By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
There was only one way to settle disagreements back then. Brothers Dawan and LaRon Landry, separated by just 21 months, were the most competitive kids in tiny Ama, La. -- though usually with each other.
They would start on a basketball court, at the park or in front of the Nintendo. Inevitably their shared competitive fire got the best of them, and Frank Landry knew of only one way to settle his sons' quarrels: two pairs of boxing gloves.
He first bought the gloves, branded with a Sugar Ray Leonard logo, when Dawan was 7 and LaRon 5 -- nearly two decades before either would embark on NFL careers. That's how they were used to settling sibling disputes until becoming teenagers.
"I was always bigger, so I was always the one beating him up. But that never stopped him," Dawan said of LaRon. "He was ready to go every day. And he'd never stop. He'd keep wanting to fight until mom or dad pulled us apart."
On Thursday night, the brothers will square off once again, this time standing on opposite sidelines at M&T Bank Stadium, where Dawan's Baltimore Ravens will open the preseason against LaRon's Washington Redskins. Both brothers play safety, and even though years have passed and their relationship has evolved into an extremely close one, they've both been looking forward to this game since the day it was announced.
"They just love going after each other. Always have," said Frank Landry, who plans to watch the game from the stands alongside his wife, Rhonda.
The Landry brothers have had few opportunities to play against each other as adults. When they were younger, though, they would go head-to-head as often as possible, and they actually started out on the same team. Frank Landry coached 7-year-old Dawan's pee wee football team in Ama, located on the banks of the Mississippi River and not far from New Orleans.
LaRon was only 5, too young to play. But he insisted, so his father ignored the rules, put LaRon in a uniform and snuck him onto the playing field.
"I remember the first day of practice, I lined him up against Dawan," Frank said. "I said, 'Boy, put your chin strap on and button up. This is real.' And when Dawan hit him, the helmet went one way, the boy went the other way. Dawan just knocked him out.
"I said, 'Are you all right, LaRon?' He said, 'Yeah, let's do it again.' "
The boys were teammates at Hahnville High, where Dawan was the star quarterback and LaRon was the defensive leader. The competitive fire was in their genes. Their father starred at the same high school and later played linebacker at Northeast Louisiana University (now known as University of Louisiana-Monroe). Their older brother played football at Vanderbilt.
Frank kept pushing and training his youngest two boys so they might have a chance at a college scholarship, too.
"I did everything on God-given talent. I hated working out," LaRon said. "But not Dawan. He always worked so hard."
The training paid off. Dawan starred at Georgia Tech, switching from quarterback to safety. The Ravens drafted him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, and he eventually won a starting job alongside perennial Pro Bowl pick Ed Reed.
When Dawan left home for school, LaRon said the two grew closer, their competitive streaks replaced by mutual respect. After a successful career at LSU that included first-team all-American honors as a senior, LaRon was the sixth overall pick of the 2007 draft.
He signed a five-year, $41.5 million contract -- a bit more than Dawan's three-year, $1.2 million rookie deal -- but the family was most excited about the geography. The brothers would get a chance to play professionally just an hour apart. LaRon's impact on the Redskins was immediate. As a rookie, he played alongside Sean Taylor and enters the third year of his NFL career having started all 32 games since he was drafted.
After failing to force a turnover as a rookie, Landry had two interceptions and two forced fumbles last year. The team is looking for more production this season.
"Last year he missed training camp, and it hurt him early in the season," said Greg Blache, the Redskins' defensive coordinator. "If you look at the second half of LaRon's season, LaRon was one of the best safeties in the NFL -- if not the best -- with his picks, with his hits and the big plays he was making for us. Being healthy right now, if we can keep him healthy, he is going to have the opportunity to play that way the entire season."
"I think he will finally get his just due and the recognition and go to the Pro Bowl because he is that caliber of a football player."
This season should be noticeably different for Dawan, as well. In Week 3 last year, the Ravens were playing the Cleveland Browns. While trying to tackle running back Jamal Lewis, Dawan's neck bent backward. When the official's whistle blew the play dead, Dawan was motionless on the field, with no sensation in his fingers and toes. He was taken by ambulance to a Baltimore hospital.
Not far away, LaRon was driving home from FedEx Field when his phone started lighting up with text messages and voicemails. He pulled off the road, heard the news and sped his way north to Baltimore.
By the time he arrived, Dawan could feel his fingers, but his long-term prognosis was up in the air.
"I just remember getting out of X-rays, and LaRon was right there," Dawan said. "I was so glad to see him."
LaRon stared at his brother but wasn't certain what exactly he was looking at. LaRon was the wild one, prone to injuries and always taking risky chances. "Not Dawan. He was invincible," LaRon said.
In the hospital room, Dawan was talking excitedly about getting back on the field. It was LaRon who was quiet, short on words when his parents tried talking to him. "I really think he was taking it harder than Dawan," their father said.
LaRon found a quiet corner of the hospital where he was alone. No one had seen him shed a tear in years -- "He's not the crying type," Dawan said, "he's always trying to be tough" -- but he did that day.
Nearly a year removed, LaRon is still affected by the image of his brother motionless in a hospital bed. "You never know when your last play is," he said. "You don't know when your time is up in this game."
With Dawan's status up in the air last fall, LaRon spent weeks telling his brother to walk away from football. Dawan was blessed the injury wasn't more severe, LaRon said, so why risk permanent damage? Dawan didn't listen. In February, he underwent surgery to repair a bruise on his spinal cord. He said this week he feels 100 percent.
Thursday night represents Dawan's first live-game action since the injury. More important, he said, is the opponent.
"Those two are like rams butting heads," Frank said.
Frank and Rhonda visited both teams' training camps last weekend. On Sunday, the whole family got to talking about the preseason opener, and to no one's surprise, the brothers started talking trash.
"I told them, 'You guys need to take it easy. This is only preseason. No reason to get hurt out there,' " Frank said.
"No, no, there's no taking it easier here," LaRon said.
"If you're on the field," Dawan promised his brother, "I'm gonna find you."