Back in 2001, when Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington first saw rookie Shawne Merriman, it was like looking in the mirror. Merriman played basketball with Arrington's younger brother, Eric, at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, so naturally they were introduced.
"When I saw Shawne for the first time, I called him man-child," Arrington said. "He was bigger than everybody. His physical attributes were unbelievable. He reminded me a lot of myself."
Arrington began advising Merriman, whose true love was football, about the game, on and off the field. They became so close that Arrington thinks of Merriman as a brother. In fact, as he described their relationship, Arrington's cell phone rang. It was Merriman.
"I gave Shawne little nuggets about certain ways to approach the ball and told him the type of attitude you should bring every time that you come onto the field," Arrington said of his talks with the teenager.
Said Merriman: "To get information from an NFL player when you're in high school or college and not just a player trying to make a roster [but] one of the stars of the NFL, it was real helpful."
Bolstered by Arrington's advice, Merriman became the state's defensive player of the year as a senior and played college ball at Maryland, where he recorded 22 sacks despite starting just 17 games in three seasons. The swift pass rusher opted to leave the program a year early and was rewarded when San Diego chose him 12th overall in April's draft.
Tomorrow, the mentor and the protege meet for the first time on the field when the 5-5 Redskins, with Arrington back in his old spot at left linebacker, play host to the 6-4 Chargers, with Merriman starting at left outside linebacker in San Diego's 3-4 scheme.
"When I got drafted, I looked at the schedule [and], when I saw we were playing the 'Skins in my hometown, I couldn't wait," said Merriman, who wears No. 56 in Arrington's honor.
Said Arrington, who at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds is an inch and 17 pounds smaller than Merriman: "It's going to be pretty exciting. We've played a lot of teams that have played San Diego, so I've seen Shawne on film all year long. When he makes a play, I say, 'That's my baby!' Shawne's going to be playing on an energy level that's going to be very hard to match. His whole focus is going to be to outplay me."
Arrington, who at 27 is six years older than Merriman, sounded like Mufasa from "The Lion King" as he bristled at the mention of his student having a rookie-best and team-high seven sacks to his none.
"I'm a competitor," Arrington said. "I'm still the king, and he's got to take the throne. I'm not old yet. He better not underestimate me. Part of me hopes that Shawne's too hyped up and doesn't have that good of a game, and another part of me wants him to have the best game of his life because he's family, which goes beyond any of this."
After Merriman was drafted, Arrington told him Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer and linebackers coach Greg Manusky, who held those jobs in 2001 in Washington, were "great guys but tough coaches" and advised him to impress them with his work ethic.
So while Arrington influenced Merriman to hire his agents, Carl and Kevin Poston, along with a business manager, he maintains he wasn't responsible for the rookie skipping the entire offseason program and the first week of training camp in a contract dispute.
But Arrington correctly told Merriman that the fuss over his contract "will fade away once you put the on pads and start playing and once the people get a chance to get to know who you are as a person."
Which is exactly what happened. Merriman has six sacks in the four games since he became a starter, and San Diego is 3-1 in those games.
"We expected that as soon as Shawne got comfortable and familiar with what he is being asked to do, his natural athletic skills would take over," Schottenheimer said. "When you have a player that has the kind of size and strength that he has or LaVar has and can run as fast as they can run, it makes up for a lot of errors. [It's] the old adage that 'speed kills.' If you have it, you kill them. If you don't have it, they kill you. Shawne is a legitimate, big-time, fast, power player."
Arrington deeply appreciated the support he received from his "baby brother" when the Redskins were strangely not playing him earlier this year. But for three hours tomorrow, their love takes a hiatus.
"Shawne is playing at a very high level," Arrington said. "If he keeps it up, he'll be rookie of the year. If there's one person out of all the guys who have admired me enough to have worn my jersey number, Shawne's probably the one who has [best] taken how I play and will probably take it a step further. I'm ungodly proud that Shawne is everything that he dreamed of, worked for and strived to be."