By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Joseph Arrington was slumped in a hospital bed, his teenage body weary from years of fighting cancer, when his heroes arrived. The mere sight of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El and Coach Bill Cowher transformed him. Suddenly, the 17-year-old was sitting up, smiling, laughing.
Arrington's cousin, LaVar, a Pittsburgh native and, at that time, a star linebacker with the Washington Redskins, had asked Randle El to visit on a day when he could not get there himself. There was little doubt that Randle El, an acquaintance from their Big Ten days, would gladly comply. His reputation as one of the NFL's most well-liked, affable players was already widespread, and Randle El, 27, ended up as one of the last people to bring joy to Joseph's life before he finally succumbed to prostate cancer in October 2004.
"That little guy wanting to see us, that was the biggest thing," said Randle El, who won the Super Bowl with Pittsburgh in February before signing with Washington in March. "I am so thankful I got a chance to meet him. We just talked to him about everything, life and family, and then the next day God brought him home. It's very sad. He was just a child, a baby. I think about that day a lot because I have a 12-year-old son, not too far from his age, and I couldn't imagine being in that situation. I was just very glad to be able to be there for him."
"I'll never forget what Antwaan and Coach Cowher did for me," said LaVar Arrington, who signed with New York as a free agent this offseason. "My cousin was very sick and I really didn't realize how bad it was. I couldn't visit him in the hospital so I asked them to go in my place.
"He was a huge Steelers fan so I really felt having them visit would lift his spirits because I couldn't make it. They visited him on the day before he passed away. Now I'm one of Antwaan's and Coach Cowher's biggest fans. I will always root for them and wish them great success."
Randle El, also a star basketball and baseball player who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1997, has many supporters around the league, for gestures far less profound. His zest for life is contagious. His love of football is palpable. His locker-room persona is infectious. Coach Joe Gibbs raves about the character of his players so often that it sometimes sounds cliched, but Randle El gets special kudos. Besides being a multidimensional threat on the field -- a quarterback at Indiana turned wide receiver who can line up wide, in the slot or in the backfield, and beat the opposition throwing, catching, running or returning punts -- the Redskins coveted him for myriad intangibles, certain that they were getting one of the true good guys in the NFL.
"I had photographers come up to me and security cops come up to me and people just volunteer and say, 'Hey, you're going to love this guy,' " Gibbs said. "He's a great person, he's got a big ol' smile on his face all the time. A couple of times when I've talked to him about something that's more of a serious manner, he's ready, he's ready to go.
"He's just a really neat guy. I think the team likes him, and I think he'll be a leader for us."
Randle El wasted no time sharing his outsized personality with his teammates. He is small by NFL standards -- he is generously listed on the roster as 5 feet 10 -- but is a commanding presence around Redskins Park. His booming voice, a la Don Pardo, could be heard echoing around the facility during the offseason. He popped in unexpectedly to the media room to share jokes with reporters he barely knew.
"You just always want to be around him with the things he does and the way he approaches things," wide receiver James Thrash said. "He's always in a good mood. He gets everybody fired up with the plays he makes in practice. In meetings, he gets us all riled up and he gives us a laugh here or there when we need it."
The truly mundane brings out Randle El's most expressive behavior. He thrives during the early part of stretching before practice, and the few loose minutes before a coach calls a meeting to attention. That's when he suddenly takes on the persona of a sartorially challenged football coach. Shorts yanked well above his belly button, shirt tucked in, he begins an awkward gait. Just thinking about the impersonation caused several players to laugh.
"I've been around guys who are like him, but it's not as genuine as that guy," said journeyman wide receiver Jimmy Farris, who was one of the final cuts last week. "It truly doesn't matter what he's doing; he could be shoveling horse stalls, but he'll find something to enjoy about it. He brings so much to the group, man. If Randle El only catches five balls this year and has a punt-return average of two yards, he'll still have helped out."
Such paltry production is hardly likely but, despite his hefty $29 million contract, Randle El is still something of a role player, albeit with hybrid duties. In four seasons in Pittsburgh he never caught more than 47 passes or amassed more than 601 receiving yards, but has a propensity for game-changing plays. He is dangerous on the option pass or running a reverse; he can take a direct snap, or use his speed to make plays downfield, even in the role of third receiver.
Al Saunders, associate head coach-offense, thinks so much of Randle El's talent that he barely even used him in the preseason, when the Redskins prized secrecy above all else. "That time will come," Saunders said.
Randle El has embraced his manifold responsibility. He knows that with Santana Moss and Brandon Lloyd at wide receiver, Chris Cooley at tight end and Clinton Portis carrying the ball, there will be weeks when not everyone can enjoy the spotlight.
"The attitude he brings is very important to the relationships on the receiving corps," Lloyd said. "He talks to us about how Pittsburgh didn't throw the ball much, but their receivers blocked hard and they were at the top of the league in rushing. That's how they won games, so that's what they did. That's the kind of unselfish behavior he's brought here."
Randle El plans to extend his outreach work as he settles into the area. He has a natural affinity for youngsters, drawing and painting with patients during his regular visits to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Randle El and LaVar Arrington have not crossed paths since the death of Joseph Arrington, but Randle El said there is a bond between the two.
"In the NFL realm, there's a real fraternity there," Randle El said. "You can call on a brother to go and do such and such in another state for you. That was big for LaVar and that was big for me. It really touched me to meet that kid, and made me appreciate my family even more. It's something I'll always remember."