I recently read and interesting article about the rising numbers of women who watch football. I found it interesting that they’re only now catching on. Me — I had an early introduction to football. The youngest of four kids, I grew up in a busy family of sports enthusiasts. When I was 3, my brother Paul played football at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia. On fall weekends you could count on two things: teen-agers disappearing from the house and the Redskins appearing on television.
Older brothers are mythical creatures to 3-year-olds, and mine was a source of infinite wonder. Every time the Redskins were on TV, it seemed that Paul was nowhere to be found. His conspicuous, Superman-like absence could only mean one thing — that he played football for the Redskins. This idea was confirmed by the fact that we owned a set of maroon and gold vinyl seat cushions, which my parents would tote to my brother’s games.
“My brother plays for the Redskins,” I’d tell people. Frequently.
You can imagine the disappointment when I learned the truth. My brother’s cape was Woodson Cavaliers Red, not Washington Redskins maroon.
Fast-forward eight years. I’m about 10 or 11 years old, standing in line at a Baskin Robbins ice cream store at Tyson’s Corner shopping center, just outside of Washington, D.C. I hear a slight ruckus behind me (stop me if you’ve heard this before). I turn around, and — lo and behold — Joe Theismann’s standing there in a suit and tie.
I was well-schooled in football by that age, and I knew a Redskins quarterback when I saw one. I also knew that something was wrong — very, very wrong. The only discernible colors on Joe Theismann’s suit were Cowboys blue and silver.
I stared at him for what seemed like an eternity.
Meanwhile, in the cavernous recesses of my mind, a group of brain cells huddled and reviewed the play. They lined up in formation and passed an urgent message: Don’t let this moment pass without saying something.
I didn’t have much confidence at the age of 10. My parents were divorced by then, and I was separated from my siblings, two of whom were in their 20s. The joy of my first 6 years of life had been replaced by sadness and isolation. Oddly enough, one of the few remaining constants was watching football. Every weekend of every season, I could count on somebody watching a game on TV, and it was a welcome escape.
Back at the ice cream store, Joe Theismann looked at me. Don’t let this moment pass without saying something. I summoned all the courage that a child could muster and asked, “Where’s your maroon, Mr. Theismann?”
I’ve written about this moment before — in a column that I wrote when I was news editor for a small chain of newspapers in Southern California. “Theismann beamed down at the child like Zeus would in that moment before delivering a bolt of lightning to the pagans below,” I wrote.
Theismann himself was about to deliver a bolt out of the blue, because tucked inside that blue suit was a bolt of maroon fabric on his tie. I don’t remember a word passing between us. He pulled the tie from his suit jacket and presented a perfectly perfect maroon stripe to my disbelieving eyes, and in doing so he scored one of the greatest goals a man can achieve: He gave a child faith.
Joe Theismann gave me a reason to believe in people at a time when I had many reasons not to. I’ve held on to that sacred moment ever since. I was a Redskins fan before that encounter, but I was a Redskins fanatic after it – even after my quarterback’s career-ending injury. That team could do no wrong in my book.
More than a decade later I was sitting around a newsroom shooting the breeze with a couple of Sports guys. It was the early 90s and the Redskins were headed for the Super Bowl. Our conversation turned to football.
One of the Sports writers, a confirmed cynic, made the mistake of using the words “Joe Theismann” and “a-hole” in the same sentence. It’s not nice for girl editors to hit boy reporters in the newsroom, so I slapped him with my first-hand account of Joe Theismann instead. I tossed in some details about the man’s post-football life and career for good measure and chastised the reporter for his unsubstantiated allegations.
“All football players are a-holes,” he said, clearly unmoved. “Who cares anyway! As long as they play like they’re supposed to and win games, what difference does it make what they do off the field?”
“It made all the difference in the world to me,” I said.
A few minutes later the Sports editor walked up and said that if I wrote a column about Joe Theismann, he’d run it on his sports page. So I did. It ran under the headline, “One maroon stripe can give a cynic faith.”
About five years later I was living in Texas when a letter arrived in the mail. It was postmarked from Hawaii, and the return address said Joe Theismann. Inside was a hand-written letter from him, thanking me for the kind words I’d written about him in my column. Apparently someone read it and sent him a copy. At the bottom of his letter he wrote, “P.S. — I’ll have you know, I still like my ice cream.”
Well, Joe, it’s been 30 years since that day in the ice cream store, but I’ll have you know I still love my Redskins. And every weekend of every football season, I sit down with my husband and 4-year-old son and cheer for that team.
When people ask me how I can live in Texas and love the Redskins, I tell them my Joe Theismann story.
Charlie Fern (aka @misscharlie) is a former White House speechwriter who runs a full-scale communications consulting firm called Charlie Fern Ink, llc. She spends most of her time in Southern California and Central Texas with her husband and 4-year-old son. When she's not watching football, she serves as a volunteer chair for the Texas Book Festival, a fund-raiser for Texas public libraries (this year on October 31-November 1, 2009).