- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The pain was unimaginable for Jeremiah Trotter that day. The physical pain of playing on a gimpy knee. The psychological pain of not being able to cut, stop or shed blocks the way he always could. And the emotional pain of having lost his enjoyment of the game, a sting multiplied by how poorly the Washington Redskins played in a demoralizing loss to the Buffalo Bills.

And so the middle linebacker, just 26 and less than two years into a seven-year, $35million contract, came home, looked his wife, Tammi, in the eye and told her that was it.

“I told my wife, ‘I want to retire,’” Trotter recounted yesterday. “And she looked at me — I haven’t ever seen her look at me like that. But I had never been in that situation before. That was the first time, since I started playing football in high school, I ever contemplated giving it up.”

In the six weeks since, Trotter has emerged to play some of his best football as a Redskin. Although he was conspicuous in a blown assignment in the Nov.16 loss at Carolina, he otherwise has played with increasing presence and confidence, and in the past two games he was credited with 11 and 12 tackles, each a season high.

Trotter finally is starting to show what Washington saw when it made him a blockbuster signing in 2002. All it took was him setting aside the pressure — a move he made after hitting bottom and considering retirement.

“That’s when everything started to get better,” Trotter said. “You can say, ‘I’m not worried about it.’ But subconsciously, you’re really worried about it. And when I really made a conscious effort to say, ‘Forget it. If I don’t make another tackle in the NFL …,’ everything started to come together.”

Trotter’s transformation is significant as Washington looks ahead to 2004. First, for the Redskins’ defense to succeed, they need their highest-paid players (LaVar Arrington, Trotter, Champ Bailey) to play their best. Second, Trotter seems to be evolving from a player who thought he was grown up to one who actually is.

To illustrate: In the summer of 2002, shortly after signing, Trotter was doing an interview about his past. As a Redskin, he had bold plans about being a leader.

“Leaders are born,” Trotter declared. “Me, I was just born with leadership qualities.”

Yesterday, the discussion turned to this club’s underdeveloped leadership. Young players like Trotter, Arrington and Jon Jansen have been expected to be leaders; for various reasons, those roles have come in fits and starts.

“I don’t think leaders are born,” Trotter said. “I think leaders are taught and learn how to be good leaders. You may have a lot of good leadership qualities, but if you’re not taught how to use those qualities, you’re not going to be good at it.”

He got a hearty laugh when reminded of his former mindset.

“I’ve learned since then,” Trotter said. “When I said that, I was still young.”

That youth played a role in his lousy start as a Redskin. In addition to being unfamiliar with Marvin Lewis’ defense, he was overconfident and strong-willed, and the combination led to blown assignments and poor play. And by the time he settled down, he had only a few games until he tore up his knee.

This year Trotter has endured more ups and downs. He made big plays against the Jets and at Philadelphia, but at Carolina he blew the fourth-and-1 by failing to cover Stephen Davis. Overall, he has not been able to keep Washington out of the lower reaches of the NFL defensive rankings.

His frustration peaked at Buffalo on Oct.19, when Washington gave up a season-high 432 yards and Trotter, playing without pain medication, was so hampered by his knee that teammate Jessie Armstead told him to take a seat — advice Trotter ignored.

“I don’t want to let my teammates down,” Trotter said. “If we were winning that game, I probably would have come out. … But it’s hard for me to come out of the game when we were losing and losing the way we were losing.”

Now his focus is on trying to relax and have fun, a message he sent to teammates in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to New Orleans.

“Even when they went down and scored, I told the guys on the sideline, ‘Listen, no matter what happens, keep having fun,’” Trotter said. “And Champ told me, ‘It’s good to see you smiling again.’ When he said that, it really hit me — not only was [my frustration] affecting me, but it was affecting the people around me.”

Trotter said his knee has gotten better every week since he got some rest in the bye week. Having cast aside the pressure and adopted a more mature perspective, he could build toward a promising 2004 in the final four games.

“I’m excited,” Trotter said, “because I really believe that the last few games of the season are going to be a glimpse of how the rest of my career is going to go.”

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