At FedEx Field, Full Parking Lots, Full Seats and Full Hearts

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
Fans tailgate in the parking lots before the game between the Washington Commanders and the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

After all the buzz, whipped up by investment and talk of change, it seemed for a long stretch of Sunday afternoon as if FedEx Field might in the end look just like it had for years: un-full, unhappy, unburdened of any harbored hope that this season might be different.

And then, early in the fourth quarter, quarterback Sam Howell tucked the ball, took off and strode into the end zone and a brand-new reality. The crowd, reignited, belted out its beloved chorus: “Fight! For olllllld D.C.!”

It had been years since FedEx had felt fully alive. There were shimmering moments but nothing compared to this Sunday, when the crowd of 64,693 – considered a sellout following years of shrinking capacity – represented an entire region still riding high on the emotional jet fuel of being rid of Daniel Snyder. There was excitement for the future, a sense it was okay to dream again, but the euphoria of this day felt simpler.

Snyder was gone. They were still here.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Washington Commanders’ defense closed out the Arizona Cardinals with five straight stops, including two forced fumbles, and the crowd’s repeated roars made the 20-16 win feel like the playoff game new managing partner Josh Harris said he considered it to be.

At one point, the broadcast showed former quarterback Sonny Jurgensen wearing his Hall of Fame jacket and waving to the crowd while standing next to Harris in the owners’ suite.

“You’re seeing people hugging in the stands,” broadcaster Adam Amin said. “When was the last time you saw anything like that in the last decade here in Washington?”

FedEx Field fulfilled its greatest civic duty Sunday by uniting a community. Legends, corporate suits and VIPs cheered alongside lifelong fans: D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser; Taurean Patterson from Woodbridge; Kevin Durant; the Benggio-Coepedge tailgate from Gloucester County, Va.; Alex Ovechkin; and Joe Clark from Anacostia. The crowd they formed was strong, attuned, loud.

“I played a lot of games [in college] at Texas, and I’ve been in a 108,000[-fan] packed stadium, and it felt similar to that,” right guard Sam Cosmi said.

“There were some times we kind of let them down,” running back Brian Robinson Jr. said. “But they was there when we needed them the most.”

Early that morning, at 6:44 on Arena Drive outside FedEx Field, six trucks of die-hard fans quite literally witnessed the dawn of the new day. “Happy new year,” they told each other, unpacking, and nothing could dim their joy. When a group of plumbers realized they’d forgotten a keg hose, they sawed off the ends of a washing machine hose with pliers and a pocketknife and fashioned it to the coupler.

“We got beer!” one announced.

Over the next six hours, cars clogged the four arteries into FedEx. Undeterred by the steady drizzle, fans unfolded tables, erected tents, fired up grills, blasted music from the team’s heyday, shot dice. Footballs and bean bags and bass-heavy beats assailed the air. The vast parking lots remained not quite filled – their vastness a reminder of bygone glory, seas of concrete proving harder to hide than upper-deck seats – but they were undeniably fuller. Even some of the forgotten spaces in the far-flung lots hosted fans again.

Chris Ciliberti from Ashburn was back at FedEx for the first time in 14 years. He’d given up his tickets, sworn off the team until Snyder was dead or gone and spent many Sundays golfing or fishing or with his family instead. He sometimes still watched on TV – he’d grown up loving the team, after all – and in late July, the day NFL owners approved the sale, he and his wife, Kathryn, purchased tickets.

“It wasn’t even a decision,” Chris said.

“We’re 100 percent in,” Kathryn said.

The excitement was infectious. Maria Paras, 8, prepared for her first NFL game by taping to a window of her parents’ car a piece of notebook paper she’d colored: “GO CMANDER!” During the preseason, Evan Fowler, 41, changed the lock screen of his phone from his new fiancée to Howell. Ronnie Merica, 21, was celebrating his bachelor party with his cousins, and in two weeks, after the wedding, he and his wife plan to attend the Buffalo game as part of their honeymoon.

Ruben Juarez, from Gaithersburg, Md., swept out his arm.

“Look, there’s a bunch of tents,” he said. “It’s never this filled here. It’s always empty.”

Inside the stadium, the concourse bubbled with optimism. Despite the fan base’s hesitance to embrace the name Commanders, several fans stopped to snap a picture with Steve Baumler, the self-proclaimed “Washington Commander,” who dressed like a burgundy-and-gold George Washington. The custom Colonial-era get-up was inspired by Chief Zee – Baumler still fondly remembers taking a picture with the icon – and, he said, it took eight months to make and cost roughly “2½ lawyer hours.”

Before kickoff, three F-16s flew over the stadium as Mike Phillips played the national anthem on his saxophone. The crowd booed the Cardinals and cheered the Commanders. It erupted when a linebacker put a late hit on Howell, and again when Howell threw his first touchdown, and again, just before halftime, in frustration, after a sack-fumble touchdown.

Late in the third quarter, fans ripped Howell after he threw a pass into the dirt on third down. One yelled, “Stop staring the guy down!” Many booed the conservative play calling when, late in the fourth quarter, Washington ran on three straight plays in the red zone, opting to kick a field goal rather than try for a kill-shot touchdown.

The defense forced a fumble and a turnover on downs. The game was over. The fans mustered one final, tired cheer.

In terms of fans of a professional sports team, the crowd was normal – a description usually reserved for other stadiums in other cities. But here’s the thing: The fans weren’t just here to prove a point, to celebrate the chapter after Snyder. They were here because they care, and after two decades of decay and disrespect, they want better. And, at least on Sunday, they got it.