with him to the grave.

I’d bet this was the first time in 25 years that me and Wally were in the same room. But he was one of my first pals and the funniest and craziest guy in the neighborhood and our high school, and he meant a lot to me growing up and made my life more fun for sure. So for me the service was loaded with sweetness. A daughter-in-law spoke of Wally’s “simple life,” where he took a job selling shoes at the age of 15 and kept it for 30 years, and how he devoted his spare time to beer and watching football and making sure his kids and grandkids and a dog named Michelob knew they were loved. And his big sister recalled when they were little how Wally would hold her hand as their mother combed the tangles out of her long hair, just wanting to help her through the pain. She tried to do the same for him the last several months of his life, spent fighting the cancer that killed him.  

But nothing about the funeral got me trying to think deep thoughts quite like all the focus on his love of the Washington Football Team. He had at least one piece of team gear in most of the photos that flashed on a video screen shown on a loop at the church. The family’s death announcement included news that his wish to be decked out in death as he had been in life—in team colors—would be honored. So inside that closed casket that was sitting behind the pulpit, which had a large burgundy and gold flower arrangement attached to it for the ceremony, Wally was wearing WFT gear from head to toe. 

Not that there’s anything novel about a guy trying to take something with him. I knew a bar band guitar hero from Queens who was going to be buried with his beloved Gibson Les Paul, until his family learned that the vintage instrument could fetch well into five figures from collectors and it stayed out of the coffin. And there’s lots of stories about people wanting to be buried with, say, other dead people. Or a gun. Or in their car.

But wanting to be identified as a WFT fan forever and ever, amen? Talk about a dying breed. Wally’s post-life wardrobe choice was maybe the most powerful of the million reminders I’ve gotten in recent years of how far the local football team has fallen. To anybody who grew up in the Dan Snyder Era, defining one’s life by allegiance to his team must be unfathomable. But to Wally and most other folks who happened to grow up in the D.C. area at any point from the 1970s through the early ‘90s, it’s wholly fathomable. Just as the photo loop playing at the funeral and Wally’s casket clothing show, the local football team really did mean the damn world to him.

I get it. I was right there with him as a fan for more than half my life. But me and most people I know not named Wally fell away hard for the last couple decades. My kids and COVID definitely brought me back to paying attention and even caring again the last few seasons, though. And this year, maybe because of Snyder’s forced distancing from the operation—he’s living in England?—I’m even yelling at the TV set for the first time in a long time. I screamed huzzahs at Taylor Heinicke when he got clobbered after the whistle against Philly in November and booed Carson Wentz from my living room for every one of his interceptions and even some completions last weekend. Just as any real fan would. Just as Wally would’ve, if he were still among us. 

My wife even got me a Washington Commanders hat for Christmas this year. I really can’t remember the last piece of WFT gear anybody gave me, but it’s been a good while. And though I’m not much for the holidays, I gotta say, I liked that gift. I even wore it to Xmas dinner with the in-laws. I’m not yet ready to say I want to wear it for all eternity. But, yeah, the hat made me happy. 

RIP, Wally.

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