The threats of bodily harm and broken bones, the touchdowns, penalties and interceptions, the big wins and devastating losses, the blood, sweat and jeers — it all could have led anywhere. Anywhere but here, really.
“I wasn’t fighting and cussing and all that stuff, but trust me, I was gonna show up every play,” says Darrell Green, the former Washington Redskins cornerback. “When I saw Michael Irvin across from me, I was gonna show up to play.”
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Green and Irvin epitomized the fierce combativeness between the Cowboys and Redskins, a rivalry whose latest chapter will be written Sunday night when the teams play for the NFC East title at FedEx Field.
Sports rivalries are fueled by inexplicable emotions and can grow in unpredictable directions. But few evolve like the relationship shared by Green and Irvin, two Hall of Famers, ferocious competitors who literally bloodied each other on the football field.
Now retired, they have become confidants. More than two decades after first meeting, they do speaking engagements together. They’ve visited schools, hospitals, churches, anywhere they believe their message of faith might be heard.
“We have two different deliveries, two different experiences,” Green says, “but we end up at the same place.”
Green, 52, takes the stage first and talks about his walk with God: one of eight siblings, raised in Houston, playing for a small college, undersized but filled with determination and almost always resisting temptations and choosing right over wrong.
Then Irvin, 46, takes the stage.
“Hey, if you can do it, that is the way to go,” he says. “Do it like Darrell Green did it. He was one of the best on the field and certainly one of the best God made off the field.” Irvin offers a dramatic pause. He was raised in South Florida, one of 18 children; his path to greatness almost consumed by potholes. “I wasn’t able to do it that way.”
‘I wasn’t mature enough’
By the time Irvin entered the National Football League as a brash, outspoken rookie in 1988, Green was already 28, with five full seasons under his belt, including three Pro Bowl appearances.
“The idea to have a Darrell Green walk out and say, ‘I’m covering you,’ that’s almost like being christened, ‘Okay, now you’re an NFL player. Welcome,’ ” says Irvin, today an analyst for the NFL Network.
Green had studied the 22-year-old receiver on film. He saw a rookie who was bullying opposing defensive backs. When the two finally met for the first time in December 1988, Green made sure Irvin knew his limits. The two got into a scuffle and despite giving up a six-inch height advantage, Green got the best of the young receiver.
“I said, ‘Hey, young guy, I saw you on the film. Dude, it’s not gonna happen like that here,’ ” Green recalls.
But Green fractured a bone in his left hand and spent most of the day on the sideline, watching Irvin tally 149 yards and three touchdowns, a breakout performance.