RICHMOND, Va. – Ryan Fitzpatrick scanned the field during a red-zone drill on the final day of Washington Football Team training camp in Richmond.
With no receivers open, he scrambled away from the oncoming defensive linemen. As he dashed for the goal line, faint chattering turned into a loud roar as he ran full speed into the end zone and toward the cheering fans behind it, and then up the sideline to more applause.
“Yeah, Fitz!” one fan yelled, while another added: “I see you, Harvard!”
Across the NFL, teams are welcoming fans back to training camp, after a year in which practices were closed to the public due to the pandemic. And over the course of last week in Richmond, Washington’s fans made their presence felt – while also making clear that their expectations for the team, both this season and moving forward, are very high.
“I love the fact that they’re back out there,” Ron Rivera said after the first day on Wednesday. “They knew when to cheer, and that’s usually when the offense does something and so the defensive guys get excited . . . and you can tell that creates a little energy.
“You can hear it, you can feel it and it’s something special.”
On Saturday’s Fan Appreciation Day event at the Bon Secours Training Center, fans packed onto the grass hill by the field to watch practice. They wore a mix of old and new jerseys and gear, with some wearing masks and others not.
The event included remarks from Rivera, defensive end Chase Young and wide receiver Terry McLauri. Co-CEO Tanya Snyder and president Jason Wright were also in attendance, thanking the fans and throwing footballs into the crowd.
“This is my third camp and this is probably the most packed I’ve seen it,” McLaurin said to the fans. “We really appreciate y’all coming out. We know it’s been a tough year for everybody, but you guys are the engine that drives us.”
The NFL’s covid protocols require that fans maintain a distance of at least 20 feet from players, meaning fans don’t have the opportunity to get autographs from or take photos with players the way they might have done in the past. But Lisa Walker of Richmond, who has been coming to training camp since it came to the city in 2013, said the distance didn’t dampen her enthusiasm, pointing out she was still close enough to call out the players’ names and see them wave back.
Walker also shared a sentiment that many fans in attendance Saturday expressed – that after a frustrating few years, the team appears to be on the right track.
“The energy was good here,” Walker said. “I think with the new president and stuff, the organization, the atmosphere has changed so much and the environment with the team. I think that comes from the coach and I think it comes from up top and it’s gonna come all the way down. Our fans are really gonna buy back in, sort of like when we were winning the Super Bowls all the time.”
As Fitzpatrick ran into the end zone on Saturday, Tyler Caron was standing with his friend on the nearby hill. It was his first time attending training camp, and he said he wanted to come out because of the team’s promising finish to the 2020 season.
“I love watching the team drills, watching Fitzy getting to run over here, that was awesome,” Caron said. “Just getting really ready to see what’s about to happen this regular season. And you know, hopefully the postseason as well.”
Many fans said they were interested to see how the team will grow under Rivera and Wright, but much of their affection was reserved for the team’s young players. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who endeared himself to fans with his efforts during last season’s playoff loss to the Buccaneers, was a favorite among Caron and others. McLaurin was also a hit, especially among the younger kids in attendance, who repeatedly called his name as he stood on the sideline, prompting him to turn and wave.
But the crowd favorite, by far, was Young. If a loud cheer was heard, it usually meant that Young was in the area. Fans screamed his name, holding up his No. 99 jerseys and posters with his face on them.
“I’m curious to see Chase Young and Terry McLaurin, the guys who stepped up [and] became team captains,” said Rhonda Coleman, who made the trip from the Eastern Shore of Virginia and struck up a friendship with Walker. “Chase went to the Pro Bowl. Just [want] to see how they can build upon how great they were last year. . . . I’m very excited.”
But for some fans, the best part of being back at practice was spending time with family. Richard Davis, 38, had been coming to training camp with his 7-year-old son Richard for the previous six years before the pandemic. With no training camp last year, Davis’ return to Richmond was exciting for two reasons: being back in front of his son’s favorite team, and experiencing it for the first time with his daughter Abigail, who is 4.
“I really love how they take care of the kids,” Davis said. “The players and the staff really enjoy interacting and spending time with the children. This is making memories for them that they’ll never forget.”
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