- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

A crowd of Green Bay Packers from the 1960s and 1970s-vintage Pittsburgh Steelers reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. So do several players from the recent San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. But where are the Washington Redskins?

Among the modern NFL dynasties, the Redskins of the first Joe Gibbs era are playing short-handed. Gibbs has a bust on display in Canton, but he was the coach. Of those who got dirty wearing the burgundy and gold, running back John Riggins remains the solitary symbol of an organization that appeared in four Super Bowls and won three championships from the 1982 through 1991 seasons.

But now it looks as if Riggo finally will get some company. Darrell Green, who played 20 mostly distinguished years for the Redskins, is practically a sure thing to be elected tomorrow.

More uncertain is the status of Art Monk, in his eighth year of eligibility, and Russ Grimm, in his 12th year. A guard, Grimm was a charter member of the famous Hogs, the Redskins’ stout offensive line. Monk was the leading receiver in NFL history when he retired in 1995. Fans, the media and the Redskins’ extended family have lobbied extensively on behalf of both, especially Monk, whose omission is considered by many (but not enough voters, so far) to be a grave injustice.

With Green, however, there is little doubt. The “itty-bitty” (as he has described himself) cornerback who made a huge impact for two decades owns a permanent legacy. Voted at various times the “greatest” Redskins player ever, his credentials on and off the field seem impeccable.

“I’ve tried to be a Hall of Famer across the board,” he said yesterday before heading to Arizona for Super Bowl XLII festivities and to await the vote.

In his first year of eligibility for the Hall, Green, who retired after the 2002 season, already stands at the head of the line. Then again, he always moved fast, faster than everyone else. It was his singular, defining trait.

“He was blessed with unbelievable speed and quickness,” former Redskins safety Brad Edwards said, a statement echoed by countless others.

Green, 47, was and is a man in a hurry. He wasted no time grabbing a starting spot as a rookie in 1983. He won the NFL’s fastest man competition four times, and even in his late 30s he outran and covered young, cocky receivers who thought they had the old man beat. At 40, he still was the fastest player on the team.

And now, with his Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation and various businesses, he continues to race between appointments, meetings and speaking engagements. Next fall, he plans to find time to see his son, Jared, play wide receiver for Virginia. One of Green’s three children, Jared redshirted last season, and, yeah, he’s fast, too. Soon, Green will embark on his “Game Plan for Success Tour,” reaching out to kids, as usual, detailing what he calls his “road map to success.”

“I hope that anybody who’s followed my career knows there was more to me than football,” he said. “I took football and my marriage and family and community, and I consider all of them important. I didn’t look at any one of them as less than the other.

“But from a football level, this would be the pinnacle, and from a personal, human and ego standpoint, it has that component, too. That’s part of it, I guess.”

Few athletes, not just football players, had such speed.

“Darrell had the quickest start I’d ever seen,” said Bobby Beathard, the Redskins general manager who scouted Green at Texas A&I; and then took him with the 28th and last pick in the first round of the 1983 draft. “I’d never timed anybody like that.”

Green lasted so long in the draft because he played at a small school and “people were afraid of his size,” Beathard said. “When we got to the end of the round, I had my fingers crossed. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, somebody’s gonna take this guy.’ ”

It didn’t help Beathard’s anxiety that another player also had slipped in the draft, quarterback Dan Marino. What if the Miami Dolphins, picking just ahead of the Redskins, had not taken the future Hall of Famer? What if both Green and Marino were available? Beathard said he still might have taken Green, although he didn’t anticipate losing Green to the upstart U.S. Football League, which nearly happened.

“At least I can say I didn’t pass on Dan Marino,” he said. “Darrell had a lot of special things. Speed, quickness. And an attitude. He would challenge anybody.”

Bobby Mitchell, a Hall of Famer himself who then was the Redskins’ assistant general manager said, “We wanted a bigger player. We were still into larger guys. But his speed told us to disregard that.”

Green had to be fast. He stood 5-foot-8 and weighed no more than 180 pounds during a career that spanned 295 games and seven Pro Bowls. He had 54 interceptions, but that’s misleading because quarterbacks often avoided throwing in his direction.

As a kid he always was told he was too small. No one recruited him. He walked on at Texas A&I;, then an NAIA school, left and came back, still without a scholarship. In college, he heard that NFL types saw him more as a punt returner than a cornerback. He would show them.

And he did. Making the Hall of Fame “would be the incredible crowning for what I know in my mind that nobody else knows,” he said. “So many things that I’ve gone through and thought about in life and football and my athletic career, the hills and mountains I had to climb.”

