My first year with the Redskins was a marvelous experience, filled with the highs and lows resulting from our team struggling part of the season and then surging into the playoffs.
The emotions of the 1976 season contrast sharply with my four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.
There were some players on the Cowboys who were very different from me philosophically. That condition made it hard for us to see eye to eye on most matters beyond trying to win football games. My negative feelings toward the Dallas organization constituted a rallying point for the rationale that hastened my departure.
Naturally my perceptions of pro football changed as I went through college (Amherst) but my fascination with the game remained with me until 1972 when I arrived at Thousand Oaks, Calif., the training camp of the Dallas Cowboys.
I looked toward my rookie training as an exciting and fun experience. Fortunately, it was not a life-or-death situation. I was lucky enough to have a couple of law schools expecting me in September and didn't feel the pressure that the other rookies apparently did.
All of a sudden I found myself playing for pay and that really makes a difference. Before, football had been fun, a game. Suddenly, for most, it was a make-or-break situation. You make it or you go home.
Coming into camp as a 13th-round draft choice at the age of 20, I wasn't lucky enough to have a "can't-miss" tag. This team was the reigning world champion and already had two former all-pros in Mike Ditka and Billy Truax at the tight end position. But I didn't mind. I figured I would get cut.
There were some rookies who were cocky and self-assured. But most were reserved and reluctant to make friends for fear of revealing a weakness. After all the very next day we'd be competing against each other. Everyone knew that of the approximately 90 players we started with, fewer than 10 had a chance to make the team. Most had dreams, few had a football future.
Many of the Cowboys problems resulted because the Cowboy organization, unlike most other clubs, does not reflect the individuals who make up the team. The Cowboys surpress individuality.
The character of the Redskin team is a result of the individuals who make up the team. This is not true at Dallas. The character of that team has remained the same because the players there are just cogs in a master plan; cogs that can be replaced as soon as the next player draft. Consequently, personality was somewhat discouraged, you became a part of the team but the team never really became a part of you. As a result, you always knew the team felt it could replace you.
Several years ago I witnessed the beginning of the end of Bob Hayes' career. Hayes once was the world's fastest human, Olympic hero and all-pro. In the twilight of his career, Hayes was traded to San Francisco after he had been replaced with another cog, Golden Richards. A pattern began to emerge. Very few black players have ever played out their careers and retired successfully in Dallas.
It also appeared that the black players in Dallas never got the recognition they deserved.
Mindful of this fact, and aware of the opportunities presented by the players' newly found freedom, I opted to become a free agent last year. Since I had already invested three years to become skilled I believed this time would have been wasted if I couldn't get the financial return I was finally in a position to demand. I decided to play out the option.
I had always wondered what I was worth as a player. Becoming a free agent gave me that answer - considerbly more than what Dallas had been offering. It was just a matter of making that break.
I signed with the Redskins and George Allen because I thought it was the best for me and my family. Being a free agent maximized my value to a ball club. Naturally, money played a role in my decision, but the offer I accepted was not the one for the most money. It was the best deal for me.
I arrived at the Redskin camp last July not in the best of condition. The new players were invited into camp a week early with the rookies so that we could become more familiar with the system. Although veterans, we had to learn a new system. It was not that we would be doing completely new things, just using different terminology to describe the actions.
I felt some pressure on myself. I was one of several new Redskins to arrive with a publicized contract, while many of the key veterans had yet to sign. I really felt I had to prove my worth. Fortunately, John Riggins had gotten most of the publicity and, with it, probably most of the pressure. I was on stage, but not in the spotlight.
"As I began to learn the Redskin system, it become apparent our offense was ball control. This means a lot of running, no mistakes and most important, no drive-killing penalties. What this also means is a limited amount of shifting and sticking to basic plays where execution is important as opposed to using trick or fancy plays as we did in Dallas.
As camp proceeded, I really didn't know what my chances of starting were. I was confident, but I also knew that Jerry Smith had been doing a great job and his performance during camp gave me no indication he couldn't continue to perform up to his high standards. The Redskins had another good tight end in Alvin Reed, a veteran who could still do the job.
It was an old yet a new team that groped for an identity as we went to Atlanta for the first preseason game. I'm sure many players had a lot of doubts as we headed out to the field.
The game started, and before you could get the feel of being back in battle again, Charley Taylor was lost for the season with a broken shoulder. It was a cruel blow to a team in search of an identity. To many players, Charley was the Redskins.
I know the press and fans had a tough time trying to figure out what their Redskin team would be like. Believe me, at times the players were wondering themselves. We knew we had talent, but could we become a team?
