By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, January 12, 2008
When Joe Gibbs went home to Charlotte last weekend after the Redskins lost to Seattle in the NFC playoffs, there was a birthday party for his 3-year-old grandson, Taylor, who has spent the last year battling leukemia. For others in the family, it was a celebration of the child's brave and so-far successful cancer treatment, with a video showing his progress. But as Gibbs watched, he noticed something.
"I realized I had missed almost everything," he said by telephone yesterday. "I wasn't there."
During the visit, Gibbs spoke with his son Coy, who left his job as a Redskins assistant to start a motocross venture. "We got off to a rough start. Coy was down," Gibbs said. "I told him, 'When we got into NASCAR, remember how we got kicked for a year?' " Gibbs realized, "There are probably ways in which I can be there" for Coy.
Gibbs and older son J.D., who now runs the successful Joe Gibbs Racing team, talked about the huge transition from the team's sponsorship deal with Chevrolet to being the first NASCAR team backed by Toyota. Joe Gibbs Racing also was adding a third driver, creating more expense and risk and complicating the always delicate issue of team chemistry. "That's a huge deal for the family," Gibbs said.
Making him feel worse, Gibbs realized that his whole family was willing to put his ego and his ambitions first, as it always had, by encouraging him to return to coach the Redskins for another season. His young grandchild is confronting a life-threatening disease. One son is opening a new business. Another is facing major changes to his business. One daughter-in-law is pregnant. Yet nobody pressed good ol' Joe to give up the NFL.
How many balls were up in the air in North Carolina? How much pressure was on everybody?
"One of the girls [daughter-in-laws] quit her job," Gibbs said, softly. Too many tasks, not enough hands. But Joe, who already was in the Hall of Fame, could spend 100 hours a week for eight months at a time on worrying about the Redskins.
Everybody else was circling the wagons on the home front. Where the devil, so to speak, was he?
Finally, Gibbs had to come to terms with his own emotions. Since Taylor became sick, Gibbs's wife, Pat, had spent almost all her time in Charlotte. "The last year, we were pretty much separated. That's been hard," Gibbs said.
At 67, with millions in the bank, how many nights can you listen to Don Breaux, one of Gibbs's longtime coaching lieutenants, chew ice during coaches meetings, then go to bed at 3 a.m. after the trash trucks roll into Redskins Park?
So now that he's quit the Redskins, retired for good and gone back home, have he and Pat had a moment alone?
"That's tonight," Gibbs said, delightedly. "We're going to go out to dinner." Together. Alone.
"I've apologized to her for all the places we drug her over the years," Gibbs said. "We were joking about how many locker rooms she's had to sit outside and how many times she's sat in the bleachers waiting."
But it doesn't sound like a real funny joke, even if they find a way to laugh about it.
"We got things we want to do, trips we want to take," he said.
For the past four years, when he has had his Redskins face on display in Washington, Gibbs has been obsessed with the problems of a franchise that, even with a vast budget, annual free agent additions, high-priced assistant coaches and Gibbs's leadership, has still only managed -- just barely -- to stabilize itself.
Yet just days after he stepped down, the lighter side of Gibbs is reemerging. That eighth grandchild on the way has him downright tickled. When his sons first married, the ex-coach noted that one daughter-in-law "already had her own business and the other one had a masters degree. I said to Pat: 'There it goes. No grandbabies,' " Gibbs said. "Now our life is the grandkids. Gonna be seven boys and one girl. It's gettin' to be a long line."
Gibbs knows he's left the Redskins and their fans in the lurch, to a degree, even though he intends to continue as an adviser to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. And he realizes that even his own players wonder what on earth happened during his "whirlwind day" -- less than 24 hours, actually -- in which he left for Charlotte as their pedal-to-the-metal coach who had been dreaming of the Super Bowl until the last five minutes of their disaster in Seattle, then returned to Washington dead set on retiring.
Was he just temporarily burned out? Did he make a bad decision in too big a hurry? Did he have second thoughts?
"I've had real peace about it. This is right," Gibbs said. "My boys are so good. Everybody said, 'If you want to go another year, we'll go another year.' "
But what message did he hear from his family, outside their words? "Hey Dad, we need you on some things," he said.
Now the Gibbs clan has its biggest holiday gift. It just came a couple of weeks after Christmas.
"Everybody is on a high," Gibbs said. "I can promise you that there are no other health problems here. I'm feeling great. Taylor's done better than what the doctors would have expected. No fevers, no trips back to the hospitals. He's right where he's supposed to be. His counts are good. But you can't just relax."
Back in Washington, Gibbs knows that nobody is relaxing. The Redskins have a new coach to pick; Snyder may want his advice. If the Redskins re-sign Todd Collins, should the career backup get a chance to compete for the starting quarterback job with Jason Campbell? When Mark Rypien was young, Gibbs reopened a similar competition, replaced a struggling Rypien as starter for a while, yet ended up developing him into a Super Bowl MVP quarterback. Such matters, however, are far in the back of Gibbs's mind. The fate of a billion-dollar-plus franchise has to take a back seat. He knows what's most important -- to him -- now.
"Taylor has to get steroids every month. Every 12 weeks he has to go back in," Gibbs said. "When he goes to the hospital, I want to be there with him."
That's where you'll find Joe Gibbs -- back, at last, in the home video of his own life.