- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

Time was, you knew where you stood in any given professional sports rivalry.

On top of the other guy's face or underneath his cleats.

Consider Washington-Dallas. For decades, the Redskins and Cowboys have engaged in one of the NFL's pre-eminent tete-a-tetes, a series rife with cheap shots, cheaper taunts, sideline-clearing brawls and honest-to-goodness bad blood.

And to hear former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann tell it, that's just the way the participants liked it.

"There was a genuine dislike," said Theismann, whose in-your-face antics touched off a pair of end-of-the-game melees between the two clubs. "Heck, I went to high school with [former Cowboys receiver] Drew Pearson. Drew was one of my best friends. To this day, he's still a close friend.

"But for those three hours when we played the Cowboys, I couldn't care if somebody blew him up. I couldn't care if [Dallas players] literally lived or died. People might say, 'God, that's sick.' But that's the way I approached the game."

Alas, a Theismann-like state of dementia figures to be absent when the Redskins and Cowboys meet today. While players on both teams will undoubtedly take pleasure in pounding each other turfward, the overall level of ill will probably won't exceed that of Washington-New York, Dallas-Philadelphia or many other divisional matchups.

In other words, don't expect the Montagues and the Capulets. Or, for that matter, fisticuffs.

"I'm pretty sure something like that won't happen," said Redskins tackle Chris Samuels. "I've got a couple of friends on the Cowboys. It doesn't go farther than the game. When we're out there on that field, it's all-out. But after it's over, it's a friendship thing. Guys shake hands and go home."

Samuels' sportsmanlike attitude is hardly unique. In fact, it's lamentably commonplace. Across the pro sports spectrum, old and new rivalries alike are losing their greatest asset an utterly unreasonable, wholly indefensible, massively entertaining wellspring of deep and abiding personal animosity.

Think former Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin knocking Theismann out of a game with a right cross. Larry Bird and Dr. J choking each other. Bill Lee likening George Steinbrenner to Hitler. Jeff Van Gundy hanging from Alonzo Mourning's leg like a balding Christmas ornament.

Think the Bad Boy era Detroit Pistons, refusing a post-series handshake with Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.

"Joe Dumars included," said Washington Wizards and former Bulls assistant coach John Bach, recalling a player for whom the NBA's sportsmanship award would later be named. "And I remember that, because I always thought he was the class of the league. There were hard feelings.

"I tried to stop [Rick] Mahorn and [Charles] Oakley from getting into a fight once. I almost got my hand broken because Mahorn threw me back. Now I kid with him. He says, 'How could a guy your size try to stop me? I'm 275 [pounds].' But you do stupid things. You do it in the emotion of the moment."

Lately, though, that emotion has ebbed. Storied rivalries like Lakers-Celtics and Red Sox-Yankees seem decidedly more professional than personal. Even the most virulent grudge matches going Warren Sapp vs. Mike Sherman, Hootie vs. Martha, Mark Cuban vs. the NBA league office, Nike vs. Adidas lack the sweet malevolence that characterized the likes of Knicks-Heat, a series Pat Riley described as "one big death grip."

Once the sports world gave us Ben Davidson's memorable in-the-back spearing of Len Dawson during the 1970 Oakland-Kansas City AFC title game; today it gives us Sauerbrun-Gramatica.

And so, we ask: Where's the hate?

"The one thing you have to understand is that times change," Theismann said. "And you have to change accordingly."

Fine. On to question No.2: Who's to blame? Or, more specifically, where to point the middle finger?

Franchise relocation has declawed some rivalries, such as the guerre voisine between the Montreal Canadiens and the former Quebec Nordiques. Others have been sapped by league expansion that leaves longtime foes like the Celtics and Sixers swapping forearms to the jaw less frequently.

According to Theismann, Washington-Dallas has mellowed for a simple reason: The Redskins (5-6) and the Cowboys (4-7) just aren't very good.

In business and in death grips, nothing succeeds like success. From 1970 to 1983 the peak years of the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry the two teams combined for 11 NFC title game appearances, two of them against each other.

As such, it's no surprise that Martin's famous 1979 toss of a funeral wreath into the Washington locker room came after a season-ending Dallas victory that decided a division title.

"Something has to be at stake, more than just the fans' resentment for the other team," Theismann said. "It all boils down to winning. If you're winning, and the other guys are winning, then you've got yourself a heated rivalry."

High stakes fanned the flames of the great 1980s NBA rivalries: Sixers-Celtics, Lakers-Celtics, Celtics-Pistons, Lakers-Pistons, Pistons-Bulls. Each team stood in the other's way. Something usually civility had to give.

Three years in a row, Chicago faced Detroit in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Three times the Pistons bushwhacked the Bulls with a flurry of elbows, knees and body slams. Small wonder, then, that the two teams were about as friendly as Sharon and Arafat.

"There definitely was dislike," Bach said. "Michael [Jordan] had been knocked down. [Bill] Laimbeer and Mahorn were backing up the lane. [Dennis] Rodman was a pest. We had skirmishes with them.

"To the Bulls, it became, 'How do we overcome this team that's seemingly the only obstacle between us and the Finals?'"

In the current era of sports flux, however, lasting venom is tough to cultivate. Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, for example, are two of the best tennis players in the world. They have never met in a Grand Slam final. Should they be expected to trade barbs?

Similarly, NFL parity has resulted in a clutch of easy-come, easy-go detest-fests. Remember Dallas-San Francisco? Tennessee-Jacksonville? Baltimore-Tennessee?

Remember when those games mattered?

Ten years ago, Rams-Saints was an afterthought, the sort of putrid pairing that makes Sunday afternoon figure skating look like a viable viewing option. By 2000, though, the two clubs were trash-talking arch-enemies.

