LaVar Arrington trudged through a thick moat of standing rain water encircling the artificial turf practice field at Redskins Park, navigated a slick and muddy hill and approached a throng of waiting fans. It was early in training camp and the Redskins had finished their second long practice of the day -- one completed well past dinnertime because of a thunderstorm -- but Arrington was among his people, and instantly flashed his megawatt smile and began hamming it up.
For the next 45 minutes he posed for pictures and signed autographs, all the while standing in bare feet in the muck, having given away his shoes and socks to fans who asked for them. Many of the faces were familiar to the linebacker. "Man, you're back again? I see you here every year," Arrington said to a teenager, who, after a stunned silence replied, "Yeah, I've got eight autographed pictures of you on my wall. I can't believe you remembered me."
"I don't even think the fans understand how much I care about them," says linebacker LaVar Arrington, in his fifth year with the Redskins. "I still feed off of the fans. I'm one with them, man."
(John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
_____Redskins at Rams_____
Where: Edward Jones Dome.
When: 8 p.m.
TV: WTTG-5, WBFF-45.
Radio: WJFK-FM-106.7, WBQB-FM-101.5, WKIK-FM-102.9, WFMD-930, WFVA-1230.
Arrington, 26, has become the most prominent athlete in the Washington area since being drafted second overall in 2000, forging a bond with Redskins fans. He is one of them -- a rabid football follower who collects memorabilia and idolizes past stars -- and says he considers it an honor to play for them on Sundays. His witty personality and the seeming ease with which he carries himself has helped make Arrington the face of the Redskins, taking the mantle handed down from cornerback Darrell Green, who retired in 2002 after playing 20 seasons in Washington.
Arrington's admirers fretted over their hero this offseason, however, as a rift developed between the player and management over a wrinkle in the eight-year, $68 million contract extension he signed in December. Arrington and his agents claim that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder agreed to a $6.5 million bonus that was not reflected in the contract he actually signed. The sides could not resolve the matter and an independent arbitrator will settle the issue in November.
The dispute lingers, leaving Redskins nation to debate the repercussions. Will Arrington still devote himself entirely to the team? Can he separate his problems with ownership from his approach to the game? Who was to blame? How big of a distraction will it be?
Arrington said he intends to provide those answers with his play on the field and through his interactions with the fans who have become such a significant part of his life.
"I don't even think the fans understand how much I care about them," Arrington said during a lengthy interview. "That was ripping my heart out just going through that [contract squabble]. I never thought that would be a part of my career and I think it's an honest-to-goodness thing that the fans really don't understand how much I care about them, because I do. It's unwavering, it doesn't go anywhere. It's like they keep me going through all the BS and all the politics, through everything. They're the ones I draw my strength from. If I'm out on the field and I hear them, then I know I'm all right and it doesn't matter. They [team officials] can bring in the biggest superstars like they want to and the attention can divert away from me all they want. It doesn't matter to me. I still feed off of the fans. I'm one with them, man."
The contract dispute has strained Arrington's relationship with Snyder, who declined requests to comment on the issue for this story. The men spoke once in an attempt to resolve their differences but have not had any real contact since.
"Those things, those [contract] issues, it's not representative of the Redskins," Arrington said. "I mean, you can own a team and not be what Redskins really means. You can be a part of an organization and not really embody what it really means and I realize that. People are saying and writing that there's no way LaVar can play the way he's played and not think about everything that has happened. Yeah, I can, because I know what being a Redskin is about. I feel the sense of pride about it. I represent this team, and that goes far beyond any type of contract dispute or anything like that. . . .
"No matter what is done on that [management] side of the building, it won't change the way I feel about this team, about this community. There's nothing this team or this community has done to LaVar Arrington. I'm a loyal person and a lot of times players say you've got to be ready to play for somebody else and this and that. I'd rather retire. Because of the relationship and how it is between me and Snyder or whatever, if he wants to get rid of me I'll probably just retire, man. And that's the honest to God truth. I can't see myself going to play somewhere else and I thought about it and if you're looking at it from the financial side and things like that -- and you've got to take those things into consideration -- but I'd rather retire, man."
Weeks after the contract discrepancy became public, Arrington was contemplating buying a custom car to add to his fleet of automobiles and, after consulting with some friends in the detailing business, settled on what he calls "The Redskins Mobile." The large GMC SUV is painted burgundy and has yellow arrows down the sides like the team used to wear on its helmet. Arrington's No. 56 and "QB Killa" is scrawled on the hood. In an era in which free agency dominates -- and franchise players are released or traded each March -- Arrington was making a statement.
"I just feel that strongly about this team and the fans," he said. "So we did a 'Redskins Mobile.' It's kind of cool."
Being inconspicuous is not on Arrington's agenda. He is a fixture at area malls -- "I don't try to do the superstar status thing," Arrington said. "You can find me anywhere from P.G. Plaza to Pentagon City to Waldorf Mall to Dulles Town Center" -- and he revels in the crowd response when spotted at Wizards and Mystics games.
When it comes to community activism, however, Arrington is more discreet. His charitable work is considerable, say those who know him well, and ranges from donations to speeches to spending hours with disadvantaged youngsters. Arrington spent two years with a locker next to Green's and closely watched his mentor's outreach in the community. That spirit of activism proved contagious.