The Last Call at RFK Experience: Remembering RFK Stadium

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 22: DC United head coach Ben Olsen looks on after the New York Red Bulls defeated DC United 2-1 during the final MLS game at RFK Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Editorial (March 19, 2018) – Last season, I had the pleasure of attending #LastCallatRFK over Decision Day weekend. With the help of a few key D.C. United fan personalities, I had an absolute blast. The following is an account of the match and a documentation of RFK Stadium and the D.C. United match day experience through the eyes of a first timer.

(Yes, I know this match was almost five months ago. Life and craziness happened, and this was a really busy off-season for me both soccer wise and personally).

The Last Call at RFK Experience: Remembering RFK Stadium

My friend and former Last Word on Soccer Managing Editor Alec Rivera wanted to make the Last Call at RFK a full experience. We got there early to take part in the various supporter groups’ tailgates. The fans were all friendly. The beer was good. I didn’t fully understand what was happening at the Barra Brava tailgate, but I liked it. We headed into the stadium early, to ensure we’d get good seats for the alumni game.

The Alumni Game:

The D.C. United Alumni took on a smattering of Washington Diplomats veterans and a few other players. The match had the perfect combination of nostalgia and slap stick ‘we’re all old’ humor.

Ben Olsen stepped into the field for warm ups and immediately started talking smack. A portly and balding Marco Etcheverry scored with some good footwork and zero pace in the first half. Later, John Harks made a run for a long ball but it went out for a Dips goal kick. The legendary United midfielder fell to the ground and stretched sarcastically, as if pulling a hamstring.

The Dips put up a good fight, despite being well over a decade older than most of their competition. Ultimately it was the spring chicken, 28-year-old Freddy Adu scoring the game winner for the D.C. United alumni. The match ended 5-4. Both teams exited the field to a standing ovation, fans basking in the glow of their youthful memories and past club glory personified walking by.

RFK Stadium Itself: A Decaying Cathedral

Maybe it’s the hockey fan in me. There’s something endearing about a stadium that’s original, filled with history, and also a total dump. One of themes of the day was people I met reliving wonderful memories of D.C. United and the other teams that played there (soccer or otherwise) while also loathing the dilapidated state of RFK. It had lots of history, championships, and good times, but it was a rotting wood shed and it was time to go.

To me, it almost had the feel of a Soviet Era monument in a now independent country. The stadium had not been maintained, and thus subject to the degradation of time. The painted metal roofing was thoroughly chipped and rusting. Exposed outer concrete was chipped, cracked, and spalding. Exposed wood was rotting and most of the plastic seats I saw in section were cracked, if not damaged, or missing. When the lights turned on in the second half, only about 80% of the bulbs actually lit up.

In a way, it was a beautiful time capsule of what urban decay and Father Time can accomplish in 40 years. I felt like I was in a sporting, American Soccer, and MLS museum. If the museum was in the TV show Life After People. The concrete ramps to the upper deck had blocks of concrete columns that made it seem Roman Colosseum-like.

It felt as if RFK had a soul. New York Red Bulls supporters might call it a piece of crap that was about to fall down. I call it a decaying cathedral.

Pregame, Bouncing Stands, And Beer Showers:

The collective and individual pregame tifos by the supporters groups for Last Call at RFK were spectacular; so spectacular and big they actually blocked my view as the match kicked off. Once the streamers from the upper deck where pulled down, the capos got things going.

Finally, I was about to experience the famed bouncing stands. As someone with multiple degrees in engineering (and several friends who are structural engineers), I’m pretty sure it wasn’t totally unsafe. The lower bowl on the north side of RFK have a metal foundation that I think was hot formed. Metal decays over time and becomes malleable (rather than chipping and cracking like concrete). At least, that’s what I thought initially caused the bouncing stands.

It turns out, the stands are actually supported by stacks of tires. When looking at how the stands bounce, it makes sense. The rubber loses it’s elasticity and deforms over time, especially when it’s hot and under strain (like an afternoon game in August).

