"How does this work?"
Bill and Stephanie Johnson get some variation of this question a lot. They are used to being stopped inside the stadium on gamedays. The couple fielded the inquiry on a recent cruise during the holidays. They have even received a window-side visit from a curious police officer who had seen the two pop into a convenience store before going to FedExField.
"How does this work?"
The Johnsons have come up with a canned response tinged with humor whenever they get the question now.
"Counseling," Stephanie will say with a laugh.
The two make an unlikely pair. She is a diehard Cowboys fan. He is a diehard Commanders fan. They stand on opposite sides of one of the fiercest rivalries in American sports. And though they love the team the other one hates, this element of their relationship, while not without its stresses and difficult moments, has actually strengthened their bond.
Stephanie and Bill's relationship began in 2019 after meeting through Bill's cousin. At the time, she was living in Georgia, and he was living in Texas, so they got know each other at first through many hours on the phone.
It was in an early conversation that the two learned about one another's fandom. They were having a playful debate, talking about Washington's and Dallas' respective players and, before Stephanie knew it, the call was over. Bill had hung up the phone.
"I got frustrated a little bit," he recalled. "Then she called me and said, 'Did you hang up on me?' I said 'No, the phone dropped,' but yeah, I hung up on her."
"He asked for someone who liked sports, someone who he could go to sporting events with," Stephanie said of that moment of reckoning, "But, he got more than what he asked for."
The tension continued in person. In 2019, Bill, a Commanders season ticket holder, took Stephanie to the Washington-Dallas game at FedExField for their first rivalry matchup in person.
"He almost put me out the stadium," Stephanie joked.
Bill looks back at the memories of the day with some pain.
"When Dallas tied the game and then started winning, she started jumping up and down and screaming. She's videotaping," he remembered. "And I'm looking at everyone looking at me…After a while it got irritating, but it was fun."
The Washington Commanders wrapped up their week of preparation for the Dallas Cowboys on Friday afternoon. Here are the top photos from the day. Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders
And so started a tradition. He ended up joining her in Georgia, and the two would fly to Maryland for nearly every Washington home game. Bill, of course, always came decked out in his Burgundy & Gold gear while Stephanie always stepped out in her Cowboys outfit -- even when her team was not lining up against Washington. The two also started going to the away game in Dallas.
Frustrations and tensions related to their fandom have bubbled time and again in the last few years. Bill has been in plenty of scenarios surrounded by impassioned Cowboys fans and vice versa for Stephanie. She has been known to watch a Dallas game on her phone while in the stands at a Washington game if the two are playing at the same time.
While moments like these have come with challenges, being a Washington-Dallas couple has brought unique joy to their marriage and new understandings about their spouse to one another.
"It can be very heated at times, but we have fun," Bill said.
For one, they have made a lot of friends.
"We look forward to football season because it brings people together…and since I've been going to the Washington games, the circle who sits around us knows who I am," Stephanie said. "They know I'm a Cowboys fan, and they treat me just as good as they treat him coming to games."
Various Washington-Dallas situations have taught them about being a good support system. They have found new ways to make each other smile, like gifting one other paraphernalia related to their favorite team. Stephanie has even started to root for Washington (in games where Dallas does not serve to benefit but…progress!)
There have also been valuable learnings related to navigating stress that their partner may be experiencing. Take a memory of Stephanie's from last season as an example. The two were watching a Dallas game in a sports bar, and Stephanie was eager to leave because the Cowboys were playing badly.
"I don't want to watch anymore. Let's go. I don't care. They're gonna lose this game," Stephanie had kept repeating.
In the moment, Bill sought to lift up his wife's state of mind rather than his preference for a football team.
"She was getting frustrated, irritated, mood swings," Bill recalled.
So, he encouraged her: "'Come on, Steph. The game's not over. They're gonna be alright. They're gonna come back."
"He got me back right to the point where I started watching the game on my phone, and we did come back and win the game," Stephanie said.
The reality that football is just a game sits in the back of every super fan's head. In the Johnson household it is repeatedly brought to the forefront, forcing them to consider what is really most important. Doing so has brought them laughs, countless cherished experiences and special lessons.
The Commanders' Week 18 game will be the eighth Washington-Dallas game Bill and Stephanie have attended together in person. Life has brought some changes. In the last two weeks, they have moved to the DMV area. This Sunday's contest marks the first home Dallas home game Washington will play as the Commanders.
Yet, there is a constant for the Johnsons. They will always lean on it. No matter what the scoreboard reads when that final whistle blows.
"Love conquers all," Stephanie said.