By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005
If his father needs him, Shawn Springs says he will walk away from the money, the celebrity and the glamorous lifestyle of a professional athlete. The Washington Redskins cornerback, upon learning several years ago that his father needed a kidney transplant, offered one of his own, knowing he would not be allowed to play pro football with just one kidney.
But his father, Ron, the former Dallas Cowboys fullback who suffers from complications related to diabetes -- he had a foot amputated this year -- declined the offer and would not let his son even be tested to see if he is a transplant match.
"I think that was a tremendous gesture, and it just justifies the fact that he's a loving son," Ron Springs said by telephone from his Dallas home this past week. "But I couldn't have let him do that, because I always prayed and wanted him to be a professional athlete, so I would not have shortened his career by no means necessary."
When the Redskins and Cowboys meet today in a critical NFC East game, Ron Springs, 49, will be home in Dallas unable to make the trip for fear that it will worsen his condition. He knows he needs a transplant soon and has been buoyed by the recent news that one of his nieces is possibly a match.
"I was really going to try to make the game," he said, "but I had to get some extra therapy and the prosthesis I have has been giving me trouble, so I'm trying to get that fixed. So it would have been too much trouble to travel through the airport and walking around. I don't want to risk anything, and I wouldn't want to do something to set back my transplant. I'm just going to lay back, relax, have a good holiday and don't do anything stupid to eliminate my chances of getting a transplant immediately."
For Shawn Springs, who has spent years trying to track down family members and researching the transplant process, the news could not have been more timely. He also realizes, however, that there still are hurdles to overcome before his father can regain his health. So the Pro Bowl defensive back still has not ruled out becoming a donor at some point.
"Hopefully, everything is going to work out; we're just waiting on it," Shawn Springs said. "The thing is, when you're waiting on a kidney transplant and you're a diabetic he's never really healthy enough to receive the kidney. And sometimes he might be ready to, and then he gets sick or has an ulcer or something. That's the tough deal, getting it so it won't reject.
"So, yeah, if it came down to do it, if that was the last resort, I'd do it. I know he told me no, but I'd be a donor. Obviously, my NFL career would be over, but that's something I would have to do. It's a part of life and I'd go on and teach school after I'm done playing football or something. Be a reporter or whatever. I'd just do something else."
While Shawn Springs, 30, who grew up in Silver Spring, spent the week receiving treatment for back and knee injuries at Redskins Park, doing what he can to be available for the Redskins' biggest game in quite awhile at FedEx Field, his father was undergoing his grueling weekly regimen. Ron Springs receives dialysis every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and spent three months in a hospital earlier this year because of a staph infection. Even relatively minor ailments can become major for him.
Still, the decision to miss the critical game was not easy. Father and son realize the stakes in this rivalry from their unique place in it.
Ron Springs, who attends as many of Shawn's home and road games as possible, grew up in Redskins country in Williamsburg, then became a well-recognized Cowboy and now lives near Texas Stadium. Shawn looked up to his father and emulated the Cowboys' stars, but had an appreciation for the Redskins during their glory days as well.
Ron Springs, a gregarious and outspoken locker-room leader during his NFL career, spent six seasons with the Cowboys and two with Tampa Bay before retiring. He was a key component in some of Hall of Fame tailback Tony Dorsett's best seasons, and a fixture on the playoff teams from 1981 to 1983 (he led Dallas in touchdowns in 1981). The Redskins were on the rise then, winning their first Super Bowl in the 1982 season under Coach Joe Gibbs, and Dallas-Washington games were a national event. The importance of today's game -- with both teams battling for a playoff spot after several lean years -- made it even more tempting to come to Washington.
"It's a very tough game for me," Ron Springs said. "It's very important to both sides; whoever loses will probably be out of the playoff picture and whatnot, and all I can do as a person is sit here and hope for the best, for Shawn to do well, and let the chips fall where they may, because I love both teams and I try to not get too emotional about it. But I probably will."
Without Ron Springs's influence, Shawn might never have switched from running back to cornerback, and he might not be a Redskin, either. Ron developed an affinity for Gibbs over the years, and urged his son to sign with Washington when he hit the free agent market in March 2004. "I'm very proud of Shawn, and very proud of the fact that he went to the Redskins, because I always thought that Coach Gibbs is a good Christian man, and I knew Coach Gibbs would work him hard and make sure he got the most out of him," Ron said.