With the supporters jumping, the stands bounce by compressing the worn out tires. When the bouncing stops, the stands return to their resting state, which over time has been more and more depressed due to the degradation of the tire foundation. On hot days with a full crowd especially, the bouncing capacity increases. Did I mention the part where I didn’t totally fear for my life?

Just minutes before half time, Paul Arriola scored on a volley off a cross from Luciano Acosta. A crowd of 41,418 erupted to their feet. In the middle of the Screaming Eagles section, those around me threw beer cups (some more than half full) into the air. I was immediately hit with several waving waterfalls of beer. My group and I couldn’t have cared less. The Red and Black were up 1-0 and my scarf had officially been christened with beer.

Besides, we were baking in the sun and it was refreshing. And then immediately sticky.

Halftime Hydration And Drum Circle:

United were up 1-0 and we were sweating like it was May (kick off temperature was in the 80’s F and we were in the sun almost all game). For an old and crappy stadium, the men’s bathrooms weren’t that rundown, stinky, or rat infested. Side note: I didn’t see a raccoon the entire day. I am glad that inside joke got taken as far as it did though.

It was time for red Gatorade, water, and beer. My group reconvened on an upper deck ramp, overlooking the elbow-to-elbow hallway of supporters, concessions, and a growing drum circle. A drum line from each supporters group met in rhythmic mosh pit to chant and enjoy the shade.

Like the tailgate, it had a festive and friendly atmosphere, other than the Barra Brava guy dressed up like an evil clown (remember, the It remake had just been released in theaters). As the teams made their way out of the locker rooms for the second half, the drum lines led everyone back to their seats.

Curse You RFK:

Another theme of the day was fans being relieved they were saying goodbye to a venue that was almost cursed, or at least came with a lot of baggage. Chris Dodds regularly exclaimed “RFK!” every time something hilariously and sadly went wrong related to the stadium’s age. Sitting on the north side of the stadium, we had a pretty bad glare for most of the first half.

The second half started with us nicely shaded, only for the sun to peak between the rings of the roofing supports, before finally disappearing around the 80th minute. Each time the sun glare reappeared, someone in my section would yell “RFK!” and ring their fist in the air.

The day was as much a soccer match and celebration as it was a funeral for some. This was especially true when faced with the inconveniences of the design flaws or aging of the ground.

A Bittersweet Ending:

As you probably recall, the Red Bulls ultimately won the match 2-1, with United fizzling out despite desperation and their best efforts to send the bad weather fans home happy. The final moments ended with flares, tifos, chanting, and clapping above the head. Players and staff took a lap to say goodbye to their fans. United Head Coach Ben Olsen made his way across to pitch to give the supporters a good clap, not just for the day, but for 21 years.

Things got a bit crazy as fans started breaking their seats to try and sneak them out of the stadium. Ushers disrupted the destruction of property. Metal pieces and plastic shards fell to the wayside as Chris picked up a metal arch and gave out one final sarcastic “RFK!”

Alec and company insisted we get going after giving the squad a round of applause. We filed out of RFK as I took a few last glances from every angle for my memory banks. As we made our way through the concrete hallways, I looked for one souvenir. Again, as an engineer with some structure experience, the thought of having a rock, metal piece, or anything from RFK was too good to pass up.

As we exited the stadium, seeing security confiscate stolen seat bottoms, I spotted a small chunk of concrete that must have fallen from the walls or the roofing. I grabbed it and stashed it away in my pocket. It was a fitting memento.

We made our way back to the car and drove west, towards DuPont Circle for dinner. RFK Stadium faded into the background as the sun set against it, signaling the end of the day and an era in D.C. United and American Soccer history.

Last Words: RIP RFK

Rest in peace, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. You are a relic and a history museum to Major League Soccer. I am glad to have known you, even if just once on your final match day.

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