Burning Down the House: Sending Off RFK Stadium With Smoke and Flares

D.C. United played its last ever game at RFK Memorial Stadium recently, and the stadium was lit up with smoke and flares, as it crumbled in the process.

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Complex Original

The New York Red Bulls' supporter group Garden State Ultras lighting off flares at RFK Stadium, which they'd receive sanctions for. Image via Complex Original/Tommie Battle

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The faded maroon seats of the upper bowl at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium had broken off their rusted steel hinges and laid in a pile consumed by flares as the clock hit the 90th minute during DC United’s final match of the 2017 against the New York Red Bulls. And the last match they’d ever play at their crumbling stadium, before moving into the brand-spanking-new Audi Field next season.

Built 56 years ago, RFK served as the home of the Washington Redskins, Senators, Nationals, and remained the ground of D.C. United since the club’s inception in 1996. But now the steel beams are rusted, the upper level uncomfortably bounces as away supporters jump and sing in unison, the paint is peeling off the walls, and the signs for the stadium’s concession stands are covered over with paper to reflect a price change on a cup of beer.

Long gone are the days of presidents Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch. There’s an eerie aura that runs through the stadium, but it doesn’t feel old in a nostalgic way that adds energy and a sense of tradition to a stadium that pre-dates almost all its counterparts. It feels like you’re in an abandoned home or one of those deserted malls that have been left to crumble into dust, the signage still attached.

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The game itself was unimportant on paper. D.C. United—who have won four MLS Cups—are a shell of their former selves, finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference. While the New York Red Bulls finished sixth and were on their way to the MLS playoffs. The intensity of the rivalry was felt on the pitch, however, which New York won 2-1.

D.C.’s Luciano Acosta was sent off with a red card in the second half, while New York goal keeper Luis Robles looked primed to throw him on the pitch in front of a record 41,418 people who came to see RFK’s magic one last time.

The passion extended into the supporters, some who had been there for over 20 years and have fueled one of the league’s longest-standing rivalries. Fans began to began to break seats on both ends of RFK and images surfaced of them piled up by the dozens. Stories spread that people successfully (or not so successfully) brought a piece of history home.

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Two columns of smoke erupted in the 90th minute from D.C. United’s supporter section, blowing over the field in a scene that’s more familiar in Eastern Europe. Not to be overdone, the New York Red Bulls’s end lit off a succession of flares, which caused an orange glow and billow of white smoke to roll from the top of the stadium. “They’re having a bonfire over there,” the spectators gasped.

And then, in a single moment, the awes went to a collective gasp, as one single flare traveled from the top of the stadium, falling 40-50 feet to the field level and was quickly extinguished by the stadium’s security.

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It was a fitting end for a stadium that’s seen its high and lows. Where John Riggins ran over defenders in route to lead the Redskins to winning Super Bowl XVII, and where Joe Theismann gruesomely broke his leg on Monday Night Football in front of the whole nation in 1985 after being sacked by Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson. One that’s been home to a club that helped jump start MLS’s success, but is currently grasping for answers. The cracked paint and rusted beams of RFK will be deserted in favor a soccer-specific stadium and so will the face of the ailing, unattended sports arena in America—one that’s constantly tossed to the side of favor larger, bigger, and better amphitheaters of sport named after corporate sponsors. RFK, however, will remain as a practice field for D.C. United for the unforeseeable future. The stadium will also host college football games and international soccer friendlies, but its days as a premier stadium have been put out to pasture.  

I couldn’t hear any ghosts whisper that day, as fans put chunks of broken concrete in their pockets or pulled at bolted-in maps of the stadium as onlookers cheered them on. The end of RFK was something we rarely see in American sports, even if no one was holding onto the memories in the decaying walls, which had been on their last leg for over a decade. Nor will anyone miss the raccoons that inhabited the grounds, either. But as the away end jumped in unison, chanting, “SHA LA LA LA LA LA, OH NEW YORK,” the floor of the upper bowl bounced up and down like a diving board, making the 500 plus Red Bulls supporters wonder if they’d be launched into the atmosphere or be part of a tragedy that would claim the lives of everyone below. It was time for RFK to call it quits. It was the proper sendoff to a place with a real history to it, even if the event on the field will be forgotten in due time.

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