- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

Darrell Green is ending his Hall of Fame career as backup on a losing team. He has endured as his Washington Redskins crashed from their accustomed place among the NFL's elite to the ranks of the also-rans.

After 20 seasons, the NFL's fastest man is walking away with absolutely no regrets.

Green's improbable career as a Redskin will end with his retirement after next Sunday's season finale against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field, his Redskin record 313th game (regular season and playoffs). Redskins coach Steve Spurrier said Green will make an honorary start against the Cowboys.

Seven weeks shy of his 43rd birthday, Green no longer is the fastest man in a league full of fast and young men. He hasn't been a starter for three years. But in some ways, Green says, he still is the self-described "itty-bitty" kid from little Texas A&I despite his seven Pro Bowls, the NFL Man of the Year award he received in 1996, his two Super Bowl championships and the prospect of near-automatic election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

"Fortunately, I was not only blessed with athletic gifts, but I was also blessed with the ability to see things clearly," Green said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times last week. "All those 'Darrell, Darrell' cheers I don't take those home with me. I don't see myself as any different than anybody else. All that 'I'm a superstar' stuff I don't live there in my mind and in my heart.

"When I'm not a football player anymore, I'll be back to who I was: my mother and father's son, my brothers' and sisters' brother, my wife's husband and my children's father. I still drive that old Volkswagen. When I got drafted, I bought a Toyota. I went back to college and people looked at me like I was crazy, but I didn't buy it to make a statement. My wife, my kids we're just regular people down the street. We always have been."

The 5-foot-9, 184-pound Houston native is a fairly typical American male in many ways, but he has never been an average NFL player. No one in the league's 83 years has played more games or more seasons for one team. No other cornerback has played 20 years or started for 17. Only Deion Sanders, whose signing with the Redskins in 2000 relegated Green to nickel back, and Hall of Famer Mike Haynes have been to more Pro Bowls at cornerback. And neither Sanders nor Haynes was chosen for the Pro Bowl at age 37, as Green was.

No wonder the Redskins plan to retire Green's No.28 at next year's home opener. The only other Redskin so honored is immortal quarterback Sammy Baugh, who retired 50 years ago. Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen and John Riggins still are waiting to be so honored.

"Darrell's the greatest cornerback in the history of the game, because no one ever played at his level for as long as he did," said Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly, who worked in the Redskins' front office for Green's first 16 years. "He was the Michael Jordan, the Barry Bonds of cornerbacks. Every week, you just put him on the best receiver and figured out the rest of the defense. That went on forever, it seemed. How many guys have you ever seen a team do that with? And no one [else] did it for that long."

Green was a teammate of quarterback Jim Hart, who is now 58. Green currently shares the huddle with 22-year-old Bernard Jackson, who was 3 the night Green made his debut against the Cowboys. Green covered all 20 of the leading wide receivers in NFL history, from Charlie Joiner to Marvin Harrison, and also frustrated all 10 of the highest-rated quarterbacks except Roger Staubach.

When Green arrived in Washington in 1983, defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon thought general manager Bobby Beathard had goofed by using his first-round draft choice on such a small cornerback. Petitbon, a Pro Bowl safety in his own right, soon came to wish he had "11 Darrell Greens" on his side because of his fierce competitiveness.

Green had world-class speed: He once finished second in a race to the unparalleled sprinter Carl Lewis and won the "NFL's Fastest Man" competition four times. But Green's success and longevity also are a testament to his heart and head.

Never a textbook cornerback, Green soon figured out what he needed to do to shut down just about any receiver. Green also was so tough that he beat the Chicago Bears with a 52-yard punt return in the 1987 playoffs despite pulling rib muscles on the play, and he returned the next week to seal an NFC Championship game victory over the Minnesota Vikings by breaking up a pass on the final play of the game.

Green's refusal to be beaten led Jerry Rice, the leading receiver in NFL history, to call him the best cornerback he ever faced.

"People said I was just going to be a punt returner," said Green, whose 11.3 yard return average would rank in the top 20 all-time if he had returned more than 51. "They asked, 'How are you going to tackle Earl Campbell? How are you going to cover this big receiver or that one?'

"I did those things. In my own way, I pioneered for the little guys at the toughest position in football. Name the quarterback, name the receiver I battled them. Big, little, fast, strong. I battled them all."

The Redskins regularly competed for championships during Green's first decade, winning two Super Bowls, losing another and making the playoffs seven times. Green's second decade has been much less successful; the Redskins reached the playoffs just once and posted five losing seasons in that time.

But, Green said, the past 10 years have had their own sweetness.

"I'm not leaving with any regrets," said Green, who despite his size has missed just 22 games over those 20 seasons. "This has been a dream career. Of course, the first 10 years were more fun because we were winning. But there were more opportunities and more valuable lessons in the second 10 years.

"I went to a new level, not only athletically, but in terms of getting my message out. I could influence more than just my teammates [through his foundation and its five learning centers for disadvantaged children in the District, Virginia and Tennessee]. And my children have been able to join my wife in being able to enjoy watching me play."

Green's family is far from alone in that regard. Former teammate Tim Johnson smiles when he remembers watching his buddy in game films on Mondays at Redskin Park.

"We would watch the film, and it was like Darrell was sped up and everybody else was at normal speed," Johnson said. "It was like, 'Whoa! Look at that.'"

Into his 40s, Green loved to race and beat teammates half his age during minicamp timing sessions.

"I always wondered how Darrell did what he did at his size, and now that I've played with him, I still don't know," said second-year cornerback Fred Smoot. "I think maybe only Darrell can do it."

And unlike so many modern athletes, Green never showboated. He did hold out briefly in 1992, but he never tested the free agency market. Like Cal Ripken, with whom he shared the regional sporting spotlight for so long, Green is a throwback when it comes to loyalty and style.

"I'm proud that I was never a guy that ever flaunted my success," Green said. "You don't have to wear all that glitter and gold and wear your pants down, scream at the crowd, say bad words to the refs and other players. I'm proud of how I've managed my life on and off the field.

"I never cheated the Redskins out of one red cent in terms of my energy, my effort and my preparation. I trained just as hard when I was a rookie or in my 20th year as I did when I was a Pro Bowl cornerback. I was never a prima donna. I never disrespected my coaches, even when over the years I knew as much as they did."

Green doesn't have an interception this season the first time in his career he has not had a pickoff. He has been playing primarily on special teams since he bruised his hip on a critical pass deflection on the final drive of the Redskins' victory over the St. Louis Rams on Nov.24.

"I'm not what I was," he said. "I'm a third or fourth corner and a special teams player. That's a process that doesn't come overnight, but I'm very comfortable with that now. I never questioned whether I could still play. I have my integrity. I know I'm still good enough, pleasing enough to my team and the fans.

"As ugly as this season has been, I can find joy in being able to play my hometown team and our greatest rival in my last two games and play them at home. I'd have to be some kind of cement block robot not to be sad [next Sunday], but I'll be more excited about the future. When you rent a car, the ultimate return is when you pull into the parking lot and the out of gas light comes on. You want to be on 'E' when you retire, and that's where I am."

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