With Redskins' RG3 and Nationals' Harper, D.C. sports entering a golden era

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Sports,NFL,Redskins,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

There have been no championships yet, no long playoff runs. But a city with as checkered a sports history as any in the country is finally experiencing its version of the glory days.

The renaissance is being led by a pair of athletes barely into their 20s. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper burst onto the scene as rookies in 2012 and made Washington sports something it has never been: cool.

You can see it during a Tom Brady press conference when the New England Patriots quarterback -- with his GQ profile, supermodel wife and Super Bowl pedigree -- casually drops Griffin's name on national television after a game Washington didn't even play in.

And you can see it in an Under Armour commercial, narrated by actor Kyle Chandler and airing all over the country throughout the holidays. It stars Harper -- not his more established teammates such as Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg or Jayson Werth.

The two men approach their fame in different ways. Harper has always had an edge on and off the field. Polite in interviews, he still can sometimes snap. His dismissive response -- "That's a clown question, bro" -- to an obnoxious radio reporter in Toronto in June was replayed everywhere for days. It was the same quality, an inherent confidence, that forced teammates to admit they sometimes forgot Harper was still just a teenager.

Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, caused a stir while he still was in college at Baylor, where an exceedingly entertaining offense and his own incredible skill set combined to make his team a cult favorite among college football fans as far back as his freshman year in 2008. His eclectic style -- hair in braids, wild striped socks worn high -- big smile and natural gift for public speaking made him a fan favorite long before his first training camp.

Leading the Redskins to the verge of an NFC East title has only cemented Griffin's status at age 22. A city that once saw its football team appear in four Super Bowls in the nine seasons from 1982 to 1991 suddenly saw its pride and joy descend into an NFL laughingstock with just three playoff appearances over the next 20 years. Griffin's remarkable rookie season has helped changed that.

"When it turned, you always just thought they were going to lose, they weren't going to be competitive. And they were boring, too," said Kathy Yates, 52, a Redskins fan from Silver Spring who has watched the team since before its first Super Bowl appearance in 1972. "I find the games so entertaining now. I am a fan, and I do want to win. But win or lose, you don't know what's going to happen, and I love that part."

That same electricity was in the air this summer once Harper, a 19-year-old phenom, began prowling the outfield at Nationals Park. Harper, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, heralded a new era in Washington baseball when he debuted in April. After 34 years without a baseball team and seven more in which the quality of play was mediocre at best and abysmal at worst, there was finally an explosion of interest in a team that won 98 games and earned its first National League East title.

"Once Bryce Harper arrived on the scene, he passed the mother test. Moms who didn't know anything about sports would say, 'What is this Bryce Harper fella doing?'?" said Danny Rouhier, a midday radio host on 106.7 the Fan. "It became something we could talk about on the show every day. A lot of folks in sports programming would say this is a Redskins town only. Everything else is secondary. [Harper] proved that this could be a baseball town, too."

Griffin's status goes beyond local sports fans. The NFL's official Internet store, NFLShop.com, registered more Griffin jerseys sold this fiscal year than any other player over the past six years, according to an ESPN report earlier this month. Harper isn't at that level yet, but after posting one of the greatest seasons by a teenager in baseball history, he might not be far off.

"Every test that was put in front of [Harper] last season he passed. And that's the same phenomenon with Robert Griffin III," Rouhier said. "Obviously, they're very different athletes, very different players, very different people. They have a lot in common, though. Somehow the moment that would be too big for 99.9 percent of the masses is not too big for them."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner