- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

Regan Upshaw had no idea what he was getting into when he signed with the Washington Redskins in March.

He had no idea that being a defensive end here meant playing out of position at times and at others standing in the way of the Bruce Smith Show, Smith’s highly politicized pursuit of the NFL career sack record.

Actually, Upshaw had no idea Smith would even be around.

“When they signed me, they said Bruce wasn’t going to be here,” Upshaw said yesterday with a laugh. “They were talking about Bruce retiring, or at that time I guess that’s what I got the feeling of.”

Thing is, Upshaw doesn’t care. He’s not mad at anyone or frustrated or disappointed. On one hand he admits that this season has been “one of the hardest years of [his] career.” But he also believes it has taught him a lot about life, about how liberating it can be to set aside selfish desires.

“It’s allowed me to grow,” Upshaw said. “It has allowed me not to worry about the little things. And it’s just humbled me in a way that says, ‘Enjoy the fact that you’re a football player. If they’re going to play you here, be happy with it. If they’re going to play you there, still be happy with it.’”

When he signed on the second day of free agency, Upshaw was introduced as the new right end. Shortly afterward, Smith met with coach Steve Spurrier and owner Dan Snyder to negotiate a chance to win back his old position. He then seized the spot during training camp, when Upshaw was limited because of arthroscopic knee surgery in June.

Smith ended up starting at right end the first seven games, a period when Upshaw was asked to play a lot of left end in pass-rushing situations. Upshaw had no history at left end, and it didn’t surprise coaches that he had difficulty adjusting.

“It’s just unnatural,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “Most right ends are right ends; most left ends are left ends.”

Upshaw replaced Smith as the starter Nov.2 at Dallas, and that didn’t sit well with Smith. The veteran accused Spurrier of singling him out for the club’s struggles. Then, after the Nov.23 game at Miami, he sounded off about not playing frequently enough. The next day, he claimed Snyder supported his frustration, though management later distanced itself from that comment.

Last weekend the sack record finally fell. Ultimately, Smith’s pursuit might have cost Upshaw a full chance to prove he should be Washington’s starting right end in 2004. Upshaw has one sack, and in the offseason the club will sift through a market that should include Tennessee star Jevon Kearse. Team sources said there remains a chance — not necessarily a good one — that Upshaw will return as a starter in 2004.

Vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato, for his part, conceded it has been difficult to gauge Upshaw’s play.

“It’s hard to tell because he’s played so much at left end, which he never played,” Cerrato said. “You like the way he hustles and his attitude and his passion for the game. What we saw on film last year, we thought he had good pass-rush ability. But he just hasn’t had a lot of opportunities at the spot he’s played forever. I guess we feel like he can [produce]. We’ll just see.”

The Smith sideshow hasn’t fazed Upshaw. Asked whether he feels he has had a full opportunity to prove himself, he replied, “I don’t really worry about that kind of stuff.” In an earnest tone, he explained he no longer is the type of player to dwell on lost playing time or a damaged opportunity to make his mark.

“I was happy for Bruce, and I’ve never been jealous or envious,” Upshaw said. “I’ve been happy for him, and I’ve been happy it’s allowed me to grow as a man off the field, and just to really enjoy playing football no matter what the situation is. In the past it would have made me angry or bitter, but now, I’ll have a good time, play. Whatever happens, happens.”

To understand Upshaw’s perspective, one first must understand the difference between Upshaw the person and the one who comes across as a football player. Known for personal foul penalties and even spitting in an opposing player’s face, Upshaw actually is a cut-up, a player who constantly is heard making jokes and engaging those around him — even strangers.

Moreover, there is a thoughtful side, too. A product of the University of California, Upshaw recently was spotted reading a book on the history of religion on one of the Redskins’ road trips. Lately he’s been using his spare time to research international travel destinations; this offseason, he hopes to go to Cuba and Costa Rica.

“I feel like going to Cal really teaches you to think outside the box,” Upshaw said. “It teaches you to figure out your own path to things. … I always put something in my head besides football, because the game doesn’t change. You can’t reinvent the wheel. You have to stay mentally stimulated somehow.”

Upshaw certainly isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel in Washington — or even divert it from its natural course. He’s hoping to have a strong finish to the season and let the Redskins make whatever decision they need to about his spot.

“I’ve had to rethink what my motivation is in this game,” Upshaw said. “What motivates me now? Competing with a guy for a position? Just playing a game motivates me now. Having fun motivates me now. The other stuff, I don’t really get caught up with anymore.”

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