City Paper is not for tourists
Lawrence Smith says that since the age of 9, he’s spent “pretty much…my whole life” absorbed with the Washington Redskins. He’s 32 now. Last week, Smith put pretty much his whole life up for sale.
Best offer over $7,000 takes it.
Smith’s collection of Redskins paraphernalia is one of the largest such collections ever assembled. If you’re looking for a particular Redskins-themed Beanie Baby, beer can, magazine cover, or soft-drink bottle, chances are Smith has at least one of ’em. He’s also got some burgundy-and-gold tchotchkes (an official Redskins fishing lure, Trung Canidate’s rookie card) that only an obsessive could appreciate.
But on Dec. 5, Smith posted an inventory of his collection on an eBay Web page. He also took out classified ads in local papers (including the Washington City Paper) proclaiming the sale.
Among the hundreds of items now being cast away: An entire set of D.C. Law Enforcement Redskins trading cards from 1982; an official Redskins marble; a six-pack of Redskins Coke bottles from Super Bowl XXVI; each of the three Redskins Wheaties boxes; a complete set of 1976 Redskins RC Cola bottles; a complete set of Redskins Super Bowl Beanie Babies; a complete set of Fleer Truck Haulers in Redskins colors; a complete set of Redskins Matchbox Truck Haulers; Redskins-themed bobblehead dolls in the likenesses of LaVar Arrington, Clinton Portis, and Mickey Mouse; helmets autographed by Darrell Green, Mark Moseley, Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Chris Hanburger, Larry Brown, Dexter Manley, and the entire 2004 Redskins squad; an autographed 8-by-10 of Dan Snyder; and, alas, the fishing lure and Canidate rookie card.
One of the oddest attributes of Smith’s fanatic fandom: He was born in Mexico, grew up in Southern California—in Thousand Oaks, just two blocks from the Dallas Cowboys training camp—and has been to D.C. only one time in his life.
“That was for a Redskins game. For Steve Spurrier’s coaching debut,” Smith says, by phone from the West Coast.
But, geography be damned, the story of how his obsession was sparked is universally understandable. It’s been said that political affiliations and what teams to root for are passed down from fathers to sons. And so it is with Smith and the Skins.
He got his first Redskins item in January 1983, at Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena, Calif. He went to the game, between Washington and Miami, with his father as guests of family friend Merlin Olsen, who broadcast the event on NBC. At the time, Smith says, he didn’t even know who the Redskins were.
He didn’t know his father real well, either.
“I was never close to my father,” Smith says matter-of-factly of his relationship with Mike Smith, a traveling golf pro and tournament organizer. “He was never around. And I didn’t even care about football. I was a little kid. But that was a big day for me, going there with my dad. Before the game, he said, ‘Pick a team, son. You want the red team or the green team?’ I said, ‘Red.’ ”
Mike Smith then went to the concession stand and bought his son a hat for the “red team.” And with the youngster wearing the gift from his father, they saw the Redskins, behind a climactic 43-yard, fourth-down John Riggins touchdown run, beat the Dolphins, 27-17.
When the little Smith got home from the big game, he put the Redskins hat on a shelf in his bedroom. And, for a long time after that, he says, the hat became almost a surrogate parent. Whenever his dad was away on a golfing outing or a business trip, Smith would stare at the hat and remember their shared Super Bowl outing, just to remind himself that he had a father.
“Just looking at the hat made me feel good,” he says. “That’s what got me and my whole Redskins thing started.”
After long, the hat alone wasn’t doing the trick. He got a bobblehead doll painted like a generic Redskins player and put that on the shelf next to the hat. And looking at the shelf with the hat and the bobblehead made him feel good—until that pairing wasn’t enough, either. He figured the Redskins, and all Redskins-related goodies, held the keys to his happiness.
Unlike a typical collector, Smith skipped the hobbyist stage and went directly to obsessive. He spent every spare minute reading up on the team and watching the limited Redskins broadcasting on the West Coast and every spare penny buying up team-related trinkets. He asked family to give him Redskins stuff for presents. He started writing letters to the Redskins players, coaches, and management, and though they never wrote back, he sent a new missive off “at least every month.”
