The contrasts changed Shawn Springs permanently.
He saw a beautiful land blighted by poverty and hunger. He witnessed educated people without enough running water or electricity. There was a Sheraton hotel on one side of a road and “2,000 shanties” on the other.
The cornerback went to Ethiopia several years ago with a professor from the University of Washington, where Springs took classes to complete his sociology degree. Springs said it took three days for him to comprehend what he saw, but he returned a changed man with a completely different view of the world.
These days, things that are not life and death — in other words, anything that happens on a football field — don’t bother him as much.
Tailing Springs from Seattle, where he spent seven seasons with the Seahawks, are questions about his football desire, whether the Washington Redskins’ replacement for four-time Pro Bowl pick Champ Bailey cares enough after giving up a big play.
“[Ethiopia] was a life-changing experience,” Springs said yesterday as he climbed out of an ice tub at Redskins training camp. “That’s one of the reasons why my attitude is where it is. You go over there, and you realize that you take so much stuff for granted. People are dying over there.”
Hence, Springs sometimes just shrugs when he gives up a touchdown pass. The most obvious incident occurred in 2002, when Springs gave up a long touchdown to the San Francisco 49ers’ Terrell Owens. After scoring, Owens pulled a pen out of his sock and, well, you probably know the rest.
Owens’ audacity really burned Seahawks fans because the financial planner who received Owens’ signed ball also worked for Springs and was sitting in Springs’ field-level luxury box. After the game, the cornerback fueled questions about his heart by laughing off the incident.
Funny how Springs’ trademark wide grin is a double-edged sword. Injuries have precipitated Springs’ fall from among the best corners in the game — he was the third pick overall in 1997 and a 1998 Pro Bowl selection — but his happy-go-lucky attitude fostered the perception he didn’t have the desire to be great.
Yesterday Springs levied a passionate defense of his football pride. Mistakes, he claimed, gall him as much as anyone.
“I go hard, and I want to win,” Springs said. “I get [ticked] off when I get beat. But I’m not going to let anybody else know. There’s no chink in my armor. You might say, ‘That didn’t even faze him.’ But people don’t know. I might rewind that [play] 200 times. I’m [ticked], but I’m not going to let you see. No one’s going to get me to waver.
“I take pride in that. ‘OK, you got me.’ And then I go out the next game and try to rip your [expletive] head off.”
Coach Joe Gibbs is a believer after witnessing Springs’ dedication during the offseason program.
“If a guy’s going to skip something and he doesn’t have a burning desire, it’ll show up in his offseason work,” Gibbs said. “I think he was extremely well-prepared, worked extremely hard. We tracked everything they did. … I think he has a burning desire and wants to play. I’ll put it this way: We’re real happy [with him].”
Questions about Springs are particularly poignant this week as the Redskins prepare to play the Denver Broncos in Monday’s Hall of Fame Game. Denver obtained Bailey this spring as part of the Clinton Portis deal; Washington subsequently signed Springs to a six-year, $31 million contract.
League personnel men don’t favor Springs in head-to-head comparisons with Bailey, who may be the NFL’s best corner. However, several Redskins players pointed to Washington’s overhauled defense and said direct comparisons between the physical newcomer and departed man-to-man master don’t make sense.
“They both bring something great to the table,” wide receiver Laveranues Coles said. “It’s just, what style of defense are you playing? Are you playing man-to-man, press defense all day? Or are you playing a defense like we have now, where they play a little zone, sometimes throw in a little man? Shawn fits the scheme we have now, more so than Champ did.”
Safety Matt Bowen added: “Last year, I think we relied on Champ a little too much, to be honest. This year we’re playing more of a team defense. Everyone fits in.”
Springs certainly believes he will fit in. Although the value of the Silver Spring native, who starred at Springbrook High School before attending Ohio State, will be determined over several years, he ended yesterday’s interview with a hushed statement of confidence — a few words from a veteran who has seen everything, even Ethiopia.
“I think it’s going to go well,” Springs said. “I can already tell. People are going to be surprised.”