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Elder Wisdom

RIP RFK Stadium, Where A Dirtball Came Of Age

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: RFK Stadium is seen from East Capitol Street in Washington, DC on September 27, 2023. (Photo by Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

No building means more to an old guy than a stadium. I’ve thought about this a lot since news broke that the demolition of RFK Stadium in D.C. is imminent. Mentions of that place get me at least as emotional as any school or bar or restaurant from my past. Only my boyhood home comes close. Happy tears, always. I decided I shouldn't be alone here. So let’s relive.

RFK opened in October 1961, less than a month after I was born (though it was originally called “D.C. Stadium” since there weren't yet dead Kennedys to honor). The then-modern multi-use coliseum made an immediate mark in the sporting world when the federal government, which owned the land it sits on, told Washington owner George Preston Marshall he could either integrate his squad or be evicted. Members of the American Nazi Party marched on the site urging the racist tenant to fight the government mandate, but Marshall caved and traded for Bobby Mitchell.

But, just being honest, if I’m thinking about RFK it’s less likely to be about the stadium’s place in the culture than about my personal relationship with the place. I mean, that’s where I saw my first baseball game. I was in second grade. I’m not clear right now on who the Senators played that night (I believe it was the Detroit Tigers) and my dad’s no longer around to tell me. But I sure recall being awed by the first sight of stadium lights driving down East Capitol Street and the green grass field as we walked in. Childhood sights that bonded lots of us. We lost our Senators in 1971 and the only baseball we had for 34 years was exhibition ball. But I’d take what I could get. I saw the biggest dick in the Hall of Fame in the locker room after an old-timers' game in the mid-1980s. In 1999 I was on the field as working media for another exhibition when Mark McGwire hit two balls onto the roof during batting practice, something neither I nor anybody else in the stadium had ever seen before. 

RFK got another baseball team in 2005 when the Montreal Expos came to D.C. as the Washington Nationals and used the stadium as their temporary home. I got to see Barry Bonds hit his 706th home run at RFK near the end of that first season, a time when his chase of Babe Ruth was the biggest story in baseball. And, speaking of bonds, I took my eldest son to his own first baseball game there a year later. 

The city’s football team, thanks to the racist owner’s caving, made lots of memories for me at RFK, though most of the good ones came via television; tickets for games were impossible to get throughout my youth. My first live WFT game was the 1983 NFC Championship, Washington vs. San Francisco. I showed up early in the morning and worked the parking lot until around kickoff when I found a guy selling a ticket for $25. WFT won 24-21 on a last-minute field goal. I was just happy to be there.

In December 1986, an owner of the company I worked for making organizational charts of so-called “Beltway Bandit” defense contractors gave me two tickets to the Giants game at RFK. I gave the other one to my buddy Louie. Both teams were 11-2, making this the biggest game of the season, and in the parking lot a ticketless fan offered us $250 apiece, which was more than I would make in a week on the job. We turned it down. The first play we saw when we got to our seats was Lawrence Taylor smashing Jay Schroeder, causing a fumble and setting the tone for the game, which the Giants won. But Louie and I still talk about that day and always agree we made the right call keeping the tickets. We saw Lawrence Taylor in his prime, for chrissakes.

I only have a couple physical keepsakes in the basement from my days in the stadium. There's a Christmas ornament I made myself out of grass I collected myself after the last WFT game at RFK, a stomping of the Dallas Cowboys in December 1996, as thousands of us grieved the end of that wondrous era by storming the field and doing vandalism. I put the turf inside transparent plastic ornaments, and it has decomposed into stems and dirt through the years and now looks like cheap weed did back in high school. But I know what it is and think about where it came from every holiday season. 

There’s also a set of coach’s headphones that I, um, found in a coaches' box right above our upper deck seats after a 1983 Washington Federals–Philadelphia Stars USFL game. They have a weird two-prong input chord that makes them unusable for consumer-grade hifi purposes but I’ve kept them around nonetheless.

RFK, being from the multi-purpose realm, also gave me lots of memories beyond football and baseball. My first unsupervised rock concert was there: Ted Nugent, Nazareth, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Aerosmith in May 1976. I still have the ticket stub, though the ink has faded so much you need to take my word that I paid only $9.50 to be among the horde of dirtballs inside the stadium that glorious day. I also saw the Rolling Stones and U2 a few times each at RFK, so I got to see Bono dislocate his shoulder falling down a wet ramp in 1987. I saw The Who during what I believe was their first final tour 36 years ago (they’re still touring). I remember briefly watching Jewel play a rock festival there in the mid-1990s when she got hit by a frisbee only a few minutes into her set and fled in a huff.

The greatest show I didn't see was also at RFK: Bob Dylan with Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead in July of 1986. My buddy Tim was the holder of our tickets but when he came home early from his construction job that afternoon he left them at the site, and by the time we realized the fuck-up it was hellishly hot and we were too wasted to make another trip. It looks real bad on paper to have missed that bill, but even hardcore Dylan and Dead fans have told me over the years that the RFK show was memorable only for everybody being miserable. 

RFK is where I got to see Johan Cruyff in the flesh for a couple seasons when the Dutchman, regarded by many as the greatest soccer player of his generation, played for the Washington Diplomats of the NASL. The mother of a pal worked with a Dips cheerleader and got us free tickets whenever we wanted, so I caught a lot of Cruyff games. My greatest soccer memory from that era, however, is my friend John getting in a fistfight with the Diplomaniac, the team’s mascot. Seeing John rolling on the gravel and trading big right hands with a guy wearing a soccer ball–shaped pillow the size of a beanbag chair on his head still hits me harder than anything I saw Cruyff do in D.C.

The stadium has been largely vacant since the Nats moved to the Navy Yard in 2007 and the city immediately let RFK go to hell. Several Astroturf fields popped up on the parking lots outside the stadium some years ago to give the site some relevance. In 2020, when COVID caused the cancellation of all local scholastic sports, my son’s heroic high school football coach organized practices there for players from all local schools, thereby giving my kid and so many others an athletic outlet when very few others were available (D.C. was the only "state" in the country to not have any scholastic sports for an entire year during the pandemic). During those workouts, I’d sit in the parking lot and get sad whenever my gaze turned toward the decayed stadium. The demolition will be a mercy killing. 

The stadium came up in conversation when I was staying at a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in January 2017. A gang of old-as-dirt dirtballs was sitting next to me in the courtyard one morning, and I knew some sort of “rock legends” cruise was launching nearby so I asked if they were one of the featured bands. Indeed. 

“We’re Nazareth,” one of the men said. Oh wow. I immediately began waxing emotional about them being part of my first rock concert in May 1976 at RFK and how important that day was to me and how I still think about that show all the time. I meant every word, then I noticed the looks of pain on band members' faces. None of them even faked being happy to hear a chunky old guy prattle on about his youth or showed any desire to travel back four decades with me to that place and time. I went from being on the verge of tears to giggling at how uncomfortable I made this geezer gaggle of ingrate cruise-ship legends while trying to be nice. Nowadays I wish I'd crooned a few bars of "Love Hurts" in the key of off to off-put them further. But, man, that was funny. If it wasn't for the nearly and dearly departed stadium, I never would have had that moment. Or any of the others. What a place.

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