Commanders Fans Celebrate the Day the Nightmare Ended

From a Washington Post story by Sam Fortier headlined “Commanders fans celebrate the day the ‘nightmare’ ended”:

It was 4:57 p.m. when local radio host John Auville, better known as “Cakes from the Junkies,” took the stage at the Bullpen outside Nationals Park. He looked out into the crowd of about a hundred fans and relayed the news — finally, officially — for which so many had waited so long.

“The nightmare is done!” he screamed as the crowd roared. “Dan Snyder is dead! Long live Josh Harris!”

Over the next hour, fans streamed into the square ringed by bars and shipping containers. Many wore jerseys or a wide array of Snyder-hate shirts: “Fire Dan Snyder,” “Worst Owner Ever,” “D—–bag,” “Sell the Team,” “Burgundy & Sold” and three or four different versions of “Bye Dan,” including one with the team’s mascot, Major Tuddy, as a bouncer throwing Snyder out.

Puffs of cigar smoke wafted through the air. Friends and strangers toasted plastic cups of amber. The sight of asphalt covered by burgundy-and-gold-clad life felt unfamiliar; it was fuller here than the parking lots at FedEx Field have been in years. Over and over, the fans told each other that they couldn’t quite believe Daniel Snyder had actually sold their team. Was this a dream?

Shortly after 6 p.m., Cakes retook the stage. New owner Josh Harris, he announced, was buying everyone a beer! The crowd roared again. It was the first time in as long as anyone could remember that the owner of Washington’s pro football team had paid for his fans to have something for free.

In line for beer, a group of young men started a chant that quickly gained steam: “F— Dan Snyder!” The band dedicated their next song to Snyder, and after a blink of confusion from the crowd, they launched into the hit by CeeLo Green: “F— You.”

In Minnesota on Thursday, Harris bought an asset. Through one lens, the Washington Commanders are cold and calculable, one-32nd of the most profitable sports league in the country. The franchise is simply the latest, brightest bauble in Harris’s sprawling sports empire.

But through another lens, one many fans in the DMV and beyond were looking through Thursday, the sale of the team is nothing short of pure, uncut hope. Hope not just for a championship or a winning season but decency and competence. For headlines about football, not investigations. For pride, not shame.

“It’s all possible now,” Ian Tuckman, 64, of Lanham said.

Earlier in the day, a short walk away from the team’s headquarters in Ashburn, Sean Kinslow, 28, couldn’t bring himself to be as overjoyed as many others. Don’t get it twisted: He was ecstatic to be free from Snyder. He was born and raised in Loudoun County, and maybe only that upbringing and his love of football had helped him weather two name changes, dozens of losses on Sundays and a bevy of friends who abandoned him as a fan.

But sitting at a small party at Old Ox Brewery, he couldn’t help but feel a little bitter. He was born after the glory years and into a fan base that had to endure the reign of maybe the worst owner in professional sports history.

“It feels like 20 wasted years,” he said. “Looking back, you devote so much time and energy and thought to a team that was never going anywhere.”

Now Commanders employees in football and business understand the frustration of fans and the long and difficult road they will have to take with so many who once loved them. But according to three team employees, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive day, the mood of the organization Thursday was jubilant.

In Ashburn, team headquarters buzzed. Coaches felt fresh from vacation. Players stopped by to lift or visit a trainer. Box trucks trundled in and out, dropping off supplies with training camp just five days away. Big new bleachers were already set up by the practice fields, just waiting to welcome back fans.

“Vibes are high,” one person in the facility said. “No more distractions.”

In the offices at FedEx Field, business employees worked to put the finishing touches on the rally to welcome Harris on Friday. The team was expecting thousands of fans. The office itself felt different, one employee said, looser and more at ease following months of anxiety over public scandals, internal battles and the ever-present cloud of uncertainty.

“You feel the weight lifted off your shoulders — and I think that’s a feeling a lot of people have around the office,” the employee said, adding, “There’s a lot buzz from the fan base for this new era.”

During the day, at the parties and on the airwaves, it became clear how many broken relationships Snyder leaves in his wake. Former running back Brian Mitchell pointed out he was one of the first players Snyder pushed out. The crowd at the Bullpen booed. “Yeah, I thought he was an a–hole too,” he said.

Jay Gruden — the longest-tenured coach of the Snyder era, at 5 1/2 years — discussed his former boss for a full hour live on the radio. He told stories about Snyder’s behavior aboard his superyacht, his consistent interference in football decisions despite never studying tape and how he once earned a contract extension because Snyder wanted to distract the fan base from the bad publicity of firing another executive.

“Did you ever see him make anyone call him Mr. Snyder?” radio host Danny Rouhier asked Gruden.

“I didn’t really talk to him for the last year and a half,” Gruden said.

Already, the team is trying to get back those fans who once walked away vowing never to return. Earlier this week, salesmen fired off thousands of emails to former season ticket holders. In one of them, which former fan Brandon Partridge shared with The Washington Post, an executive pointed out there was “a ton of excitement” about “the positive momentum around an ownership change and the hiring of 2x Super Bowl Champ Eric Bieniemy.” The executive had just one question: “Are you open to . . . learning more about what we have to offer as we turn a new page on the 2023 season?”

It’s impossible to know whether the NFL franchise in Washington can ever ascend to its old heights. But it’s certain that moving forward, rebuilding something, will depend on a million small moments like that email. Because it is essentially asking the same question as a friend or colleague or family member who suggests getting together to watch the game, the same question a person asks himself or herself about how to spend a Sunday afternoon: How does this team make you feel?

As the party rolled on Thursday night, it became in its delirium a singular moment. It was two decades in the making, an act of catharsis. At one point, the DJs behind “Left Hand Up,” the Commanders’ anthem, took the stage. Some grumbled at the song, still hesitant to embrace the new name, but for one lyric, they joined the rest of the crowd in one of the hallmarks of rooting for the pro football team in Washington: “We want Dallas!”

And right then, if only for a moment, if only at a bar outside a baseball stadium on a hot weeknight in July, these fans found a little bit of the swagger they had lost — and they spent the rest of the night singing the old fight song and chanting the day’s unending anthem, “F— Dan Snyder!”

Sam Fortier is a beat writer for The Post covering Washington’s NFL team.

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