Today they don't even play in the same division.

"What's happened is that rivalries have become like three- to four-year windows," Theismann said. "Which is a little bit indicative of what free agency has done. It also speaks to the movement that we have in the game."

If familiarity breeds festering contempt, then unfamiliarity breeds, well, indifference. Line up across from the same no-good bum enough times, and bad blood is almost inevitable witness the longstanding feud between the Redskins' Mark May and the Cowboys' Randy White.

(True story: During the 1980s, May and White represented their respective teams at an NFL drug seminar. White arrived to find a single open chair, next to May. White stood.)

By contrast, guard Tyronn Lue was stumped when asked to name the Wizards' most-detested rival, primarily because the new-look team doesn't have one.

"It's too early for us," Lue said. "We have too many new guys. I think you have to have the same group of guys playing against another group of guys for a long time. It's like Boston and the Lakers. I don't think it's really a rivalry anymore because the same guys aren't there anymore."

The same goes for Redskins-Cowboys. Three seasons ago, a week's worth of smack talk between Dallas' Deion Sanders and Washington's Albert Connell ended in a Sanders punch. A year later, the Cowboys' Alonzo Spellman and the Redskins' Jay Leeuwenburg were ejected from a game at Texas Stadium for fighting.

This season all four combatants are long gone. So, too, is any lingering hostility.

To paraphrase an old Jerry Seinfeld gag: Rivalries used to be about people. Now they're about laundry.

"The guys that are here and are going to be here, they know the rivalry," said Redskins safety Sam Shade. "Darrell Green knows the rivalry. Stephen Davis knows the rivalry. But nowadays, in professional sports, you've got guys changing teams so much."

Indeed, today's rival is often tomorrow's teammate. Which tends to throw a wet blanket on potential kicks to the groin.

Darrick Brownlow, a former Dallas linebacker, once taunted Joe Gibbs with a sideline rendition of "Hail to the Redskins." He later signed with Washington. Sanders played for both teams. Ditto for receiver Alvin Harper.

Less than a decade earlier, former Dallas cornerback Ron Fellows was cut by the Cowboys. He subsequently turned down a tryout with the Redskins. On sheer principle.

"Back in the old days, I didn't hang out with Roger Staubach," Theismann said. "He never invited me to a golf tournament. Of course, Roger can't play. I'd kick his rear end right now. [Today], everybody plays in everybody else's golf tournament. So you really can't genuinely hate somebody. Makes it tough for a good rivalry."

Tell that to Samuels, who hopes to catch up with Cowboys guard Ross Tucker after today's game. Tucker started the season with the Redskins and remains friendly with many of his former linemates.

"Tuck's going to try to rip our heads off, and we're going to try to rip his head off," Samuels said. "But afterward it will be all friends. He actually came back here on an off week and we all went out to dinner. We had a good time."

Even when genuine dislike exists a la Eric Lindros and Bobby Clarke players and coaches are apt to keep a lid on it. Few want to provide their opponents with motivational fodder, particularly in an age where offhand remarks quickly become grist for the 24-hour news cycle or Internet.

At Florida, Steve Spurrier helped stoke his program's rivalry with Tennessee by dropping remarks like "you can't spell Citrus [a reference to the bowl game] without U-T." But in Washington, the closest Spurrier has come to dissing Dallas is a meek "we need to beat the Cowboys."

Compare that to legendary Redskins coach George Allen, whose distaste for all things America's Team led him to refer to former defensive end Dallas Hickman as "Dulles."

"With George Allen, you could carry that rivalry on into the offseason," Theismann said. "Guys would say things and there would be bulletin board material. Now, every coach is paranoid."

Whatever the cause, the defanging of pro rivalries is hardly something to cheer. Unless you're talking Bronx-style. Bad blood, after all, makes for good competition. And better theater.

Just ask former Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel, who once screamed, "I'm gonna kick your [butt]!" to Cowboys defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner just 'cause. Or try former Dallas coach Tom Landry, who used to move Cowboys practices into the Cotton Bowl in order to guard against Allen's spying.

(True story No.2: The Cowboys once traced a suspicious car parked at one of their practice sites to a Dallas airport rental agency, where it had been rented in the name of a Redskins scout.)

When a Knicks-Bulls brawl broke out right in front of NBA commissioner David Stern during the 1994 playoffs, the elder Bach found himself in the middle of the action much to the chagrin of then-NBA vice president of basketball operations Rod Thorn.

"Rod called me and said, 'Johnny, what the [heck] were you out there for?'" Bach said. "I said, 'I went out there with peaceful intentions, to stop it.' He said, 'I don't want a guy your age out there.' But there's parts of all of us that want to be in a street fight."

Fortunately, a few pro teams still agree. The Lakers and the Sacramento Queens, er, Kings threw down in a preseason game. The Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche have never shared enough love to lose in the first place. And so long as Al Davis is around, the Denver Broncos will remain virulent Raider Haters.

"There's just something about it when they play each other," said Redskins defensive line coach Ricky Hunley, who played for Denver and Oakland. "You have fans at each other's throats. You've got players against players. Coaches against coaches. Players against coaches. Coaches against owners. Owners against players. And everyone wants pay back the next time they play."

Retribution. Retaliation. Bitter, querulous rivalry. Washington-Dallas used to be the professional standard. Can it again?

According to Theismann, the future starts now.

"Normally, these things are incited by a defensive player being nasty," he said. "But what will revive the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry a little bit is playing on Thanksgiving Day. That's like a playoff game. The world's watching, and you're going up against a team where there's a history, a legacy, a tradition. It's up to you to carry these things on."

In other words, it's time to take a stand. Preferably, cleat to face.


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