When he was over at friends’ houses, he’d rummage through old-magazine piles looking for any Skins coverage, and on the off chance that somebody in the neighborhood acquired a Redskins souvenir, Smith says he wasn’t above asking if they’d give it to him.
“I got some of my best stuff from looking through my friends’ stuff,” he says. “You have to remember, this was all before the Internet, and before it was easy to find information about every team. We didn’t get many Redskins games on TV out here, so I’d lay on the floor in my living room watching whatever game we had on, just dying for an update on the Redskins. When the team would lose, that would only make me like them even more, and I’d go right out and collect something new after a loss.”
For college, he went to Long Beach State, hoping to play golf. He says he always figured it was just coincidence that legendary Skins coach George Allen was helming the school’s football team when Smith decided to attend the school. But he concedes that “maybe the stars were aligned” in arranging that. It was in college when Smith says he realized he had more than just “an accumulation of stuff.”
“I had a collection,” he says. “A Redskins collection.”
The combination of adulthood, technology, and additional spending money only accelerated the pace of his collecting. No Redskins autograph was too obscure, no bobblehead unworthy of his ownership. Smith, who lives in Palm Desert, Calif., and makes his living arranging corporate golf outings, says his employers, friends, family, and girlfriends all knew they came in second to the Redskins.
“I’d come home from work at the end of the day, walk in the door, turn a corner, and just look at all my Redskins stuff,” he says, “and that made me happy. It really made me happy.”
But a few weeks ago, Smith says, he had an epiphany: The Redskins habit wasn’t making him happy anymore. He decided all his hunting and gathering was about “filling some hole” in his life, not about rooting for the Redskins. He sat down with his girlfriend and his roommate to break the news that he was quitting the Redskins-collecting game. He says he didn’t tell his father, who through all the years was never aware that the collecting habit had everything to do with family ties.
“I decided I didn’t want to do this any more,” he says. “Other than the Redskins, I’m pretty normal. And I told them that from now on, I want to just sit down and watch the Redskins on DirecTV, like everybody else. Nothing more.”
He paid a professional packer about $200 to come to his house and put all the Redskins trinkets in boxes. He took out the want ads and put together a Web site (planetredskins.tripod.com) to expedite the sale of his collection. He says the sum of the collection’s parts would be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
After seven days on eBay, nobody had stepped forward with the minimum $7,000 to take the Redskins stuff off his hands. Smith says a couple of folks e-mailed him with “lowball” offers, the highest being $5,000. He’s not willing to discount his past any more than he already has—or sell it to just anybody.
“This involves an interview. I don’t want this to fall into the wrong hands,” he says. “This stuff’s important to me.”
Smith shouldn’t be surprised that his appraisal of the Redskins collection has thus far proven to be higher than its actual market value, say collecting experts.
“If you have sentimental attachment to an item, I don’t care. I’m not going to pay for your sentimental value,” says David Maloney, a Frederick-based collecting consultant who runs Ask the Appraiser, a valuation service contracted by eBay. “Redskins collectibles, any collection of pennants and bobbleheads and framed posters—that’s not a universal kind of collectible, not a desired kind of collectible. So as a collection, something like that would have to be sold at quite a discount. But the alternative is spending your lifetime selling it piece by piece.”
But odd things have happened to Smith since he decided to give up his Redskins obsession. Last week, just days after his massive collection hit the marketplace, Smith got a phone call from Ryan Boschetti, a Redskins reserve defensive lineman. Boschetti was the recipient of what Smith had intended to be his last fan letter to a Skins player. Unlike those who got all the other letters over the years, Boschetti took the time to respond.
“All these years, and everybody would either ignore my letter or just send me a form letter,” he says. “I never got anything personal or heartfelt. I even got the exact same form letter sent to me more than once. But then Ryan Boschetti calls me up. Me! I’m just some regular schmoe, and I’m on the phone with a Redskins player. I was over the moon.”
Boschetti thanked Smith for his letter, which alluded to their shared taste for golf, and asked the fan if he wanted to be his guest at this past weekend’s Redskins–Cardinals game, in Phoenix. Smith accepted the offer, calling it his last act as a Redskins obsessive. He says he had a blast watching the Redskins win, but it didn’t change his mind about moving on.
“I’m still getting rid of everything,” he says.
Well, not everything. He’s keeping the hat his dad bought him.—Dave McKenna