Tears streamed down Darrell Green's cheeks yesterday as he said farewell before the final game of his 20-year Washington Redskins career. Soon, however, sentiment turned to celebration. Cheers rolled from the stands as, one last time, Green took the ball on a punt-return reverse, hurdled a Dallas Cowboy and sped 35 yards up the sideline.
As he has since 1983, Green rose to the occasion, providing one final highlight memory to the town he has seldom failed -- on or off the field. This time, he provided the pleasure of seeing a 42-year-old man, now known as much for his good works as for his athletic ability, leave Dallas players almost half his age in his wake.
Fittingly, the Redskins ended a 10-game losing streak to the arch-rival Cowboys with a sloppy but emotional 20-14 win in which Green saw considerable playing time -- all of it mistake-free -- on third-down defense and various special teams.
"It's been a great ride. But there is no way I could be where I am without all of you," Green said in a 30-minute pregame ceremony in which he thanked his late father, Leonard, his wife and three children, past coaches and all of his Redskins teammates, including those on two Super Bowl champions.
Green then turned to his consuming off-field passion of the past 14 years, working to help the Washington community, and especially children, in myriad ways. "My goal is not only to end a career but to be launched into a future that produces a light and carries out the purpose of God," said Green. "With all this great joy, something in my heart has always said, 'Is that it?' You have given me a great platform and a great community to do what I believe . . . to change the world for all that is good, right and Godly."
That was off-the-cuff and, often, through tears. "They told me I had three minutes [to talk]," said Green after the game. "I had to compose myself . . . I said, 'I can't waste my three minutes crying.' "
After his homily, Green, standing at midfield amid dignitaries and bands, asked the crowd for quiet. Then he began to applaud, the singular claps echoing from the sound system until the fans joined in.
In many ways, this farewell was typical of those accorded great athletes in many cities in many sports. A pregame film tribute showed his great plays, his dominant victories in the NFL's Fastest Man Contest and his trademark quirks, like the Tootsie Roll he kept in his sock for a bite of mid-game energy.
The Redskins donated $150,000 to the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation and fans chanted his name so loud and long that Green had to put his finger to his lips like a forbearing father to quiet them so the speeches of others could be heard.
But, in far more ways, this farewell was an all-day experience that captured Green's uniqueness. Many athletes in many cities have had sendoffs, but few with such depth or sincere appreciation.
Green, full of nervous energy, was the first player on the field at 10:45 a.m. Soon, he was running patterns and snagging passes with a couple of teammates. By 11:55 a.m., he was back, before any Redskin came out for warm-ups, to take a slow-walking lap around most of the stadium, shaking hands and chatting with fans.
Not only did Green pop out of the locker room at halftime for a brief charity fundraising speech at midfield, but after the game he returned to talk to the thousands of fans who remained.
"I want to go around and look you in the eye," said Green, who stayed so long he may have shaken every hand left in the park. "I was just telling my teammates [after the game] that, as you are on your way to stardom and fame, don't forget to produce a life that is more than just football."
Green was preaching to the choir. Those who stayed late were the Green true believers. Chris Siess, 17, a Green fan "my whole life," carried a family-made sign that said, "Stadium: $800 million. Chopper: $40 million. Deion: $8 million. Number 28: priceless."
"I've been watching him ever since I can imagine," said 32-year-old fan Chet Malhotra, in the first row for Green's postgame lap. "He ran down Tony Dorsett when I was 13 and, two years ago, he was still fast enough to run down the Lions' Germaine Crowell.
"I love that he is the antithesis of the typical pro athlete of today. It's always team-before-self. The last three years, they've brought in three guys to play ahead of him -- Deion Sanders, Fred Smoot and this year Rashad Bauman. I mean, Rashad Bauman? And he's taken it all with unbelievable grace. That's class."
Green has amazed his teammates by welcoming, and then teaching, all the cornerbacks who arrived to supplant him. For that, and all his other feats in a career that included 313 games, seven Pro Bowl appearances and also certain induction into the NFL Hall of Fame, Green's teammates wanted him to have one last romp.
So, the punt return reverse -- a staple in Green's youth -- was plotted and practiced all week. Champ Bailey handed the ball to Green, carried out his fake, then looked back in time to see Green leap over a Cowboys' tackler. "It kind of reminded me of the [famous] Bears game [in 1988]," said Bailey of that memorable hurdling Green punt-return in the playoffs for a crucial touchdown.
"If Darrell had broken that last tackle and taken it to the house, I think the stadium would have erupted and everybody would just have gone home," said Smoot. "Everybody on the team, and even some of the equipment guys who heard us talking, knew that the reverse was on. So we were all right up on the sideline to see it. If the Cowboys had noticed, they'd have [stopped] the play."
"That was awesome. I thought I was going to go all the way," said Green, who actually milked every possible yard out of the play. "I even had the little 'jump over.' I'm glad my son got to see it -- The Dad can still do it."
For a man who will be 43 in less than two months to break long runs on NFL punt returns strains credulity. How old is Green in football terms? When he was a rookie, players gave each other high fives. He played with a Super Bowl champion that helped introduce the "low five." Before yesterday's game, every teammate slapped his hand, but, this time, with the waist-high-five that is now in vogue.
Perhaps Green's most enduring trait has been that he never cared about the fashion of the moment, but, instead, chose values that never change: modesty, charity, hard work and a smile that embodied his enthusiasm for every task.
Long after the game, Green accommodated every interview question. In the middle of an answer, he noticed that one of the tape recorders on the podium in front of him had run out of tape. So, in a gesture both natural to him, and yet almost unknown in the rare air of professional sports, Green picked up the recorder, opened it and turned over the tape so it could record some more.
With a grin, Green then summed up his worldview in a quip.
"The more you can do, baby," he said.