Back in April, Diron Talbert took inventory of his body, running down a checklist of the parts.
You do that a lot when you get to be an old football player. The kids don't think about it. They have flat bellies and limber backs. All they do is get out of bed and go knock down a building.
As a guy's sideburns turn distinguished gray, however, the parts of his body demand constant surveillance and maintence. Anything can let loose at anytime . So at 36 with 13 NFL seasons behind him, Diron Talbert no longer knocks down buildings without first asking all his parts if it's all right with them.
A rookie's big problems in April is what color Mercedes to buy. When you're 36 and you've had a knee operation the year before, when you've had suregons scraping around in both shoulders, when you ask the wife to hoist you out of bed because your back is still stiff a month after the season has ended -- when you are Diron Talbert, what you do in April is get permission from your body to do it harm again.
"Come April, you're about over the last season" Talbert said, "and you start thinking about camp. Me, I asked myself questions. Was I keeping my weight up? Were my legs spongy or were they still strong? How'd my shoulders feel?"
A cowboy-handsome devil with those gray sideburns framing a squinting-into-the-sunset face, Talbert leaned against the locker room wall and said, "And after you check out your body, you ask yourself if it's still fun to play. If it's not, then it's time to quit."
So there is good news for Diron Talbert fans. And there is better news.
The good news is that in April the old man's knees and back and shoulders shouted as a chours that they wanted to get in a few more licks for the good ol' burgundy and gold.
The better news is that the old man can still play.
Not the way he used to.Not the all-day-long way of his youth a decade ago, when George Allen brought Talbert with him from the Rams to the Redskins. Wherever his brown sideburns went, that's where Diron Talbert's time as a building-destroyer has gone.
He is now a part-timer, Jack Pardee used a kid, Perry Brooks, 25, on passing situations because Brooks is better than Talbert at the pass rush. Talbert shares the rest of the work with another old hand, Paul Smith, 36. So there are now three men doing the work a young Diron Talbert did all by himself.
"I told Diron the other day that in this year's camp he has looked the best he had in the last three camps," said Doc Urich, the Resdkins defensive coordinator. "We changed the defensive system when we came here (two seasons ago) and Diron has learned our techniques and responsibilities.
A lot of old guys would never do that. It's like pulling teeth with some veterans to get them to change. But not Diron.
"He's not the biggest guy, not the strongest, not the quickest, but he's having a really good camp. And I tell you this: Talby knows how to win. He's a great leader for this team."
As the erstwhile "Over the Hill Gang" of Kilmer, Hauss, McDole & Co. was shunted into retirement by the new Pardee-Bobby Beathard leadership, only Diron Talbert survived the purge of what Allen's successors at the top judged to be aging troublemakers who could no longer play well enough to offset the friction they produced on the team.
Perhaps alone among the veterans who worked so long for Allen, Talbert was able to transfer his loyalty to the bridge between the eras, his continuing presence and effort a symbol to the remaining veterans that George Allen was not the only football coach in America.
"There's more than one way to skin a cat," Talbert said. "George had his way, Jack has his way. We were a veteran group with George and we didn't have the speed these kids do today; not the strength, either. But the key to us winning with George was not to make mistakes. If anybody made a mistake, he wanted to kick himself in the rear. And that's the same key for the Redskins of 1980 -- to be a championship team, don't make mistakes."
In the dusk of a career that has been brilliant with the sunshine of victory -- "I've never played on a losing team, and my won-lost record has to be as good as any player in football" -- Diron Talbert makes the speeches of a locker room elder statesman.
It would be wonderful to be a full-time defensive tackle, Talbert says, but he is happy with the current arrangement. "I'm working for these people," he said. "They're not working for me. I'm willing to do whatever they want me to do. Hell, my only goal is to help the 1980 Redskins do a good job and perform as well as I can at my age."
Such a diplomat is the graying Diron Talbert that, when asked about fugitive fullback John Riggins, the tackle makes it perfectly clear that he believes both sides have good cases. Get the money before they forget about you. Talbert says. But the franchise can't have everybody walking out to get a better contract, Talbert says.
"Whatever is going on," Talbert finally said, the passion in his voice now that of a football warrior, "we gotta get Riggins back. He's too important to this team."
The football warrior in Diron Talbert is ready for the season-opener too.
The Dallas Cowboys come to Washington Sept. 8.
For much of the 1970s Talbert insulted the Cowboys at every opportunity. When Roger Staubach retired, someone asked the magic quarterback if he would miss Diron Talbert. "Who?" Staubach replied sweetly.
"We'll really be riled up for the Cowboys," Talbert said. "And we have to be. They're a good club. And you don't ever want to be chasing Dallas. We'd be one game behind right off the bat. Sure, they've got problems, but they'll be hard as hell to beat. It's just a shame you can't play every week with the intensity you have against the Cowboys."
How tame, Diron.
How soft on the cursed cowpokes you are.
Is this the Diron Talbert who came to camp last year without so much as a brace on his repaired knee? This guy is tough. Diron Talbert never tapes up little hurts, the sore shoulders and banged-up ankles. Diron Talbert drops by the training room to heckle the ladies tending to their bruises. This Diron Talbert won't declare 1980 his final season because come next April maybe his body will be ready again. ("What goes up must come down," Talbert says, adding with a sly grin, "but nobody says when.")
How gentle on the Cowboys is this tough guy today. How come?
Well, Talbert's construction company has built two new hotels in Dallas and Diron hopes some Texans go stay in those hotels. So he's not going to insult the Cowboys too bad. Wouldn't want to turn off any potential customers.
"When you're in Cowboy country, Talbert said, "you select your words very carefully. Let me just say that playing the Cowboys will be a lot of fun."
The smile that spread across the brown wrinkled plains of his Texas face was the sweet smile of a kid about to go knock down a building.