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The First Day of the Rest of His Life

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Joe Gibbs might have optimistically believed his second go- round as the Redskins coach would be less engrossing, what with all those assistants and all the authority he could delegate. But between film, meetings, practice, games and more film, he was an ambassador for an organization that sorely needed one. More than before, if that's possible, the Redskins became his world.

So, however you feel about the man walking away for the second time, smile for him today. Feel good. Joe Gibbs didn't just finish his last day on the job, he began the first day of taking back his life, the one he gave up four years ago.

"How much sleep did you get last night?" I asked yesterday.

"Three hours," Gibbs said, snickering.

"The pull-out sofa in the office again?"

"Yep."

An hour before, at a standing-room-only news conference, he spoke of the pact he had made with his wife, Pat, which prevented such workaholic behavior. That's about the only condition she placed on him four years ago, when her husband enraptured Washington by returning with fanfare befitting George Patton and, well, Gandhi.

"Don't sleep in your office like last time," Pat had told him. Simple, right?

"I lied," he said, as reporters burst into laughter. "She knew."

When Gibbs announced he was coming back, I couldn't understand the fervor surrounding his return. Daniel Snyder reminded me of the kid in high school who came back to campus to hang out in the cafeteria after he graduated; he just couldn't turn the page. The Redskins, I thought, didn't go on coaching searches; they went looking for Egyptian artifacts -- Tutankhamen in a headset.

It was only this season, sadly only after the death of Sean Taylor, that I began to grasp how timeless and indispensable Gibbs was in Washington, the kind of authentic soul he remains amid a league of posers who understand how to lead players but not people.

It wasn't about whether he had lost his laser focus; it never was. In the aftermath of a senseless tragedy, eras might not translate. But values do -- Gibbs's values, which this past month shepherded this organization through gallons of tears.

Of all people, you know who I felt sorry for the most yesterday? Snyder. I know. Crazy. Yet beyond the goodwill Gibbs brought the owner -- beyond the buffer he provided between an often irate fan base and Snyder, beyond losing the coach who has begun to right the Redskins -- Snyder in some ways lost a father figure after his own father died in 2003.

The caring, almost adoring manner in which he looked at Gibbs yesterday as he stood at the lectern -- those three silver Lombardi trophies positioned beneath him, catching the light just right -- made it hard not to feel for Snyder. Gibbs may not have made the big-shot bravado of Snyder completely disappear -- a bravado probably more steeped in insecurity than anything. Yet, for many of us, he helped warm the image of the tempestuous, impulsive guy in the billionaire boys' club we only read and heard about before. When he said Gibbs taught him patience yesterday, I believed him.

The owner and the coach went to Morton's in Reston on Monday night and returned to Snyder's office in Ashburn afterward; Snyder knew before dinner this might be it for Gibbs. Still, they didn't leave till after 2 a.m., until Snyder had gotten in his last "you can still change your mind." He also said that yesterday -- after the news conference.

"The good thing about Dan is, he understood what I feel family-wise," Gibbs said.

There will be a numbers junkie or a cynic today who points out that Gibbs was 31-36 and never hosted a playoff game during his comeback, that there were too many senior moments and not enough memorable afternoons like the ones at RFK.

But here's the thing: Gibbs was never about numbers and his return should not be measured statistically. To do so would be to calibrate his second tenure and not celebrate what the man really accomplished.

Nationally, he made pro football in Washington matter again. Regionally, he brought order and pride back to a franchise suffering real embarrassment in January 2004. To his players he gave a sense of resolve and grit in the face of real-life adversity most had never known. Before and after Taylor's death, they weren't the only ones who rallied around their coach.

After most of Redskins Park had already gone home, a group of maybe 75 fans stood on the grass behind a curb outside the team's headquarters last night. Gibbs met with each one, signing footballs, homemade collages and jerseys. Some had tears in their eyes. Others simply said, "Thank you."

There was black and white. Asian, Arab. Every color and gender. Young and old. Gibbs was always the equal-opportunity icon. In the nation's capital, of all places, a football coach brought every corner of the world together.

"Who's your favorite coach?" the father of 6-year-old Andrew Duncan asked as Gibbs walked past the boy.

"Coach Joe," Andrew said.

Sandy Zier-Teitler, 54, had driven from a suburb of Baltimore. She pushed her silver-streaked bangs aside and held out her own memorabilia. "My father had tickets at Griffith Stadium," she said, quietly. "Lifelong fan. Thought I'd come by and say goodbye tonight."

When Gibbs joked he should walk back through the doors and say, "I was just messin' with ya," a hard-featured man of maybe 40 yelled, "Do it."

It didn't feel like a bunch of zealots, meeting their higher power. The scene had the intimacy of a dinner party, in which all the guests sincerely thanked their host for a good meal and a good time. A few sang "Hail to the Redskins" as he walked past.

It was going on 6:15 p.m., four years after Gibbs came back. He dreamed the dream and worked his magic as best he could.

And now it's over. He doesn't have to sleep on the pull-out leather sofa in his office anymore.

Smile. Feel good for a 67-year-old man who decided to spend more time with his grandchildren. A coach at Redskins Park went out on his own terms for the first time in 15 years. He got his life back.

We should all be as blessed and lucky as Joe Gibbs, who learned what's important before it was too late.

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