- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

INDIANAPOLIS He hasn't played in an NFL game in almost four years. He's just five months shy of the 10th anniversary of his shining moment. His lack of agility is even more noticeable than it was during his glory days.

But Mark Rypien, the MVP of the Washington Redskins' last Super Bowl triumph, is making an unexpected comeback three years after he left the Atlanta Falcons and the NFL to be with his dying toddler, Andrew. Rypien, who'll be 39 in October, is trying to win a job with the Indianapolis Colts as a backup to young Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning.

"Playing football is what I've done since I was a junior in high school," Rypien said in the Colts' locker room last Saturday night. "If anything, I've brought peace to myself. I didn't want three years down the road to say, 'I wish I would have given it another shot.' If I was going to do it, it was going to be now, not two years from now.

"I missed the game. And I didn't want to use Andrew's death as a crutch to explain why my career ended. I never ask, 'Why me?' because you could turn yourself blue in the face doing that. You become a stronger person by learning how to deal with situations and finding a way to move on. My parents taught me that if you do something, you put your heart and soul into it and you persevere through the good times and the bad times."

Rypien has had his share of those on the field as well. Cut by the Redskins in the spring of 1994 a little more than two years removed from being the Super Bowl MVP, Rypien started just six games for Cleveland, Philadelphia and St. Louis the next four seasons. Still, despite his rust and age, Rypien might be better than more than a few NFL quarterbacks.

"With the quarterbacking as thin as it is, why wouldn't Ryp come back?" said Detroit general manager Matt Millen, a teammate on Washington's 1991 champions. "As far as having what it takes to be a backup, Ryp has everything you want if his arm is where it used to be. He's a willing teacher. He has the experience. He's another set of eyes for Peyton."

Manning is excited to have Rypien as a mentor.

"I'm a fourth-year guy, but I still consider myself to be a young quarterback," Manning said. "And I don't think you ever get to the point where another quarterback can't give you help. Mark has a good feel for the little things. He might point out something in the two-minute drill like, 'Hey, don't forget your back. He's been open on the checkdown routes.'

"I'm real happy that Mark's back on his own terms, which isn't the way he left. But this is not a feel-good story. We signed Mark because we feel he can be a contributor to this team on the field, on the sidelines and in the locker room."

Still, Rypien stunned the Colts with his play in their preseason opener against Seattle. Just 12 days after joining the team, Rypien completed 12 of 20 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks' reserves.

"We were expecting Ryp to be a little confused, but he was running the show, getting us in the right formations, making the calls," said right tackle Adam Meadows.

"Mark surprised the heck out of me not only because he had been gone for three years but by being able to grasp our offense so quickly," coach Jim Mora said.

But Saturday against Detroit, in the roller-coaster fashion that has been so typical of Rypien, he hit just two of six passes for three yards while throwing an ugly interception and losing a fumble on one of the two sacks he suffered. Rypien entered the game late in the first quarter with a 14-0 lead. He exited at halftime with the Colts trailing 17-14 and his chances of beating out journeyman Billy Joe Hobert and youngster Roderick Robinson lessened.

Mora said the performance "brought everybody back to earth a little" and laid some of the blame on the blocking. Rypien wasn't so sanguine about the ugly outing.

"Last week was great," Rypien said. "I had a chance to make some plays and I made them. But as great as it was, you can't hang your hat on one preseason game against a group of guys fighting to make a team against another group of guys doing the same thing. Tonight [playing mostly against the Detroit starters], I made some decisions that weren't real good, like the one on the screen pass [which was picked off by Lions defensive end Robert Porcher].

"You get out there and, especially after the first sack, you're thinking about the rush and you're not in a relaxed mode. That's human nature, but I'm going to be very critical."

Very critical, and very busy trying to get back in the groove.

"For me to make this team and contribute, I have to work for everything every day," Rypien said. "That's throwing routes and learning your receivers, doing run drills, working on your technique. I'm feeling more comfortable in the system every day, but I'm behind the eight ball. Even though I'm a veteran, I'm in that rookie mode where I can only get better by working hard on the field and studying the playbook and watching films after practice."

The spring after Andrew's death, Rypien worked out for San Diego at the request of GM Bobby Beathard, his old Redskins boss. But Rypien decided he wasn't emotionally ready to leave his Idaho home and went back to his passive investment in a small group of hotels, playing golf and hockey and coaching the youth teams on which his daughters Ambre, 12, and Angela, 10, played. All the while, Rypien's marriage was collapsing.

"Being a wife of a public figure, your life is out there for everyone to see," Rypien said. "Annette is her own person, but she did things because of what I did. She has pride. I love her to death. We've been through a heck of a lot. Our lives are engulfed in our girls. But once we weren't together, when I went home at night, I was alone. I had cabin fever. I knew that I was going to have to find something to keep myself busy."

Last fall, Angela told her father she wanted him to play again. Spurred on by her request, Rypien asked agent Ken Staninger to let teams know he was considering a comeback.

"I decided to see if I could get my body back in shape to give it a go," Rypien said. "Teams wanted to know if I was really serious. The Colts were one of the four or five teams who were most interested. When they called and asked me to work out, I signed that day. I was very excited.

"I want to be the knowledgeable, capable guy who can drive the car if something happens to the franchise. Although I wouldn't whip it around the way Peyton does, I still have the ability to drive the vehicle successfully."

His teammates call Rypien "PaPaw" and joke that he used to wear a leather helmet, but his .607 winning percentage (including the playoffs) is fifth among active quarterbacks with at least 30 starts, trailing only Doug Flutie, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Brad Johnson.

"Coming back after being off three years is a challenge," said Houston's Charley Casserly, Washington's GM during Rypien's five seasons as the Redskins' starter. "Only time will tell if Ryp's body has enough left, but I know his mind and his heart do."

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