By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Shawn Springs was suffocating. His father was in a coma in Texas. His stepmother had had cancer diagnosed. He and his wife had separated, their 1-year-old son leaving with her. So he backpedaled. He stopped answering most phone calls and for a few months he left home rarely unless it was for a workout. At his most despondent, the cornerback considered retiring from the Washington Redskins, walking away from $5 million this season, and maybe becoming a teacher or buying land and building a house near his family in Dallas.
"I felt overwhelmed, like: 'What can I do? How can I simplify things? What can I cut back on?' " Springs said. "I just wanted to simplify everything and be a normal dude and take my son to the park and just chill and breathe."
He confided only in his personal trainer and a few family members. He said nothing to the Redskins, not wanting this emotional period to be confused with a contract ploy. He skipped the team's voluntary workouts but that was expected because he had done the same thing a year earlier, preferring to work out alone.
"I didn't really watch TV, because every time I'd turn on the news it's like, 'Why isn't Shawn Springs coming to practice?' " Springs said. "And I was just over that. I didn't really answer no phone calls; I didn't really come out of the house that much."
Eventually he regained his mooring. Many unresolved issues remain, but Springs has a renewed fondness for the game that he found by returning, at age 33, to the sport in its most basic form. And when Redskins players report to training camp today, Springs will again be among them, beginning his 12th NFL season.
"I don't want to say I was depressed, because I wasn't depressed, but I was just like done [with football], man," Springs said. "I was really dragging for a month or so. I was hurting."A Trying Time
Ron Springs always has been his son's anchor, the first person he turned to for advice about football or life. Not being able to call on him during these times was particularly painful for Shawn. Ron Springs went into a coma last October after what the family believed would be routine surgery to remove a cyst. Doctors have been able to take him off a ventilator and he can breathe on his own, but he lies motionless on a hospital bed in Dallas with his son's belief in a miracle fading.
"I'm to the point where for me -- and just for me, this is just my words and not representing other family members -- for me it's hard to still see my dad laying in the hospital," Springs said. "I'd rather see God save his soul or him somehow wake up. And if that's not going to happen then just let him be at peace."
Taking his oldest sons -- 9-year old twins Samari and Skylar, who reside with their mother in Ohio -- to visit his father in the hospital this offseason was most difficult.
"It brought tears to my eyes to see them look at my father," Springs said. "They know what a coma is, but it's like he's sleeping and they stare at him, and they're afraid to talk to him and they don't know what to do. I don't think you can prepare yourself for stuff like that."
Watching his father linger in a vegetative state just a short time after losing teammate Sean Taylor to a senseless slaying had been trying enough. Then Springs's stepmother, Adriane, had breast cancer diagnosed this winter.
Adriane Springs has always been the consummate companion to her husband, whisking him to myriad appointments as he battled acute diabetes, losing a foot to the disease and ultimately requiring a kidney transplant. When Shawn Springs learned of her cancer diagnosis, he was devastated.
"It's hard for me to see her struggle, because I know how she's dedicated her life to my dad," Springs said. "I hope she's not offended by my talking about what she's going through in telling my story, but for her to have breast cancer and have her own fight now, that just kills me. I'm like: 'Man, how can something like that happen? Am I not living right? What am I doing for these things to happen?' "
Adriane Springs has been given a positive prognosis and is expected to recover, but Shawn's problems continued when his wife, Lily, and 1-year old son, Shawn II, moved out a short time later. Being apart from his family, no longer able to wake up with his baby every morning, left Springs hollow, and he questioned whether football could fill the void.
He thought about becoming a Montgomery County teacher (Springs went to high school in Silver Spring) or moving to Dallas to be closer to his stepmother and younger sisters; one is in college and the other is a high school senior and Springs supports both. He first told his agent, Kennard McGuire, of his retirement consideration in May.
"Shawn was very serious about [retirement]," McGuire said, "and I would dare anyone to go through any of the things he's going through and not have those same thoughts. When he first told me what he was thinking I said, 'Let's take our time, stay away from football for a while and digest everything.' But he was very serious."
Fred Smoot was the only teammate Springs confided in, and even then Springs -- normally a bright-smiling, wise-cracking mass of positive energy -- masked his retirement talk in the form of jokes.
Springs's absence from June's voluntary organized team activity practices was a relatively minor hitch for the team during an otherwise placid offseason. Coach Jim Zorn, whom Springs likes from their time together in Seattle, joked about putting out an "APB" on Springs when the player would not return his phone calls.
