Commander’s fans are celebrating 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 official – that so many had been waiting so long for.

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

Over the next hour, fans poured into the square surrounded by bars and shipping containers. Many wore jerseys or a wide variety 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, pitching like a Snyder.

Puffs of cigar smoke wafted through the air. Friends and strangers toasted amber plastic cups. The sight of asphalt covered with burgundy and gold-clad life felt unfamiliar; it was more packed 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 that Daniel Snyder had actually sold their team. Was this a dream?

Shortly after 6 p.m., Cakes took the stage again. New owner Josh Harris, he announced, bought 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 professional 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 flash of confusion from the crowd, launched into the CeeLo Green hit: “F— You.”

A year-by-year look at Daniel Snyder’s ownership of Washington’s NFL team

In Minnesota, Harris bought an asset on Thursday. Through one lens, the Washington Commanders are cold and calculating, a-32. of the most profitable sports league in the country. The franchise is simply the newest, smartest bullet in Harris’ sprawling sports empire.

But through another lens, which many fans in the DMV and beyond looked through Thursday, the sale of the team is nothing less than pure, unadulterated hope. Hoping not just for a championship or a winning season, but decency and competence. For football headlines, not investigation. For pride, not shame.

“Anything is possible now,” said Ian Tuckman, 64, of Lanham.

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 happy as many others. Don’t get it twisted: He was ecstatic to be free of Snyder. Born and raised in Loudoun County, perhaps only that upbringing and his love of football had helped him weather two name changes, dozens of Sunday losses and a host of friends who abandoned him as a fan.

But as he sat at a small party at the 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 perhaps the worst owner in professional sports history.

“It feels like 20 wasted years,” he said. “When you look back, you put so much time and energy and thought into a team that was never going anywhere.”

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

In Ashburn, the team’s headquarters was buzzing. The coaches felt refreshed after the holiday. Players stopped by to lift or visit a coach. Box trucks rolled in and out, dropping off supplies with training camp just five days away. Large new stands were already set up at the training pitches, just waiting to welcome fans back.

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

In the offices at FedEx Field, business staff worked to put the finishing touches on the convention to welcome Harris on Friday. The team expected thousands of fans. The office itself felt different, one employee said, looser and more comfortable after months of anxiety over public scandals, infighting and the ever-present cloud of uncertainty.

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

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

Jay Gruden — the longest-tenured coach in 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 meddling in football decisions despite never studying tape, and how he once got a contract extension because Snyder wanted to distract the fan base from the bad publicity of firing another manager.

“Did you ever see him get someone to call him Mr. Snyder?” radio host Danny Rouhier asked Gruden.

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

How well do you remember the Daniel Snyder era? Take our quiz.

Already, the team is trying to win back the fans who once walked away and vowed never to return. Earlier this week, salespeople 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 that there was “a ton of excitement” about “the positive momentum surrounding 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 in the 2023 season?”

It’s impossible to know if the NFL franchise in Washington can ever reach its old heights. But it’s certain that moving forward, rebuilding something, will depend on a million little moments like that email. Because it essentially asks the same question that a friend or co-worker or family member suggests getting together to watch the game, the same question a person asks themselves about how to spend a Sunday afternoon: How does this team make you feel?

As the party rolled on Thursday night, in its delirium it became 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 over 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 just then, if only for a moment, if only at a bar outside a baseball stadium on a hot weeknight in July, those fans found a little bit of the swagger they’d lost — and they spent the rest of the night singing the old fight song and chanting the never-ending anthem of the day, “F— Dan Snyder!”

Leave a Comment