Gibbs helped sway Shawn as well, and Ron accompanied his son on his initial visit here. They dined at Morton's and reminisced about being on opposite sidelines.
"We had a great time going back and forth about the old days and all that kind of stuff," said Gibbs, who also has diabetes. "Shawn's dad is really competitive, and you can tell where Shawn gets that. The sad thing is his dad has some real health issues, and we're trying to support Shawn with that, but you can see lots of times those bloodlines are pretty good and you can kind of see where Shawn gets it from. His dad will joke with you and kid with you and he's always on your butt."
The Redskins signed Springs to a six-year, $30 million deal, including a $10 million signing bonus. Much of the deal is not guaranteed, and Springs also would likely have to repay a portion of his signing bonus if he donated a kidney and retired, but he says none of that would deter him from leaving football if necessary. "Wouldn't you do the same thing for your father?" he asked.
While kidney transplants have become fairly common, Cathy Paykin, a social worker with the National Kidney Foundation, said there are potentially serious risks involved, as in any major surgery, both mentally and physically. In some jurisdictions, police and fire departments do not accept employees with one kidney because of health concerns, and someone who donates a kidney must take every precaution to protect his or her remaining organ.
"If you only have one kidney you really have to watch out for it, particularly in an accident," Paykin said. "Some people who are living donors have chronic pain for life that never went away. Some people have gone into a deep depression and had some very disturbing experiences with pain or disfigurement. It's a minority, but it happens."
Former Georgetown basketball star Alonzo Mourning resumed his NBA career after getting a kidney donation, but would not have been able to play with only one kidney. People with one kidney are not prevented from playing all recreational sports, Paykin said, but must refrain from absorbing severe contact to that area, ruling out football.
Shawn has two sisters, Ayra, a junior at Ohio State and, Ashley, a high school junior in the Dallas area, but Ron Springs says he won't let them be tested because they are too young. Shawn and Ron attended Ohio State as well, both leaving a lasting impression. Ron played under Woody Hayes and replaced two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin in the Buckeyes' backfield. He went on to play for Tom Landry in Dallas.
Shawn was born when Ron was 18, and was raised by his grandmother in Silver Spring, where he was a standout at Springbrook High School. Seattle drafted Springs third overall in 1997; he quickly became a Pro Bowl player and is a linchpin in Washington's defense. Without his coverage skills, the Redskins would not be able to blitz as aggressively as they do. After being the only player in the NFL to lead his team in sacks and interceptions last season, teams have braced for his blitzes in 2005 and largely shied from his side of the field in the passing game.
"Shawn, because he played so well last year, has had far, far fewer attempts at him," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "With a rookie corner opposite of him [Carlos Rogers], Springs doesn't get the attempts, because it's going at the rookie and it's going at [nickel back] Walt [Harris]. So his presence has been good."
Springs wishes he had produced more big plays through the first 13 games, but knows that the most significant stretch of the season is still ahead of him, with three straight games upcoming against NFC East opponents. As usual, he will hear from his father after each of them.
"We talk all the time," Shawn Springs said. "He keeps on me, but I'm pretty hard on myself. I go back and watch film and grade myself on my breaks, hand placement, hustle -- all that stuff. That's what my dad always talked about, especially my first few years in the league. He was pretty hard on me back then."
Ron Springs will try not to get overly excited as he watches today from his couch, but that may not be easy. After all, the Redskins won the first meeting, 14-13, on two late Santana Moss touchdowns. More importantly, he is relishing Dallas's visit to Washington next year, when he plans to be cheering at FedEx Field with renewed health.
"I know I'm going to get excited watching," he said. "I'm going to get excited whether it be the Redskins or the Cowboys; I just flip hats, so I don't feel too bad about anything when it comes to them. One will win and one will lose and 50 percent of me is happy all the time. So you tell all the people in the D.C. area that I'm still a Cowboys fan, but I've got to love the Redskins, too, and I will see all of them next year back in D.C. I'm already looking forward to it."