By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Few teams in professional sports get to have as grand a day as the Washington Redskins had here Saturday. Any team's fans can buy out a stadium for a big playoff game or be indulged in a civic championship parade. But how many times can a team's fans, more than 15,000 of them, monopolize a sport's Hall of Fame? Not since the old Bulldogs left Canton has the birthplace of professional football so tilted toward one team.
The Redskins and their devotees hadn't had so much to celebrate in more than 16 years, since Darrell Green and Art Monk were in uniform, not coincidentally. Folks who've been coming here for these inductions for 25, 30 years swear no team has produced anything close to the Redskins' Hall of Fame turnout, not to mention their fervor. Their ovations, particularly the four-minute outpouring that greeted Monk, were as heartfelt as any Sunday afternoon praise during their career.
The mayor of Canton took one look at the crowd, painted in burgundy and gold, and proclaimed it "Redskins Day." Every seat on every flight Saturday from National, BWI and Dulles airports to nearby Cleveland was occupied. Thousands more drove the 350 miles. Every one of them seemed to be wearing a Redskins jersey, most bearing either Green's No. 28 or Monk's No. 81. No single Redskin could have caused this stampede; only a pair as already beloved as Green and Monk could pack the house on the road like this.
Every sighting of every Redskin already in the Hall of Fame was treated like a first appearance. Joe Gibbs, Ken Houston, Bobby Mitchell, Bill Dudley and Charley Taylor all were cheered wildly when introduced. Good thing Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff were leading young players through a tour of the Hall at the time, lest their public introduction cause a complete panic.
Hall of Fame Cowboys were unmercifully booed, especially Michael Irvin, whose beaming smile seemed to suggest an acceptance that boos in the context of this particular afternoon amounted to quite the honor. Thurman Thomas, the Buffalo Bills running back who was inducted here last year, told an ESPN interviewer when asked about the passionate outpouring of the day, "I'm glad I'm not a Cowboy."
One of today's "other" inductees, Emmitt Thomas, was enshrined because of his outstanding career as a ball-hawking, head-knocking Kansas City Chiefs cornerback who entered the league an undrafted free agent back when the draft lasted 17 rounds. But real Redskins fans know him as a longtime Joe Gibbs assistant, a man who coached both Monk and Green, an unassuming lieutenant with a wonderful mind for defensive football who, had he been born 15 years later, might have found an owner unafraid to hire him as a head coach.
They're all part of one fabulously successful era of Redskins football, a masterful run chock-full of smart and resourceful men who cared nothing for stardom and exclusively for team, as out of touch as that phrase now sounds. Even Saturday, on a day when being honored at the highest level of one's profession might allow for some chest-thumping, former assistant Thomas spoke with his signature humility. Of his former pupils, Monk and Green, sitting behind him, Thomas said, "Both of these men overcame my coaching and had successful careers." And Thomas might as well have been speaking for all of them when he said: "You're looking at a man that has a lot of blemishes, abrasions and scars dealt to him by life's highs and lows. But you're also looking at a man who stood tall in the arena, never quit even though it looked like the game was over on many, many occasions."
Every city, if it's lucky, has an era like the Washington Redskins of 1981-91, teams that win championships and produce Hall of Famers and uncommon good times. Pittsburgh will forever celebrate the four-time champion Steelers of the 1970s. San Francisco has those stylish and prolific Joe Montana teams of the 1980s. Boston and Los Angeles have Bird's Celtics and Magic's "Showtime" Lakers, respectively. Chicago revels still in Jordan's Bulls. New York has, most recently, the late-'90s Yankees teams captained by Derek Jeter. New England has the Patriots, the first great football run of the new century, just as San Antonio has the Spurs of Tim Duncan. They are teams whose championship runs live for decades, teams that become civic treasures and ways by which communities define themselves.
In effect, this just might have been the grandest and final public celebration of the men who comprised those teams in Gibbs's first tenure. Yes, Green and Monk were enshrined Saturday, but they weren't the sole objects of all that affection. Monk and Green were, in effect, stand-ins this weekend for the Hogs, the Fun Bunch, the Pearl Harbor Crew, even a few stragglers from the Over the Hill Gang. For Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Dexter Manley, Earnest Byner, Monte Coleman, Darryl Grant, Charles Mann, Mark Moseley, Bobby Beathard, Richie Petitbon, Joe Bugel, Bubba Tyer, and on and on and on.
The Redskins may not pass this way again for a while. The Hall of Fame is an especially difficult place to come to rest. Joe Jacoby's name has come up in the Hall of Fame discussions over the years, but briefly. Russ Grimm's name has come up a little more extensively, though not enough for my tastes. Jeff Bostic was awfully, awfully good for a very long time, but Canton is most likely out of his reach.
Gibbs, John Riggins, Darrell Green and Art Monk. That's the list. Nobody in the seasons since even appears on the horizon, not yet anyway. Those are going to be the most decorated of the Redskins, of a very special time in the team's history, in Washington's history. The cheers here today were for all of them, really.
Green and Monk wore the yellow Hall of Fame jackets that are so coveted by every player who ever enters the NFL. But the teammates they sweated with, bled with, and mostly won with were alongside them for every step on the trip to Canton, through the speeches, the pats on the back and the atta-boys, especially the ovations that began in the warm sun and lasted happily deep into the rarest of nights.