We emerged from the preseason with 2-4 record. There was a sense of unsureness as we approached the league opener with the Giants. In the locker room before the start of the first game, I was still uncertain if I would start. Coach Allen walked up to me and told me he had decided to start me and that it was a very hard decision on his part. He indicated that he didn't want me to make him look bad with his choice.
Jerry Smith and I had become friends in camp. He had shown me the nuances of the Redskin offense. I've never met many people who help their competition. But through the actions of Smith, I was to learn the definitive meaning of a team, people truly working together and helping each other. He encouraged me, told me I could do the job.
We pulled that Giant game out with some last-minute heroics and left RFK that afternoon happy with a win we knew was less than decisive.
After we defeated Seattle we traveled to Philadelphia for a Monday night game against the Eagles. Now the nation would find out how far we had come or how far he had to go.
The game started at 9 p.m. and ended long after midnight, with the Redskins somehow victorious. When you win the fumble recoveries going for touchdowns and end zone interceptions, you have to feel lucky. We flew back to Dulles undefeated, but still uncertain. However, on that short flight home all I could think about was my rapidly swelling knee. Oh, how I hate that Astro Turf.
I told the team physician that my foot was firmly planted during a block when somebody hit the outside of my left knee. The way that artificial surface adheres to the shoe causes many football injuries that if sustained on grass would be less severe.
Since we played on Monday night, we had a day less to prepare for the Sunday game. I tried to play, but shortly into the first quarter, it happened again, just like in Philly, on the artificial turf.I limped off the field feeling kind of useless. As the game progressed I felt even worse. We were badly outplayed and lost, 33-7.
Now we had more doubts. Billy Kilmer was injured; and now without Kilmer or Taylor, who would be the leader? At that point, the season for both the team and myself was clearly in jeopardy.
My knee was now severely sprained and placed in a cast from ankle to hip. The next few weeks wouldn't be easy for me, but gave me time to reflect on where the team had come and where it was going.
With Kilmer injured, Joe Theismann was to start at quarterback against the Chiefs, a team that had beaten us in the last seconds during preseason. With Joe in, I knew our attack would be more pass-oriented and, as a receiver,I like that.
Theismann had a great game against the Chiefs, although we lost in the final minute on a flea-flicker. Joe added a new dimension to our offense, a moving quarterback. With his fine performance the next week against the Lions, the great debate over who should start at quarterback was in full force - around town and eventually on the team as well.
Quarterback is a natural leadership position, and a divided loyalty to individuals rather than to the team began to permeate the atmosphere of the club.
We were 4-2, the cast was finally off my leg and the team prepared for another Monday night game. This time it was the defending Eastern Conference champs, the Cardinals. Kilmer declared himself healthy enough to play, but Theismann started in the rain. He was injured and Kilmer finished up as we managed to win, boosting our record to 5-2, with Dallas coming into RFK Stadium on Sunday.
We played a tight, conservative game, and in the end, Dallas made the big plays and won. The Cowboys left town high atop the Eastern Conference, apparently Super Bowl-bound.
As we picked up the pieces, we found ourselves 5-3, heading into the last six games, five of which would be away. The playoffs looked distant.
It seemed that Kilmer never completely recovered from his injury and when Joe was sent in to finish the Dallas game the nagging question reared its ugly head: who would start the all-important San Francisco game?
There's no question about Kilmer's leadership qualities. He's been on great teams and bad ones. Kilmer has the type of personality and character that make it easy for his teammates to rally around. It's not so much in what he says, but in what he does and the way he does it.
During that long plane ride to San Francisco, everyone knew our entire season was on the line. It was coming down to one game; everyone knew it and wondered what they could do about it. We were beginning to find ourselves.
The Kilmer-Theismann controversy was a public symbol of the ambivalent attitude that pervaded the atmosphere. John Riggins had remained an enigma to most people probably because of the pressure that he felt. He was once a 1,000-yard running back; now he was blocking back and part-time ball carrier.
Anybody who watched the Monday night game between the Rams and 49ers witnessed a ferocious pass-rushing clinic by the 49ers. Both Tommy Hart and Cedrick Hardman stayed on James Harris' back all night. The public, the coaching staff and the players wondered whether our line could handle the 49ers.
On Saturday what began as an ordinary pre-game evening ended as an extraordinary session that, in my opinion, resulted in the rebirth of a team. Len Hauss, a silent but central figure, is a natural leader. He prefers to lead by performance, not words. But that night he apparently realized that wouldn't be enough.
Hauss spoke his mind. So did other players. We were all reminded of our purpose and the type of dedication and commitment that was necessary to succeed. The misery of training camp was invoked as a symbol of the price we had been paying physically. The cynical news accounts were enough to symbolize the mental abuse. We needed no help to make the playoffs; all we had to do was win the rest of our games. We always knew we were talented but . . . It was time to make this talent and desire win for us.
