Sunday night, the Washington Redskins made their fans feel a long-dormant emotion: pure exhilaration.
A piece like the one you are about to read will usually contain the trope that a win like Sunday night's 28-18 meat-grinder of a victory by the Washington Redskins over the Dallas Cowboys, which gave Washington its first NFC East title and home playoff game since the 1999 campaign, has somehow mended the scars of many hopelessly fallow seasons that have come and gone since Jack Kent Cooke accepted the Lombardi Trophy from Paul Tagliabue in January 1992.
Some tropes originate from truth, but this is not one of them. The thousands of hours and thousands of dollars that Redskins fans have allocated for tickets, parking passes, transportation, merchandise, food and drink, and much, much more can never be gotten back. They are sunk costs, a price of the obsession we have with our teams, often from birth until death (and occasionally after death), for reasons that have their roots in psychology and emotion as often as in geography. As it is not possible for us to regain what we have lost, and since divestment can exact its own heavy price (social isolation, emotional uncertainty, self-loathing), most of us hope that a magical increase in dividends is not far away.
Games like Sunday night's are rare and precious things in sport. There are one-off championship games that mean more in the grand scheme of things (Super Bowl, The World Cup, UEFA Champions League, etc.), but Sunday night was different. Sunday night's game was a match-up that, when the schedule was released this past spring, was only a division title decider in the dreams of the most optimistic Washington fans, whose team had not played a December game of significance in five years.
The beauty of the game's officially subordinate place is that there was little broadcast excess (ESPN 980 did eight hours of pregame coverage, but then they would, wouldn't they?), none of the show business trappings of the Super Bowl to pull us away. All week long, anticipation had mounted and slowly crested in the knowledge that at around 8:30 p.m., the ball would be kicked off, the game would be played, and they wouldn't have to take a 45-minute halftime break for Madonna to perform.
One of the reasons I still enjoy sports, in spite of the many blemishes on its various complexions, are the days when I get out of bed and think "Something good is going to happen today, something that we will remember and talk about and turn over in our heads in our idle moments for the rest of our lives." Those days often come when you least expect them (when was the last time you woke up on Super Bowl Sunday and expressed the above sentiment, privately or publicly?), but you know when they have arrived.
Sunday was one of those days of unexpected exhilaration. If you had Alfred Morris rushing for 200 yards and three touchdowns, put your hand up. Now put your hand down, you filthy, filthy liar.
We thought we had an idea of what might happen. The Redskins don't do blowouts, not against teams on their level, which Dallas unquestionably is in terms of talent. We thought that the game would be close, we thought that FedEx Field would be loud, we thought Robert Griffin III would perform at a high level. All but the last came to pass.
The ending was left unwritten by prognosticators, and so much the better, for it came in a way so satisfying that it almost obscured the Redskins' singular achievement. Jim Haslett's defense rushed Tony Romo, rushed him again, and rushed him some more, confident that their fellows would do their jobs. Romo himself played the stock role of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy With A Star On His Helmet, throwing three interceptions (the first two of which were picked deep in Redskins territory, and the last two of which were unquestionably his fault). The third, a ghastly attempt off his back foot in the face of an untouched blitzer, came with three minutes to play and Washington clinging to a 21-18 lead.
Then there was Morris, who ran with strength, speed, and energy on a night when his quarterback seemed to have little of any. Had a Washington fan, granted a partial glimpse into the future, seen Griffin only complete nine of 18 passes for 100 yards, he would have turned away in horror.
And yet, there was Griffin at the end, wearing the "NFC East Champions" cap to commemorate the Redskins' most significant victory since that long-ago winter day in Minnesota. Joking suggestions that Griffin be sent to Capitol Hill to solve the fiscal cliff crisis were mooted and met with social media grumbling, which was pointless. For, in a sense Griffin had already accomplished just that. When we turn the last days of 2012 over in our heads, what will we remember? How many Hill reporters who had to work Sunday woke up and thought to themselves "something great is going to happen today, something we'll never forget"? How many sportswriters and broadcasters, some of whom wouldn't get home until well after the Sun rose Monday morning, opened their eyes and thought the same thing?
If there is one game that Sunday night's encounter reminded me of, it is this one: Ireland against Wales in the Six Nations rugby union championship, 2009. Ireland had not won a Grand Slam (defeating England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Wales) since 1948, when the tournament was called the Five Nations. All they had to do in 2009 was defeat Wales in Cardiff in the very last game. The similarities between Ireland and Washington are not drawn very finely, but they are there.
I watched the game in the company of, among others, an Irish pub owner named Declan, who, when Ronan O'Gara kicked the winning drop goal (at 1:31:00 in the video linked above), emitted the most extraordinary sound I've ever heard from another human being: a high-pitched whoop that could in another age have been a war cry -- the universal language of pure exhilaration; one which, if you listed closely, was surely being spoken fluently in the parking lots of Landover Sunday night.