By Mike Wise
Sunday, February 3, 2008
They used to play tackle football in White Plains, N.Y., in the 1960s. "In the streets," Art Monk said. "We were kids. We didn't even think about it. Then it was on to Pop Warner, high school, Syracuse. Then the NFL."
After nearly a decade of solemnly wishing to hear his name called -- yet possessing too much dignity and grace to complain -- the greatest wide receiver in Washington Redskins history was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame yesterday.
Eight long years after he was first eligible to be enshrined.
Forty-odd years since a kid hoped beyond hope on the asphalt of a bedroom community 45 minutes from Manhattan.
"Never in my wildest dreams as a little boy did I ever imagine getting to this point," Monk said. He spoke humbly in a half-full ballroom of Jurys Washington Hotel at Dupont Circle, where friends and family gradually filed in the next two hours -- as if a once-trailing candidate had somehow pulled out the New Hampshire primary.
Monk's loyal supporters were caught off guard by the election to Canton. Like most fans of the hard-luck possession wide receiver the past eight years, they figured he might be denied again.
But on a day when Darrell Green went through as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, his teammate in time, Monk, jubilantly joined him.
Russ Grimm was the only Redskin on the ballot who didn't get in, and he was denied on, of all afternoons, Groundhog Day.
Remember the movie by the same title, in which Bill Murray's character wakes up to the same day, over and over? Yeah? Well, that was Monk each Hall of Fame election day in this millennium.
His induction yesterday more than made up for any slight, past or present.
"I wasn't disenchanted -- maybe disappointed," Monk said. "But I knew everything happens in its own time."
Whether the cognoscenti feel he was wronged or not, there were reasons why Monk was excluded from Canton until yesterday. He often split votes with other stellar receivers, including the six elected ahead of him since his retirement -- James Lofton, Steve Largent, Charlie Joiner, Michael Irvin, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann.
Monk held the career receptions record when he retired in 1995. Jerry Rice, only the greatest wide receiver of all time, broke his record of 940 catches. Yes, he caught 121 more passes than Largent, 176 more than Lofton and 190 more than Joiner. But Monk's minions shouldn't fret; it took Swannie 13 years to get in.
Sports Illustrated deserves a thank-you card today. Its two most celebrated football writers -- Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman and Peter King -- came around on Monk's induction after essentially believing for years that a guy who catches 1,000 eight-yard outs is not worthy of a mustard-colored blazer.
His former coach, Joe Gibbs, lobbied every on-the-fence voter, including divulging one fact that can't be said about every receiver in Washington: "Not once did he come to me and say to me, 'Give me the ball,' " a source said Gibbs told one of the people in yesterday's room full of voters. "He played his position and kept his mouth shut." While Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders ran fly patterns toward the end zone, Monk dutifully tucked in the third-and-six buttonhook for a first down and hushed up.
Monk's relatively small touchdown numbers -- he had just 68 in 16 years -- and lack of 80-yard jaunts framed forever on celluloid underscored the real culprit keeping him out of the Hall of Fame: the bias against Gibbs's up-the-gut, ball-control game.
The perception was that Monk didn't have that signature Montana-to-Clark play, a defining moment in a game of great consequence. But that's largely a fallacy, on and off the field.
Denver was leading 10-0 in the 1988 Super Bowl when the Redskins faced a third and 16. Doug Williams and Monk connected for a 40-yard hookup, a huge play that became a catalyst for a five-touchdown second quarter and a Washington rout by halftime. That catch ignited that team that day. And if it doesn't come about -- if the ball was punted back to Denver -- who's to say the Broncos don't score, go ahead 17-0 and make it an entirely different game?
Another perception about Monk proved wrong: He never talked. Yes, he ducked out on many a reporter whose lone assignment was to get him to open up. But in the crucible of Gibbs's first era, Monk said he stood in front of his teammates as the Redskins were frittering their season away in 1990.
"It was one of the few times I stood up and spoke," he said. "It just seemed like we were going through the motions and I just made it clear we had to find a way to get that emotion. It was less than a couple minutes, just a 'Hey, guys, come on' deal."
But coming from Monk that season, it worked. The Redskins, over the rest of that season and the next, were 22-4 and won Super Bowl XXVI. If the guy whose rigorous offseason workouts included running hills at George Mason with Green, Dexter Manley and Vernon Dean said Washington had to rededicate itself, that went much further than a player who talked incessantly.
It's no coincidence his favorite player today is Marvin Harrison, the Colts' wideout and fellow Syracuse alumnus who is acknowledged as one of the game's elite receivers and a certain future Hall of Famer. Harrison's quarterback is Peyton Manning and he's not merely seen as a possession receiver. Yet his yards per catch over his career (13.4) is almost identical to Monk's number (13.5). He's also a modern-day version of Monk when it comes to humility and his reserved nature.
Simply, the more the committee viewed Monk's accomplishments, thought about the intangibles and realized how many times he had been passed over, there was no denying his election. His biggest threat was Cris Carter, whose impressive numbers came in a pass-happy era and whose team never won the Super Bowl.
Now the three constants of every Washington championship -- Gibbs, Green and Monk -- will have busts in Canton. They switched running backs, from Riggo to Earnest Byner to Gerald Riggs and George Rogers. They changed quarterbacks three times. Other than Grimm, Jeff Bostic and Joe Jacoby, they changed the line.
But they never changed the wide receiver who always made the tough catch in traffic.
"I know it must be surprising that a man that doesn't talk much is at a loss for words," Monk said. "But I am. I'm at a loss for words."
On the fly, he thanked his supporters, which included a former teammate who championed his candidacy for years, Charles Mann, who set up the festivities and happily yelled, "Now Art, I got to hit you up for Hall of Fame tickets."
Monk smiled and nodded. He wasn't quite prepared for all this, but he improvised as best he could. Which was apropos for the second cousin of jazz icon Thelonious Monk.
"He was my father's first cousin," Monk said. "I never got to meet him, though. He was always off, doing his thing."
For 14 reliable years in Washington, for three Super Bowls in the middle of the Redskins' halcyon years, the same can be said for Hall of Famer James Arthur Monk.