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George Preston Marshall would cry if he saw what goes on during football Sundays in Dixie these days—and in the Dixie Grill.
From the time he moved the franchise here from Boston in 1937, Marshall—the legendary and long-dead patriarch of the Washington Redskins—did everything he could to make the Redskins the team of the South. In an effort to exploit the league’s largest region of influence, he barnstormed players throughout Southern states in the offseason and broadcast Skins games on radio and television there when no other pro team was doing it. At one time, he even amended the last line of “Hail to the Redskins” (written by his wife) from “Fight for old D.C.!” to “Fight for old Dixie!”
The Marshall Plan had a dark side as well; it’s no coincidence that the Redskins were the last team in pro football to break the race barrier in 1961. It was all part of Marshall’s effort to maximize his team’s appeal to good ol’ sports fans in the South. Integration only came because the Redskins were threatened with eviction from then-D.C. Stadium by its landlord, the federal government.
Virtuous or not, Marshall’s marketing strategy was still paying dividends well after his earthly departure; until the Atlanta Falcons got a new dome and Neon Deion a few years ago, the Redskins brought in more fans during visits to the Georgia capital than the home team.
But the fealty of the lower latitudes has ebbed. The Redskins’ ongoing run of ineptitude has provided the hearts of football fans south of the Mason-Dixon line the opportunity to wander. Couple the erosion of the Skins’ fortunes with the NFL’s decision to forgo Baltimore and place an expansion franchise in Charlotte, N.C., and Dixie expatriates have a new darling.
“My dad and everybody I know has always been a big Redskins fan. And I was a big Redskins fan my whole life. But I’m a Panthers fan now,” concedes Griff Hathaway, a Charlotte native now teaching politics at American University.
Concurrent with amending his football allegiance, Hathaway has become a regular of the first-name-only variety at the Dixie Grill. He and many others have been sucked in by the promotional ploys of another wayward Redskins rooter, Mike Curtin. Curtin is general manager of the 10th Street NW joint, across the street from Ford’s Theater. He has implemented a marketing strategy that aims to do away with whatever vestiges of the Marshall Plan remain among the D.C. area’s transplanted Southerners.
Last summer, before the new team had played a game, Curtin made what at the time seemed like a dubious decision to trumpet his bar as the “official” D.C. outpost for Carolina Panthers fans. The proliferation of satellite technology has allowed watering holes everywhere to select franchises to pledge allegiance to—but an expansion team? Doesn’t Curtin remember the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Even with the thematic connection to his restaurant, his resolve to pin his Sunday afternoon cash flow to the fortunes of the newly hatched Panthers seemed about as risky as jumping on Lamar Alexander’s presidential bandwagon.
“I guess I was kind of tired of hearing only about the Redskins my whole life,” explains Curtin, who grew up in Potomac in a family of season-ticket holders. “Around D.C., whatever is happening with the Redskins is all that matters in the world. The local news here is like, ‘Missiles have left Russia, but first we’re going to go out to Redskin Park to check on the condition of the kicker!’ This was a chance to do something different, to get in on the ground floor of something new.”
At Curtin’s command, Panthers’ Carolina blue-and-black banners were hung outside the Dixie Grill and all over its upstairs rooms. Stadium-themed menus—featuring Carolina-style pulled meat dishes and Blenheim’s sodas, a regional product—were conceived and printed up. A theater-size TV screen was installed, and Anheuser-Busch agreed to supply the bar with the same souvenir plastic cups that fans get at Panthers games. Giveaways were planned, with Southern-tinged prizes that ranged from great—trips to see the Panthers play in person—to misguided—Confederate flag T-shirts. Memos detailing the weekly party plans were sent out to local chapters of North and South Carolina State Societies.
Then the season started. After packing in a pretty good number of Carolinians on opening weekend, Curtin noticed a dip in the restaurant’s Sunday take as the Panthers, as expected, started piling up defeats: The first five games in the franchise’s history were losses.
But beginning in the first week in October, everything changed. The Panthers—whose roster is made up of unproven rookies and disproven veterans cast off by other NFL franchises—stopped losing. First, they beat the Jets, 26–15, then the Saints, and then the Patriots. Finally, Carolina shocked the football world by spanking the defending champion San Francisco 49ers—in San Francisco, no less. Four straight wins. No NFL expansion team had ever won four games during an entire rookie season! And after thrashing Buddy Ryan’s Phoenix Cardinals Sunday, 27–7, Carolina is now just one game out of the race for a wild-card berth. (A bit of perspective on the Panthers’ feat: No post-Gibbs Redskins team has yet won two consecutive games, let alone four.)
With the streak, word about the Dixie Grill’s Sunday fests quickly spread to local Tarheels. And each week more of them are ignoring what the former Team of the South is doing and are showing up at the bar to watch the upstart expansioneers. With Hathaway serving as the unofficial master of ceremonies, an esprit de Carolina pretty much permeates Curtin’s place when the Panthers are playing. (One side of an actual, and not atypical, conversation held in the Dixie Grill between two transplanted Generation Xers garbed in licensed Panthers attire: “Where are you from? Raleigh? Really? Me too! What high school did you go to? Oh, really? What year did you graduate? Really? Wow, do you know….” Friends for life.)
What’s more, the hefty bar tabs produced by the winning binge have made Curtin look like a sage to the Dixie Grill’s investors—not to mention he’s
having a blast.
“We didn’t do this because I was thinking the team would be a winner,” he says. “But after that 49ers game I was getting treated like I had something to do with the Panthers winning. My Bud distributor called me up the night after the game to congratulate me on the win, as if I was the owner of the team that just won the Super Bowl. So I went along with it, like, ‘Well, I knew I had the boys on the right track.’ It’s been a lot of fun.”
Further proof that the Marshall Plan is as dead as the ex-owner will come on Christmas Eve, when the Redskins host the Panthers at RFK Stadium, the last game of the regular season for both teams. As a reward for their patronage, the Dixie Grill is planning to bring a busload of regulars to the game.
“It’ll be a big change, but I know who I’ll be rooting for,” smiles Hathaway, fingering the brim of his already broken-in Panthers cap. —Dave McKenna