Washington

‘I love it being back’: Football fans embrace Washington’s new era

LANDOVER, Md. — FedEx Field has had more than its share of detractors over the years, but good luck trying to find any of those critics at Sunday’s season opener for the Washington Football Team.

After empty seats and recorded crowd noise last year, a sun-drenched Landover stadium was packed with clapping, chanting and cheering NFL fans happy to welcome the return of football — even if the home team did come up short in the end.

“I love it being back here in person,” said Seth Lockard. “Last year, we had no fans, nobody able to go to the game, and now it’s like everyone’s excited for week one.”

The 24-year-old Washington fan was among an estimated crowd of 52,753 on hand for the season opener, a 20-16 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. 

For Connor O’Brien, 31, attending the game is a big deal because he was able to restart a family tradition. He and his brother attended nearly every home game for about 11 years until the pandemic hit.

“Because of the COVID thing, it’s been a bummer,” Mr. O’Brien said. “So we’re happy we’re here.”

The smell of burgers and brats on the grill filled the air outside the stadium as the pregame tailgating tradition seemed to be in midseason form.

“There’s tons of cars here. Everyone’s tailgating and having a good time [getting] to drink beer — all that,” Mr. O’Brien said. 

A new season for the defending NFC East champion brings an atmosphere of excitement and hype, but Mr. Lockard also noticed “a new culture for the fans and for the whole team in general.”

The culture change, he said, is partly because of Ron Rivera, who became the coach last season and also beat cancer.

“I think he changed this team around. I think that it’s completely different,” Mr. Lockhart said. I think he changed the culture of the team, and it’s [going] in the right direction.”

Mr. Lockhart said ditching the team’s nickname before last season has also helped fans turn a corner.

Under pressure from activists and corporate partners over a nickname that was increasingly considered offensive, the franchise rebranded itself from “Washington Redskins” to “Washington Football Team.” 

The generic placeholder was intended as a stopgap until another name could be picked, but “Washington Football Team” is reportedly on the short list after an unexpected run to the playoffs. 

Joshua Schall, 40, said he understands the temporary name but wonders why it is taking so long to nail down something permanent.

“I don’t blame them for changing from Redskins, but I’m really pissed that there was nothing in place,” Mr. Schall said. “How could you not see this coming? That’s the issue.”

He is not a fan of the current name because the “location sport” naming method is common for soccer, not football. Of names that are in the mix, he likes “The Washington Generals” and “The Washington Defenders.”

Mr. Schall and wife Mandy, wearing burgundy and gold, set up foldable chairs and sipped beverages before heading into the stadium.

Ms. Schall, 39, said it’s “a day without the kids, the sun is shining so beautiful — it’s a perfect day for football.”

As a former dancer, she said, she was excited to see the first performance of the Washington Football Dance Team. The coed squad was assembled in the offseason to replace the all-female cheerleading troupe at the heart of a sexual harassment scandal involving team owner Dan Snyder and a long list of former team executives and officials. 

In a nearby parking lot, Thomas Maddams, 20, doused himself with sprayable sunscreen before taking down a Washington-themed tent and heading into the stadium. 

He was with his father, mother and brother and said they had not been to a home game for two years.

“It’s nice to have fans here,” he said. “You know, last time we came was [against] Detroit, and there wasn’t really many fans here.”

There were too many Detroit fans that day, he said, so it’s “nice to see some excitement” for the Washington Football Team.

As for the team’s name, Mr. Maddams said it does not matter “as long as they win football games.”

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