Illustration by Rob Ullman
I became a Redskins fan in the late 1970s, when Joe Theismann irritated opposing teams and their supporters with his one-bar helmet.
I remember asking my blue-eyed father, while he was shaving, what team I should root for in football. It was a new sport to me, as I had just come over from wartime Vietnam. My American father saved us just before the fall of Saigon — me, my mother, my grandparents, my aunt and cousins — with his diplomatic connections. He relocated us 20 miles west of the nation's capital.
As my father washed his razor in the pool of soapy water, he answered my football question with "the home team."
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Thus my love affair with the Washington Redskins began, with the admiration of my adopted home as its foundation. I watched Buddy Hardeman and Clarence Harmon carry the football and Chris Hanburger make tackles. I saw John Riggins take a bow. I cheered as Darrell Green chased down Tony Dorsett. And I pretended to be Art Monk catching a ball in traffic during numerous backyard pickup games. For the next decade plus, I rarely missed a game, even though my father was stationed overseas as a foreign-service officer for the U.S. State Department. A family friend mailed the Washington Post bundled in weeks at a time, as well as VHS tapes of games. I honestly don't remember how I pulled it off, but I listened to Super Bowl XVII on a Sony Walkman with radio capacity while sitting in a middle-school class at Hong Kong International School in 1983. It wasn't until the 1991 season, though, when I was 21, that my love for the team turned into something more soulful. That was the year Ong Ngoai died. He was my Vietnamese maternal grandfather. He wore his hair slicked back with Brylcreem, he smiled with royal elegance, and he loved to give kisses on the forehead. He watched many Redskins games with me, and every time the good guys scored, he would mimic the great announcer Frank Herzog: "Touchdown, Washington Wedskins." My grandmother cooked chảảgiò, a crispy fried roll filled with pork or shrimp, and she would present a plate of them to us during the first quarter. We wrapped the chảảgiò in lettuce and dipped it in nước mắm, an amber-colored fish sauce. For some reason, Ong Ngoai's favorite player was Rick "Doc" Walker. To this day, I still don't know why. But he would express the biggest delight whenever the tight end caught the ball and rumbled down the field. "Doc Walker, he from UKLA," Ong Ngoai would say. "No grandpa, he's from U-C-L-A," his Americanized grandson would reply. My last full day with Ong Ngoai was late summer 1991. It was the day before I left for a trip to Europe. He was riddled with cancer and savaged by diabetes. But when I saw him that morning, he was dressed in his best blue suit and greeted me with a joy that only grandparents can express. "Let's go to Washington," he said over my objections. So we did. On the Metro bus. It was 90 degrees and humid as we slowly walked the mall. He sweated. He suffered. He smiled. "We will win the Super Bowl," he told me. "Mark Wypien is the best quarterback." I cursed him in reply for wearing such a heavy suit on such a hot day. I scolded him for being here with me instead of in bed resting. I admonished him for not listening to any of my berating. I couldn't have cared less about the Redskins at that moment. "Earnest Byner, he real good," Ong Ngoai said. Less than a week later, while I was still in Europe, my grandpa died from a variety of ailments. It was weeks later, as I sat at the kitchen table with my grandma, that I expressed anger over his final day with me. "He killed himself that day," I said. My grandma made a short disapproving sound. "He knew it was the last day he would be with you, so he wanted to make it special. He loved you very much." At that moment, for the first time, I cried over his death. And wouldn't you know it, months later, as Thurman Thomas forgot his helmet, and Byner scored on a 10-yard pass from Rypien, and Gerald Riggs tallied two short rushing touchdowns, the Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills, 37-24, to win Super Bowl XXVI. Somewhere above, Ong Ngoai dipped his chảảgiò in nước mắm, smiled his Fixodent grin and said, "Touchdown, Washington Wedskins." There have been many losing seasons since 1991. I can barely remember what it's like to root for a championship team. Joe Gibbs even tried to come back and help the franchise save face. Still, every season, I fly my burgundy and gold flag. I wear my No. 47 jersey. And I get nervous whenever the fourth quarter rolls around, only to be disappointed. But last year, with the arrival of RGIII, I felt a jolt in my fandom. The quarterback brought hope and excitement to many of us. I think Ong Ngoai would have really liked him. He probably would have said something like, "RGTrois, he plays happy." I guess me being a Redskins fan is more about honoring memories than actually caring if they are 6-10 or 10-6. They are a connection to my past — to embracing a new home, holding on to America while overseas and sharing precious moments with a hell of a man.