LaVar Arrington‘s past and present collided on the night of Feb. 3.
Arrington stood in his just-opened sports bar, The Sideline, in the shadow of FedEx Field and watched the Super Bowl unfold across two dozen television screens.
Arrington was a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, once one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. And now here he was, not even 30 years old, out of football and standing in a bar among all the average Joes, watching as his former team, the New York Giants, stunned the New England Patriots to win the championship he never won.
“It was kind of bittersweet,” Arrington says as he sits inside his mansion outside of Annapolis. “I only had one time in my career in the NFL where I could choose where I went. I chose that team and, jeez, they win the Super Bowl a year later after I’m gone.”
Arrington no longer plays for the Giants, but not because of any discord of the kind that prompted the Washington Redskins to cut him in February 2006. Arrington was out of football because his once-indestructible body betrayed him.
Injuries hampered Arrington in his final two seasons in Washington, and his brief tenure in New York ended in October 2006 with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Eight months later, Arrington defied death in a motorcycle accident on Route 50 that ended any thoughts of a comeback.
So now here he is, out of football but still younger than half the players starting for the Redskins this season. Arrington has moved on - though he has yet to file his official retirement papers with the NFL.
“I knew that was it,” Arrington says of the Achilles injury he suffered at Texas Stadium. “I was like, ‘Damn, I ended [former Cowboys quarterback] Troy Aikman’s career on this field [with a concussion-causing tackle], and how crazy is it that this is going to be my last game?’ But my heart wasn’t into it the way it should have been. When they did what they did to me my last year here, I had kind of already moved on from the game of football.”
Arrington never was a typical football player.
He thrived under coach Marty Schottenheimer, a disciplinarian whose drill-sergeant routine didn’t sit well with most of the Redskins’ players.
But he didn’t mesh well at Penn State with Joe Paterno or with former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, two beloved Hall of Fame coaches whom Arrington still speaks of with disdain.
Arrington was grief-stricken by Sean Taylor’s murder last November and has kept in touch with several former teammates since. Still, he often was regarded as an island of outspokenness in the Redskins’ locker room.
“I always said football was merely my springboard,” says Arrington, clad in shorts, flip-flops and a long-sleeved workout shirt that covers the scar on his right forearm from his head-on collision with a guardrail on Route 50 in June 2007. “I had to focus on how it could get me to where I ultimately wanted to be: to lead a productive life, start a family, lengthen my earning capacity. I never accepted being [just] a football player. I don’t accept someone addressing me as a football player.”
But Arrington’s home is testament to how much that part of his life still matters: The lower level is decorated with souvenirs - framed jerseys and magazine covers - of his NFL days, and trophies and articles documenting his stardom at North Hills (Pa.) High School and Penn State fill a room upstairs.
His sports bar is revealing, too.
The establishment’s color scheme is burgundy and gold.
Customers come to The Sideline because LaVar Arrington, once the most visible player on the Redskins, owns it. They don’t come because of LaVar Arrington, the bright, argumentative sociology major and father of four young children.
Arrington is making a mark off the field. He enjoys operating The Sideline. He is a part-owner of a soon-to-open dessert bistro in the Edgewood neighborhood of Atlanta and another eatery near the Penn State campus. He is a part-owner of streetcred.com and a still-forming management company for athletes and entertainers with rapper T.I.
But those ventures surely won’t provide memories as indelible as the ones he made on the football field.
“I have to figure out something where I can have fun while I’m competing,” Arrington says. “With football, I had lost that. I’ll see a picture of when I played and I’ll be like, ‘God, that was me.’ I had my impact on the game. I just didn’t have longevity. But when I was doing it, I don’t think there were too many people who did it the way I did it.
“I can recall so many games. My rookie year, we beat Baltimore. They won the Super Bowl, but we didn’t just win, we beat them boys up, Stephen Davis stiff-arming Rod Woodson for the go-ahead touchdown. When we beat Dallas in Darrell Green’s last game. I probably helped Bruce [Smith] get his last five sacks on his way to the record.”
Green was elected to the Hall of Fame this year. Smith and Woodson likely will be this year. Davis helped lead the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Arrington left many wanting more and wondering how good he could have been.
“LaVar was a great athlete, but sometimes injuries just have a way of knocking you down,” says former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who first saw Arrington play in high school. “When he was at Penn State, I thought he would be the perfect linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Unfortunately, it never unfolded that way. But LaVar had a very good career. He was one of the elite linebackers.”
Arrington would’ve loved to play for Cowher, a former linebacker who coached the Steelers from 1992 to 2006. Instead, he was drafted second overall in 2000 by the Redskins, for whom he played under five coaches and five defensive coordinators during his first five seasons.
“I believe I would’ve rivaled Lawrence Taylor if I had gone to Pittsburgh,” Arrington says. “If I had played in a defensive system like Pittsburgh’s, they wouldn’t have been able to stop me. Think about how [coordinator] Marvin Lewis used me in a hybrid 3-4 where I was playing end. I led all linebackers with 11.5 sacks. And then he was gone [to Cincinnati], and my production was gone.”
Arrington’s final two seasons in Washington were filled with injuries, humiliation and tension.
A dispute with owner Dan Snyder over a December 2003 contract extension intended to help the Redskins with the salary cap boiled over into a feud with new defensive boss Gregg Williams and linebackers coach Dale Lindsey in 2004.
At times, Arrington didn’t play even in the 2005 season even though he was healthy and replacement Warrick Holdman was a cipher.
“If Gregg hadn’t been corrupted by the front office agenda, I probably would’ve had a hell of a year with him, but there were too many hidden agendas for me to be successful in that regime,” says Arrington, who later patched things up with Williams and said he no longer has hard feelings toward Lindsey either.
Arrington is not so kindly disposed toward Gibbs, who retired in January with a year left on his five-year, $25 million contract with the Redskins.
“I called Joe Gibbs a coward for leaving,” Arrington said. “You came in, you made some money for your NASCAR team. No one else is going to say that. I’m sure more people thought I was a [jerk] for saying that. Joe wouldn’t call me because he knows. There are a lot of people who know the truth about what went down with me and the Redskins.”
As for Snyder, Arrington called him after Taylor’s funeral to try to heal their breach and greeted him at a luncheon last week, but to no avail, he believes.
“I think Dan Snyder is scared to death of me,” Arrington said. “He won’t look at me. I tried to shake his hand at that luncheon. He shook my hand and was like, ‘How you doing, LaVar?’ and kept moving. I’m probably the only person that’s ever stood up to him and never backed down. I actually humbled myself to call Dan after Sean passed away to try to bury whatever me and him had going on between us. He called me back, and it was almost like he was reading a script. I root for the Redskins because how I feel about the fans outweighs how the organization treated me. I always take pleasure in taking jabs at Dan because people like him need that. There’s got to be a person out there who’s not afraid to do it.”
Snyder was traveling last week and couldn’t be reached for comment. Despite that bitterness and the economic downturn that threatens so many businesses, especially startups, Arrington loves his life.
“I’m definitely happy,” he said. “My wife [Trishia] has made me mature more as a man because of the responsibility that she forces on me. I never took out the trash. I always had other people do things for me. Now, I take my daughter to school, I change diapers. I feel like after everything that I’ve been through, the best part of my story is ahead of me. I’m not going to sit back and watch it happen or let it happen. I’m going to make it happen.”
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