The Washington Redskins kicked off the celebration of the 80th anniversary of their NFL franchise this summer with a two-month Thank You Tour that brought players, coaches, cheerleaders and personnel to pre-season pep rallies across Redskins' fans land. Spokane obviously wasn't one of the stops on the tour, but somehow the Inland Northwest's unique tie to the Redskins should be remembered.
In fact, it's a bit amusing that the Redskins owners are celebrating the birth of the franchise 80 years ago - in Boston -- when it was 75 years ago, the Diamond Jubilee, that the franchise re-located to Washington, D.C.
It was with that move to the Nation's Capital that the Spokane chapter in Redskins history began when owner George Preston Marshall hired Ray Flaherty, then ending his playing career as a star end for the New York Giants, as the new team's new coach.
The Giants had drafted Flaherty more than a decade earlier after his college career at Gonzaga, a virtually unknown little Jesuit school in Spokane.
Flaherty launched his coaching career in style for that 1937 season, bringing the Redskins and their new city the franchise's first NFL title as they defeated George Halas' Chicago Bears on a frozen field, 28-21.
Over the next six years, until World War II interrupted his coaching career and he joined the Navy, Flaherty was perhaps the most successful NFL coach of his time, winning two national titles and making it to the title game on two other occasions, posting a 56-23-3 record. Only Halas, whose Bears' 73-0 victory over the Redskins in the 1940 title game was the worst championship-game drubbing in NFL history, might have been viewed as Flaherty's equal.
The prestige and power of being a prominent professional football coach never made Flaherty forget his Spokane roots as he returned home each off season to visit with and be lobbied by old friends about the latest Gonzaga football star.
Thus each year, Flaherty drafted the top Gonzaga backfield star, creating the improbable result that a world championship pro football team (the 1942 Redskins squad) would have three of its backs from a little college in Spokane, including brothers Ray and Cecil Hare. On occasion, the Hares were starters.
And Flaherty even brought the entire team West in 1939 in what was likely the first coast-to-coast training trip as the redskins held their training camp at what was then Eastern State Normal School (now Eastern Washington University) in Cheney, just southwest of Spokane.
Gonzaga itself, which was among a host of tiny private colleges that in the '20s and '30s nursed the illusion of being the next Notre Dame, discontinued college football with the outbreak of World War II.
Thus things like the Redskins-Flaherty connection are the kinds of memories important to keep alive for a lot of Bulldog fans, aware that before there was basketball at Gonzaga, there was a degree of prominence on the football field.
But it wasn't just the Gonzaga connection that is a part of the Inland Northwest's tie to Washington Redskins, for 50 years after Flaherty arrived in Washington, the Redskins drafted a Washington State University quarterback named Mark Ripien.
Ripien, who was born in Calgary but grew up in Spokane, starred for the Cougars in Pullman. But in the pro ranks he became one of the NFL's most feared quarterbacks and guided the Redskins to a 37-24 Super Bowl victory over Buffalo in 1991, being named the game's Most Valuable Player after passing for 292 yards and two touchdowns.
Both Flaherty and Ripien are in the Redskins' Hall of Fame.
In an interview with Flaherty in 1968, I asked how it was that the player generally regarded as the best to come out of Gonzaga, Tony Canadeo, eluded Flaherty to become a Green Bay Packer. Canadeo, who earned the nickname "The Gray Ghost of Gonzaga" because of his prematurely gray hair, became the first Packer to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,052) in 1949, only the third player in the NFL to that time to achieve that mark.
Flaherty recalled that he intended to have Canadeo on the Redskins' roster, but figured as a player from a tiny school in Spokane, that Canadeo would still be available in later rounds of the draft and he could use his early picks for other players.
"I tried my darndest to talk the Packers out of Canadeo," Flaherty recalled in the interview. "But they seemed pretty suspicious about why I was so anxious to have him so decided to keep him. I had a lot of trouble with the Spokane folks over the fact I failed to get him."
Descendants of Flaherty and the Hare brothers, as well as others whose ancestors were part of Gonzaga football, and Ripien and his family and a whole cadre of WSU football fans, would be more than enthusiastic participants if the Redskins should come up with an event to recognize the franchise's Spokane tie.