Neal Olkewicz grew up in Pennsylvania rooting for the then downtrodden Philadelphia Eagles. He was such a dedicated fan that he can even remember watching veteran center Guy Morriss block against middle linebackers.
Now Olkewicz has changed his allegiance. Since the redskins began paying his salary, he's become a Washington loyalist. And he'll be trying today, as his team's new middle linebacker, to handle not only Morriss but halfback Wilbert Montgomery.
Montgomery, a standout runner on normal days, plays like the reincarnation of Jim Thorpe anytime he spots a Redskin uniform. He has gained 339 yards and scored nine touchdowns in the last three games against Washington, including four TDs in a 28-17 romp two weeks ago in Philadelphia.
For Washington to have any chance of beating the Eagles today before another sellout crowd in RFK Stadium (1 p.m., WDVM-TV-9), the Redskins acknowledge they must somehow cut Montgomery down to human proportions.
"If we can't stop him, they can do just about what they want to do on offense," said Olkewicz, the rookie free agent from Maryland who is getting his first pro start. "I'm sure they will keep using him until we show we can handle him. Why not? It would be crazy to move away from what is working well for you.
Olkewicz played only on special teams two weeks ago when Don Hover, still the team's leading tackler, was the starting middle linebacker. But Olkewicz won the spot last Sunday when he was credited with 14 tackles against Cleveland.
His promotion comes at a time when the Redskins have launched a crusade for today's game. Coach Jack Pardee has likened the contest to a showdown with the hated Dallas Cowboys and even warmed things up a bit with a blast at what he called the Eagles' "blatant holding tactics" on running plays.
It is an important contest for both clubs. Philadelphia, 6-1, is tied with Dallas for the NFC East Division lead while Washington, 5-2, is a game back. The Redskins, coming off a 3-1 road trip, want to ride the momentum built up from that surprising showing and further help their playoff chances with a triumph against what has been a superior opponent.
Practices were closed during the week at Redskin Park as the team worked on special defenses to control Montgomery and force quarterback Ron Jaworski to pass against the Redskins' major defensive strength, its secondary.
From this cloak and dagger atmosphere has emerged two feelings within the squad. One is that Philadephia embarrassed the club so badly in their first meeting that the Eagles didn't even have to use all of their offense. The second is that the Redskins will have to play near-perfect football while forcing the Eagles to make mistakes to have any chance of winning.
Philadelphia so dominated that contest two weeks ago, it seems ludicrous the Redskins should be as much as 3-point favorites today.
The Eagles moved the ball with ease, using Harold Carmichael as a wingback to overwhelm the right side of the Washington defensive line. And when Jaworski chose to pass -- he did so only 12 times -- he had uncanny accuracy.
Washington is sure to do some maneuvering with its right defensive side in an attempt to slow Montgomery. One change already has been dictated with an injury to linebacker Rich Milot. Pete Wysocki is scheduled to start in his spot. And Pardee will mix in reserve linemen Paul Smith and Perry Brooks and secondary man Tony Peters to bolster the running defense.
If Olkewicz can turn in a solid performance, some of Pardee's problems would be solved and it would allow the Redskins to play a more standard defense. Despite having to start his first pro game against such a competent opponent, Olkewicz says he isn't feeling the pressure.
"People keep saying I should be nervous," Olkewicz said with a laugh. "But I'm not; I'm just anxious. I've spent most of the week preparing myself more than anything.I've watched Montgomery on film and all but with a guy like him, there are no secrets. You just have to be able to tackle him."
Bad tackling plagued Washington in th first meeting. The Redskins tried to arm-tackle Montgomery, and couldn't.
But the Eagle offensive line was just as much a thorn to Pardee's players.
That unit overpowered Washington's front four, and Philadelphia was able to control the clock.
Jaworski is limping on a bad ankle and that could hinder his team as well as himself. But his Redskin counterpart, Joe Theismann, thinks it is more important if Washington's offense has a consistent day.
"We've got to put together a lot of long, time-consuming drives," he said. "What they do is sit back, let you make mistakes and then come out and keep the ball forever on offense. We can't let them do that.They didn't have a turnover last game."
This may not be the last meeting of the season between these teams. Both are major contenders for the two wild-card spots in the NFC, and that could mean a rematch in late December in the playoffs.
"They really handled us the last time," said safety Ken Houston. "They did it easily and we know it. But that just makes you more determined to change things around. We overpursued a bit and we arm-tackled too much. Those are things you can correct."
Pardee said that he expects Joe Lavender, who missed much practice this week because of a bruised knee, to start at cornerback and tight end Jean Fugett to play as much as his injured knee allows.