We prepared a special game plan to neutralize their pass rush. It would be tough if our quarterback dropped straight back, because they could zero in. So we chose to use a moving pocket to keep them off balance.
Because of injuries, that cohesion in our offensive line never completely materialized. Facing the best pass rush in the NFL, we had to roll out.If you could zero in on where the quarterback was setting up, we'd be dead. For this reason, we had to go with Theismann.
Early in the game, I cut down Hardman, hitting him low. He got up, grinned and said, "Yean, it's going to be a long day, Jean."
Theismann enabled me to have the best day in my career. Frank Grant caught 11 passes. I caught three touchdown passes. Frank would make two or three catches to get us close and I would take it in.
After I signed with the Redskins, everything I did was preparation for the day when I could come through when the team needed me, to prove my worth.
Instinct and reaction are the forces that carry most athletes although a contest. Years of practice and repetition force the two into a response originated in the subconscious. You get into a situation and boom, you're out of it so quickly that the mind hasn't had time to consciously analyze the situation, let alone to prescribe the correct course to follow.
When I am able to break open for a deep pass - as I did in San Francisco - and the ball is thrown, I feel as though I am running through a vacuum in slow motion. The ball, even through thrown high and fast, seems to be floating. I don't hear a sound. This total concentration continues until the ball is firmly secured in my grasp, banishing my darkest fear.
The moment you realize you're going to catch the ball, you instantly dread dropping it - truly a receiver's nightmare.
It was a great day for me, coming right after the tough loss to Dallas. On the way home that night I couldn't help but notice the difference in the atmosphere.
The next week, however, we were jarred back to reality in New Jersey. The Giants finally beat George Allen. How, I still don't know. We weren't playing well, to be sure, but neither were they. In fact, Norm Snead had one of the worst passing days I've ever witnessed. Theismann had some problems passing during the game. His ball was taking off and sailing, which doesn't happen often. I had chalked it up to the wind, but a few days after the game I was to find out that Joe had sustained a hip pointer, a serious injury. It was then obvious why the balls were high - he couldn't follow through. I've been unlucky enough to have had a hip pointer and it is one of the most painful injuries to play with.
The interception of Theismann in the final minute was on a roll-out option play. The running back tries to get open in the corner of the end zone, while the tight end blocks until the secondary reacts, then moves to an open area.
The key to the play is the quarterback threat to run. But judging from Theismann's drop, I think he wanted to throw, probably because he could not run due to injury. In any event, the Giants had the blitz on and it immediately destroyed the timing. Joe was forced into a scramble and ultimately into a bad play.
We had to win the rest of our games.
As we prepared for St. Louis, we knew the press and fans were preparing for our funeral. Out at Redskin Park it seemed we were the only ones who foresaw our playoff appearance.
We believed we could beat St. Louis. We had beaten them earlier in the season when not playing that well. Now we were ready.
We beat St. Louis in St. Louis, a big game. It was our intensity that enabled us to win. Mike Thomas had a fantastic day behind some exceptional blocking. We were back on the playoff track.
We then beat Philadelphia and the Jets as expected, getting us to 9-4 and a trip to Dallas. The whole season boiled down to one game. Allen's Redskins had never won in Texas Stadium.
Even though there was much public reaction to Kilmer's arrest on a drunken driving charged the night before we left for Dallas, the players accepted it much the way they accept the man involved - that's the way he is.
One veteran went as far to say, "Now I know Billy is ready."
The game started slowly, but this time we made the big plays. A few weeks earlier Bill Malinchak, who had been in New York working in commodities, had re-enlisted at Allen's request. Malinchak had made a football career as a special teamer regarded as perhaps the best punt-blocker in Redskin history.
Malinchak's block early in the game came on a designed punt return. The rush was not called; but he spotted a weakness in the Dallas alignment and exploited it. A blocked punt can be a big factor in determining the game's momentum. We rode that punt block to victory.
I was really happy for Calvin Hill, Who scored the go-ahead TD. I played with Hill during some of his most productive NFL years when he was with the Cowboys. It's not easy being substitute and practice player after you've been a No. 1. But Calvin, much to his credit, is a pro and accepted his role. HIll still has some great seasons left and I know he would like them to be with the Redskins. But mostly, I think he wants to be on the field; not on somebody's bench.
The sense of accomplishment that was shared in the locker room that evening by the players was more of a triumph over ourselves than a reply to our critics. We had been able to come together as a team, to overcome our doubts about each other and, more important, our doubts about ourselves.
This is pro football at its best for the player. The playoff check is really appreciated, but soon spent. The memory of that triumph lingers, a constant reminder of what can be accomplished when different individuals act as one.