Redskins attempt a family reunion by reaching out to players of the past

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; D01

Brian Mitchell has been one of the most candid, outspoken critics of his former team the past decade. In point of fact, the former Pro Bowler represented almost a bridge between prominent names in team history -- Faces of the Disenfranchised Player. It's a group that ranges from the most popular of all time, John Riggins, to owner Daniel Snyder's first draft pick, LaVar Arrington.

Yet months before the Washington Redskins' first game of the 2010 season, even the brutally honest B. Mitch feels major changes are afoot with the team, something beyond acquiring Donovan McNabb or laying down the law with Albert Haynesworth.

"I know Bruce Allen talked to Mike Nelms," Mitchell said of the team's new general manager and the Redskins' former kick returner and defensive back. "When Mike talked to me, he said [Bruce] wanted to know what the problems were with former players, how he could bridge the relationship between the team and its former players."

Then came Mitchell's invitation from Allen in the mail, addressed to Redskins alumni in general, asking Mitchell to be a part of a reunion day at Redskins Park on June 17, a day closed to the public, when current and former players could talk and bond and be a part of events and activities that made them feel part of something larger again.

"He made it clear he wanted to reunite the burgundy-and-gold family, which has been fragmented," Mitchell said. "Hell, I've seen it fragment. They used to reach out to a certain group of guys that told them what they wanted to hear. I can't say that right now. This feels like a sincere attempt to reconnect with their past in a good way."

Did we mention they might go back to the gold pants worn by the late, great George Allen's teams in the 1970s, when his two, young sons took the losses as personally as the players?

Of course, bloodlines aren't everything.

Indeed, Bruce Allen inherited three things when he became general manager of the Redskins in late December, only one of them good: a thin roster, a restless fan base and, yes, an organization with an ultra-proud history, dating from his father's days as coach and further.

While fixing the first two things would require time and evidence in the standings, reconnecting with an organizational strength -- the Redskins' glorious past and the players who partook of it, many of whom want to feel an emotional tug to the team -- became as obvious as it was paramount.

"Our job, as current employees, is to respect the history," Allen said last week in an interview at an Ashburn restaurant. "The reason we have fans is the great performances of the players and coaches and the fans before. We didn't create this magic last year or the year before, or this year. It's everyone who came before us."

Allen put his iPhone back in his pants pocket and continued. "So I do believe we owe more than a debt of gratitude to the players that came before us."

Last weekend for the first time, Mark Rypien's charitable golf tournament, the Mickey Steele Golf Outing, named for his friend who lost his battle with leukemia in 2004, partnered with the Redskins charitable foundation to pull in more than 40 former players.

"I don't know if that decision was made on high or not, but I've already seen results when it comes to keeping the old guys more involved," Rypien said in a telephone interview from his home in Spokane, Wash. "I will say this: When the old guys poked their heads in at the old Redskins Park and the new one, it made a difference. You knew you were upholding a tradition that meant something. So if that's improving, great for everyone."

During the interview last week, Snyder walked in and sat down next to Allen, asking, "Have you ever seen pictures of him on the sidelines [when Allen was a teenager]? Wanna see a picture of him in a Larry Brown jersey? True Redskins fan."

Acquainted with each other since Snyder purchased the team more than a decade ago -- "We've been friends for a long time," the owner said -- the two began bantering about the ridiculous things they wore as fans of the team during the Redskins' halcyon days.

"I used to tell Bruce, 'Why are you with them?' " Snyder said, referring to Allen's positions with the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Asked if he had tried to hire him before, he added with a half-smile, "No comment."

In his commitment to restoring any damaged history, Allen has received guidance along the way.

Rick "Doc" Walker, the team's former tight end on its first championship team and now a local media personality, met with Allen the first week after he took the job for almost two hours at a Virginia restaurant.

"I tried to give him my synopsis of the 30-year history of the organization and how it's gone," Walker said. "The overall consensus was that people didn't feel welcome there like they used to. And that had to change, in my opinion. We used to have barbecues when Jack Kent Cooke owned the team. We need more of that. See, that's part of the brand. The brand is what it's all about."

The brand has taken some hits lately, and not just because of 4-12 last season.

One player who is not planning to attend June 17 is Arrington, co-host of his own radio show, opposite's Snyder's station, on WJFK radio's 106.7 FM. (Full disclosure: I co-host a show there, too).

"Dan Snyder has to talk to me before I do anything for a team that he owns," said Arrington, who cites a deep, personal rift with the owner. "Unofficially, I am very involved with a lot of the players. Talking to and mentoring former teammates, whatever they need. But before I ever do anything or go to a practice, I need to talk to Dan Snyder and be heard. There would have to be a discussion where a lot of issues are resolved."

Arrington's stance shows Allen also inherited something else: sore feelings of many alumni, including Riggins, who on national television last year said Snyder had, "a dark heart."

Allen doesn't know all the fences that have been up since his father's teams enraptured Washington. But he keenly understands why people still care, why they still want to belong.

"We're welcoming back all our players and coaches," he said. "It's because of Joe Gibbs, it's because of Ted Marchibroda when he was the offensive coordinator, that fans are wearing their burgundy and gold. I get a lot of letters from people who remember Sammy Baugh, so we have that fan base too.

"It not because of what we did this week. It's because of what they did in the past."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company