A rivalry for the ages

It’s Redskins/Cowboys tonight on Monday Night Football.

I remember when that mattered, because the NFC East was the hands-down best division in football. I remember when that mattered, because I was sitting in the press box at Texas Stadium, at what by many measurements would be the pinnacle of my career.

I remember when that mattered, because my family circled the television set and took sides – two factions ardently rooting against each other but still halves of the same whole.

I was raised Redskins, when all I knew of the team’s history was Hogs and Monk and Manley and Green, not fighting for old Dixie until it was the last, shameful holdout against progress and the right thing. Joe Gibbs was a mythical figure levitating along the sideline, not the diminished old man who would be dragged back in front of microphones decades later. And Monday Night Football was Monday Night Football, with no Hank or Faith or Carrie in spotlighted sequins, just Howard and Frank and Don in yellow blazers.

At my granny’s house, the lines were clearly drawn. Me and Daddy on one side of the living room, Granny and my brother Mark on the other. Redskins vs. Cowboys. Good vs. evil.

Milkshakes were hand-made in the old red shaker and popcorn popped on the stove. I don’t remember much of the actual games. I remember the clock running out on a Redskins loss while Gibbs and my daddy screamed for a timeout. I remember my granny admired Tom Landry but saved her true loyalty for Don Shula, whom she found cute. (She also felt this way about Doug Flutie.)

Sports wove some of the strongest threads of my childhood. At Granny and Pop’s house, there was a basketball goal in the driveway, where the grass sloped down to the creek. Lots of the exercise I got in my formative years involved tearing pell-mell after the basketball before it landed with a plop in the muddy water. If I failed, it took forever to get all the gook off, and the ball wouldn’t shoot right until it dried out.

There was never a question that I would chase the ball, or clean it. I was the little sister. It was my lot in life, like frogs to my upper arm and endless rounds of “Why you hittin’ yourself? Huh, huh?”

At our house a mile down the road, we also had a basketball goal, where I shot game after game of HORSE against my 6-foot-2 brother. I may have won two or three in my life. The occasional jammed finger brought tears that were met with scorn and quickly quelled so I could put up another jumper. 

Once, I accidentally faked one of my brother’s friends out of his shoes. Lining up for a 3-pointer in the corner, I saw him launch himself at me, and simply waited for him to go by before shooting and making the shot. The hoots and hollers from the assembled teenage boys sounded like a choir of angels.

I practiced free throws under my brother’s watchful eye until the lightning bugs came out. I remember positioning my elbows at the line during a fifth vs. sixth grade game at school and hearing my teacher say, “Look at that form!”

I remember – much to my chagrin – being the one-kid cheerleading section at my brother’s basketball games. I remember the night he scored 16 points and let out a whoop as he scanned the scorebook. I remember going to the Friday night football game a day after he tore his ACL in practice. My mother dropped me off. I wore my burgundy Members Only jacket and heard whispers as I passed: “That’s Mark’s sister.” I was proud. I was representing.

I watch the lights twinkle on my Christmas tree. We put it up last night. It’s a hodgepodge tree, with ornaments as old as I am mingling with delicate wedding gifts and soft reindeer made by my sweet aunt Peggy in her craft classes at the center. There are lots of cross-stitched ones from an obsession my mother developed 30 years ago. “Mark 1980,” says one. I have no idea the significance of the year, but I hung that ornament beside the cross-stitched penguin with the Santa hat.

Bonds stretch and break. Blame is plentiful, spreading as easily as Christmas cheer. Phone calls become texts, Christmas cards morph into Facebook messages. Life gets crazy, hectic, full of 40-year-old responsibility. Easy becomes attractive.

I don’t love the Redskins anymore. Nickname aside, the year I spent covering them, while producing some of the best moments of my career, also exposed a rotten core that had sucked dry my emotions long enough.

While I’m grateful for its existence and many benefits, I don’t love my job. I don’t sit next to trailblazing industry giants while watching childhood heroes and fighting the urge to pinch myself.

I do love my family, fractured as it sometimes is, oozing warts and all.

I suppose I can muster some enthusiasm, one more time, for what used to be my Redskins – though my husband, an Eagles person, would prefer the Cowboys won. I don’t know if Mark, his wife, and my three beautiful nieces will be watching. I’m not sure if he still pulls for the Cowboys.

My granny was born on Dec. 13. On Dec. 17, she will have been dead 26 years, impossible as that often seems.

I will root for the Redskins, and I will remember – with a smile – when it mattered.