Somewhere between a mouthful of candied yams and an overzealous salting of his watermelon and rump roast, Marcus Gilbert was called on by the group of venerable, veteran Redskins to stand on his chair and sing his school's alma mater. "But I don't know it," he objected. "I tell you, I don't know it."
Gilbert, a rookie running back drafted in the ninth round out of Texas Christian, dropped his fork and sipped his Hi-C. All during camp, he'd prepared for this day, when newcomers trying to find a home among the old-timers bowed to yet another NFL tradition and made buffoons of themselves.
Charlie Brown, the veteran wide receiver, wanted a Michael Jackson tune. "Billie Jean" or the flip side. Somebody else, his voice as abrupt and final as a slammed kitchen door, shouted for Frankie Beverly and Maze. Gilbert gave them both, as best he could, though terribly and not without bringing howls from the entire assembly of veterans, rookies and coaches.
"I had worried and worried about how they'd accept my singing," Gilbert said. "But I wasn't up to par. They told me to sit down."
Back when he was called on to stand and sing for the veterans, Steve Booker, a free agent from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, had a different roommate. That one left in the dead of the night, a proper cover for one tossed suddenly into the ranks of the unemployed, and returned home to a new wife and a life without football. For Booker, the world was different then. There were fewer empty lockers and a longer line at the training table. "The Turk," the guise that the team's assistant general manager, Charles Casserly, hides behind when stripping the fat off the Redskins' roster, was less frequent in his rounds.
"Imagine this," said Booker, a linebacker. "Imagine waking up at 6:15 Monday morning and hearing footsteps down the hall, strange footsteps. Then you hear keys jingling and a door open, then close. Then you hear the footsteps again and the keys again. The door opens next door. You tell yourself, 'He's gone. I'm next.' Then the key hits the lock across the hall, then the room next to yours. You're sitting up in bed. Waiting. Waiting. And wondering: Who's next? Am I next?"
Darrell Green, a defensive back drafted in the first round from Texas A&I, said it was "wild, the way it works. You walk to the practice field and some of the faces you saw yesterday, you just won't see today."
Green prays about the heartless struggle that is training camp, and he reads his Bible. On Sunday, after church service, he goes fishing with a local kid and gives his mind a break while begging baby trout onto his line. Or he stays home, pulls down the shade and tries to sleep. "There's never enough time to sleep here in camp," Green said. "And there's never enough time to praise the Lord."
Green and his roommate, running back Richard Williams, a second-round pick, discuss the possibilities that could separate them forever. While most rookies who are released leave without notice to their teammates, Green and Williams promised each other that if one of them were cut, he would tell the other before taking I-81 out of Carlisle. "It's important to say goodbye," Green said. "And it's a little promise we made."
Kevin Cole, a running back from San Jose State, told Gilbert goodbye one morning at 6:45. Gilbert looked at his clock, saw the time and felt it burn a mark on his mind. A quarter to seven. It was like the Grim Reaper burning that moment into his mind, it hurt so much. They shook hands and exchanged phone numbers. "If ever you're in Dallas," Gilbert said, "give me a call. Maybe we could do something."
"I graduated in June, a business degree," Booker said. "I interviewed with Procter & Gamble and accepted a job with them. They told me I could still work for the company if I didn't make it . . . There's really no security in football. It's deceiving. When you look at the roster, you see how many people started elsewhere and somehow ended up here."
Still, when you're a rookie and training camp is a montage of red and gold moments lost to a fight for one spot in 45 on the Redskins' roster, you try not to think of yourself as a low-class citizen in a high and mighty town. The press hangs out by the field house, begging quotes from Theismann and Mr. D, and when you get to the hurricane fence giving you exit from that crazy world of bad egos and big spirits, a kid in aviator shades wants you to sign his sister's arm.
"When you're a rookie," said Vic Vines, a free agent safety from Baylor, "you play these games with yourself. You come in knowing that your chances are a little slim and you try to figure out what the coaches are going to do and where you stand with them. Will I be cut? Will I be placed on injured reserve? You go up and you come down. It's natural to be depressed. You have so much to prove."
And there are folks at home. They send post cards and letters saying the Johnson kid at the grocery asked about you and when are you going to be on TV. Sometimes they draw your picture in a Redskin uniform. It's hokey, silly. Kid stuff. You're a stick man wearing shoulder pads. The postscript says to call soon.
"I need to hear from my family and friends back home," Booker said. "They really help me out, sending all those cards and letters. My phone bill's going to be high. But it's important I keep in touch with folks on the outside."