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Mike Downey

A Kid's Game in a World of Grown-Ups

January 24, 1988|Mike Downey

HERNDON, Va. — Adults pay scalpers $500, $1,000, sometimes even $1,500 for Super Bowl tickets. Adults lay bets on the game. Adults tailgate in the stadium parking lot, argue about the quality of the quarterbacks, ogle the short skirts of the cheerleaders or the tight pants of the players, second-guess the coaches, second-guess the referees, third-guess the instant-replay guy, and pretend that the autographs they seek are for their children.

The kids themselves, well, they sort of get left out. Their parents have enough trouble getting tickets, without dragging them along. They can't call Las Vegas to place a bet. Nobody elicits their opinions on the game. Nobody interviews them. Although children appreciate their favorite football teams as much as anybody, they remain on the outside of the Super Bowl, looking in.

As the Washington Redskins went through one last workout at home Saturday before splitting for San Diego, some of their smallest fans peeked through holes in the fences, like knickerbockered kids at a knothole in a Norman Rockwell sketch. For most of them, it was their last look at the Redskins until the great date with the Denver Broncos next Sunday on television.

On the Redskin Park practice field, Jay Schroeder, now the understudy to starting quarterback Doug Williams, hummed a pass. Defensive back Darrell Green didn't see it coming. It caught him right in the ribs, with an ooomph , and Green crumpled into a heap and lay still.

"Darrell!" yelped a young boy at the fence. "Get up, Darrell! C'mon, get up!"

A couple minutes later, Darrell got up.

"Whoa!" the kid said. "I thought he got knocked conscious, or something."

A dad, probably a dad, squeezed the boy's shoulder and assured him that Darrell didn't get knocked conscious.

While the team worked out, a class of eighth graders from the Hyattsville (Md.) Middle School waited, in an office upstairs from the locker room, for one of the players to spend a few minutes with them. They were members of the TV Club, which, for anybody out there older than 30, is the modern equivalent of the Audio-Visual Club.

The kids had notebooks and cameras with them, including a video camera on a tripod that a faculty member had set up. On the sofa, Kesha Fields, pretty in a velvet suit, studied her notes and rehearsed one of her questions out loud, practicing to be the next Barbara Walters.

"How does it feel," she asked the empty space next to her, "to be the first black quarterback ever to play in the Super Bowl?"

"Very nice," her teacher said.

Downstairs, there was a commotion. Practice had broken up at last. The kids from Hyattsville looked at their watches. They had been waiting patiently since 11 a.m., for an afternoon interview promised them between 1 and 1:30. But, Coach Joe Gibbs' practice had gone long, and, as budding journalists, the kids were discovering one of the occupational hazards of the business: Waiting.

One boy slumped back impatiently into his chair and said, "Man, by the time we get this interview, it's gonna be old news!"

The children, black and white alike, sat still and waited some more, until one of them looked out an upstairs window toward the players' parking lot and said: "Look! There goes Jay Schroeder!"

"Let's get him!" said another, and out of the room they raced.

At the door to the Redskin locker room, Joe Gibbs was going over his conference championship team's practice progress and injury status. Green was OK, he said. "Just stung a little." Art Monk, back catching passes again after an injury, looked healthy and ready to confront Denver.

"That about it?" Gibbs asked, and moved toward the door to the Redskin clubhouse, which was off-limits to outsiders.

Another dad, probably a dad, intercepted the coach just as he yanked on the handle. He introduced the little girl at his side, Melissa.

"Hi," Gibbs said, bending down to shake hands.

"I saw you on TV!" said Melissa, excitedly.

"You did?" Gibbs asked.

"Yes!" said Melissa. "Why . . . why . . . ?"

"Why what, sweetheart?" Gibbs asked.

"Why did you bench Jay?"

Kids ask the darndest things.

"Well, because I'm gonna play Doug," Gibbs explained, with exaggerated, almost Mister Rogers politeness. "Sometimes we play Jay, but now we're playing Doug."

Melissa looked the coach in the eye.

"Well," she said. "Put Jay back."

"Better be careful, now. Doug's standing right behind me," Gibbs said, laughing, and disappeared through the door.

Everybody in Washington has to be a politician once in a while. John Kent Cooke, executive vice president and son of chairman of the board Jack Kent Cooke, can tell you about the time when defensive end Dexter Manley was unhappy with his Redskin contract, and wanted out. He got a three-page letter from Sheila Wiley, a sixth-grader from Middlesburg, Va., who considered herself Dexter's No. 1 fan.

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