"I go into a shell," Springs said when asked if he had any regrets for not speaking directly to Zorn. "The only three people I'm answering the phone for are my mom, Mrs. B.J. [team receptionist B.J. Blanchard] -- if Mrs. B.J. told me to quit today I would -- and Barack [Obama, whom Springs has met and campaigned for in the past]."
"But I have a good agent, and [vice president of football operations] Vinny [Cerrato] and Mr. Snyder [owner Daniel Snyder] and those guys, I honestly believe they know that I'm in shape and that I was doing what I had to do to be ready to play."
Cerrato declined to comment for this story, but McGuire said he had several conversations with team officials and expressed Springs's desire to maintain an individual workout regimen away from Redskins Park this offseason as he did in 2007. "My message was he's fine, let's give him some space," McGuire said. "There's no reason to worry about anything."Still Working
Springs had continued his workouts even while doubting his future. The veteran had taken just two weeks off after January's playoff loss to Seattle, then headed to the Arizona heat to work on core strength, perfecting his running stride and recovering through any lingering maladies from the football season. In late May he returned to the Washington area and began working again with personal trainer Mark Craig -- a former pro boxer and Buster Douglas's old sparring partner -- five days a week. They do extensive track work -- focusing on burst and explosion -- and then head to Planet Fitness in Potomac to spar.
Craig, who trains many Redskins at the team's facility on Fridays during the season, works closely with team trainers Harrison Bernstein and John Hastings to ensure the club approves Springs's workouts, with ample recovery time built in. "This is a lot harder than training camp," Springs said during a brief water break between sessions last week. "It's not even close."
Springs began taking up boxing after the 2006 season, crediting it for helping him overcome a sports hernia to play all 16 games in 2007. On what is considered a "light" day, Springs and former Redskins wide receiver Mike Espy do a series of sprints and track work for nearly an hour, then Springs dons boxing gloves and endures 20 minutes of high-intensity rounds with Craig. Craig barks out a litany of commands ("One-two with the left, one-two roll up and under, right left right, right to the body, double jab") and Springs pushes himself to the limit, with his shoulders and upper body hardened and chiseled from the grueling work.
"He's come a long way," Craig said. "I've got to watch out now, because if I'm not paying attention he can get me now. Knowing you can do something like this, it makes football look easy. He's ready for camp."
Espy said: "The boy is fast, faster than I thought. He's in the best shape I've ever seen him in. He's a bad man right now."
A turning point occurred when Samari and Skylar came to stay with their father after getting out of school. They know that one of the benefits of having a pro football player as a dad is that whenever you want to play, there's a pretty knowledgeable potential teammate nearby. So as Springs contemplated retirement, his sons were dragging him out to the field. Suddenly, he was Coach Springs, leading them through the same drills his father once navigated, playing quarterback as they battled for hours playing one-on-one. While his teammates began implementing nuances of Zorn's offense during practices, Springs was taking to the parks and school fields near his home.
"Throwing the ball around with them and their little cousin, that's what football's all about," Springs said. "I want to be that excited to play, and they couldn't get enough. It's like, "Dad, let's do one-on-ones, let's do this, let's do that.' And then I find myself out there coaching them through the drills and I realized: 'That's who I am. That's what I love.' And that's what really got me back, because for a minute there I really thought this was it, I'm quitting."
About three weeks ago, McGuire was sure Springs would play again, as Springs's cocksure confidence and football braggadocio began once again punctuating their conversations. Beyond his physical prowess, Springs says his mind is steeled as well. He is primed to focus on his profession again, using football to cloud the troubles around him, excited to disprove those who believe he has lost a step or is past his prime.
Springs knew he was himself again when he allowed spectators to watch him run and box at Winston Churchill High, engaging the crowd in conversation, happily signing autographs and posing for pictures. "Before, I didn't really want to be around people, talking football and all that stuff," he said.
With the Redskins facing questions of depth and health at cornerback, Springs remains a key figure. The team's anemic pass rush remains an issue, and the entire secondary likely will be heavily tested again in a system prone to pressure-filled man-to-man coverage. After weeks of uncertainly, Springs says he is ready.
"I don't want to let the team down, and I love my teammates," Springs said. "I have no problems with the Redskins. But if I'm there I want to be really there and excited to be there and to give 100 percent, and I really feel that now. I feel like I can make a difference to my team, and I honestly feel like we're a better team when I'm out there, and that's where I want to be."