For those to whom size mattered or who were unacquainted with Green’s talent and drive to succeed, he made a poor first impression. Richie Petitbon, the gruff defensive coordinator under Gibbs during the glory years, was more than slightly irked when he first spotted the club’s diminutive No. 1 pick.

“I never scouted Darrell Green,” Petitbon said. “The first time I saw him was at minicamp, and I said, ‘We’ve got a [expletive] midget.’ Beathard was famous for [that]. He’d draft guys who had broken their legs the year before. I thought he’d struck again. [Green] later built himself up, but you looked at him for the first time, he looked like a jockey. But his speed was incredible.”

Petitbon soon had Green covering the opponent’s top receiver no matter where he lined up, then an unusual practice. Charles Mann, who had a productive career as a Redskins defensive end after being taken in the third round in the same draft, said, “He just made up ground on everybody. You leave at the same time, and he just gets there quicker.”

Green’s speed and instincts “made me a better quarterback because he forced me to throw the ball on time,” former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “He forced me to throw the ball in places where I had to be more accurate. Darrell would make you think.”

Asked how fast he really was, Green said, “I believed I ran as fast as I had to. When I won the fastest man competition, I just ran faster than the next guy. When I chased a guy, I just ran till I caught him. When I ran a 40-yard dash, my mentality was, ‘Man, this race is not long enough.’ I was just getting going.”

In his first game, Green put the league on notice. With millions watching on “Monday Night Football,” he caught Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, who was pretty fast himself, from behind when it looked like Dorsett would score on a long touchdown run.

“It was like he came out of nowhere,” former Redskins linebacker Monte Coleman said.

Said Beathard: “He was like a heat-seeking missile.”

But Green says he didn’t care for the attention the play brought him.

“It almost made me mad again because I had come so far,” he said. “I had overcome all the whispers that I was just gonna be a punt returner. Man, I can cover. Now I ran this guy down, and it’s on me again. I had to again overcome the idea I couldn’t cover.

“But people began to recognize that. And you know what? I think [the play] affected the receivers. That’s not a bad thing. They saw how fast I was. But I don’t want to go into the Hall of Fame as a fast guy. I want to go in because of my coverage and because I did what I was supposed to do as a cornerback.”

Still, another of his signature plays happened as a punt returner. Against the Chicago Bears in the 1986 playoffs, Green hurdled a would-be tackler, suffered a nasty rib injury and still found the end zone. But Gibbs, fearing injury, limited his use on punts.

Green prepared diligently, studying himself and his opponents. And he was a feisty, demonstrative presence.

“Darrell was a very charismatic guy,” Gibbs said. “He was a leader. He would talk to me about what was best for the team.”

More than once, Green would burst into Gibbs’ office and animatedly offer advice.

“He might walk in and say, ‘Hey Coach, I think we’re screwing up,’ Gibbs recalled, laughing. “And I listened. But every now and then I’d argue with him.”

Then there’s the longevity.

“Other than quarterback, the toughest position to play in pro football is cornerback, and here’s a guy who played 20 years,” Petitbon said. “It will probably never be duplicated.”

Said Gibbs: “For a speed corner to play that long, it’s hard to believe that could happen. A cornerback starts losing speed, and then he’s gone. He was not only a great talent, but he protected it and took care of it.”

Edwards said he can still picture Green daring a coach to throw the ball past him in pregame drills or letting Monk and Gary Clark and the other receivers know during practice they weren’t going to catch any balls on him.

“He may single-handedly be the most competitive athlete I’ve ever come into contact with,” Edwards said.

Said Petitbon: “He was a tough guy. We used to call him the ‘little guy,’ but he would tackle, and he was tough.”

One of seven children in a family growing up in Houston, Green overcame his parents’ divorce and a life teetering on the brink of poverty. He became a devout, born-again Christian with deep-seated convictions, parlaying his background with his fame and wealth into a dedication to public service that emphasizes helping children. The most vivid example is his 20-year-old Youth Life Foundation, which operates several learning centers and seeks to educate and guide children of all ages, from all walks of life.

“He’s just an extraordinary citizen,” Edwards said. “Just a very good, humble human being.”

Mitchell, who helped counsel young players, recalls his first meeting with Green. He realized then he didn’t have much to do.

“You never had to worry about him,” Mitchell said. “He always did what he’s supposed to do. This is from Day 1. I sat down in the locker room with him right after we drafted him. He had ideas even then. I talked to players about how they had to protect themselves, but I didn’t have to do that with Darrell. He took half my speech away from me.”

Next summer in Canton, Green likely will be giving another speech. His own.

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