The Christmas tree is still up in Art Monk's living room, among the unwrapped presents still scattered on the floor. It is a sturdy tree and it stands its ground in the corner of the room, an unconscious attempt perhaps to prolong the season past.
"You know," Monk says, "I'm not the star on the top of the tree. Of course, we don't have one." He laughs. "I'm more like the bulb, one of the ornaments."
He is sitting in the darkening room on a gloomy afternoon in an all-black track suit. It seems superfluous to ask how he feels about spending this afternoon at home with no game to play except those with his children. He is expecting the question. He looks off into space the way he did last Sunday as he watched the Redskins' season dwindle away. The television cameras lingered on his face, studying its intensity. As usual, Monk betrayed nothing.
He was thinking about the season, how precarious it had been. Monk was a constant in a year of injury and change. Each time during the regular season when the Redskins needed him to be open, he was -- 106 times, to be precise, a new National Football League record. Sitting on the sideline late Sunday afternoon, he dreamed of making one more catch. He thought of Doug Flutie and other miraculous endings he had seen. He saw himself winning the game.
There were eight seconds left when the Redskins got the ball back from the Bears, time enough for a fling and a prayer -- two, actually, both aimed for Monk. They call the play the Rocket.
"I'm in the middle between Calvin Muhammad and Clint Didier," he says. "The ball is supposed to go to me. They're supposed to hang close on either side of me in case the ball gets tipped. The object is to get down field as far as possible. But Joe didn't have time for us to get there. We had two chances. The last one, when it was intercepted, the lifeline was just cut."
Monk downed cornerback Mike Richardson to end the game. "I see the season just ending," he says, replaying the moment in his mind. "There's nothing else to say and nothing else to do but just go home."
Which is what he did. Instead of dinner at a posh downtown Chinese restaurant, there was General Tso's chicken from a local take-out joint. Winners argue over the check. Losers get one from column A and one from column B.
It has been a strange, wistful week. He still has the Pro Bowl to play but that seems a long time off. Still, he wants to be in shape. He works out at Redskin Park every day. "You walk into the empty building," he says. "It's quiet. Usually, there's so much noise, everyone laughing, clowning, having fun, complaining about meetings and practice. You just get an empty feeling inside because it's over. And you know you were so close to still being alive."
Monk says he doesn't want to be like some athletes who allow the game to rule their lives. "I don't want a life where it's football, football, football," he says.
But his language betrays him when he talks about "still being alive." In some ways, the end of this season may have been crueler for him than for others on the team. The residual disappointment of having missed the Super Bowl the Redskins won two years ago has stayed with him, motivated him. He did not grow up dreaming of playing in the NFL.
In college, he wasn't sure he was good enough to be a professional. He was planning to go out and get a job (in advertising) like everyone else in his class. He never expected to be a No. 1 draft choice. "He really wasn't as interested as I thought someone in his position would be," his friend and college teammate, Brian Ishman, says. "He wasn't flattered."
He played because he loved the game, because it paid the bills. He was dedicated but not consumed. Until he was hurt in the final regular-season game in 1982 against the St. Louis Cardinals, trying to make a diving catch. He had never been hurt before, never missed a practice before. In an instant, the veneer of invulnerability that distinguishes the most gifted athletes was gone. He was hurt again the following year. "It was like being rich all your life and suddenly being poor," Monk says.
"The injuries the last two years were the best thing for him," says former Redskins player Terry Metcalf, who has remained a friend and neighbor. "It made him work harder than he wanted to work . . . As a young athlete, coming into the NFL, you never think you're going to get hurt. It's like: 'I signed an NFL contract. They'll take care of me.' The injury opened up his eyes. This ain't guaranteed. I think that's why he's had the season he's had."
Monk does not quarrel with the assessment. "What was driving me was I missed out on the first Super Bowl," he says. "I got a chance to play in the second but we lost so badly that it left a bad taste in all our mouths. I wanted to get back to the Super Bowl and win one so I could feel like I've really accomplished something."
As opposed to breaking Charley Hennigan's old record for the most receptions (101) in a single season? He shrugs. He's proud, sure. The ball he caught to set the record has gone on to the Hall of Fame.
"For a whole week, I was almost scared that I was not going to do it," Monk says. "I was saying, 'What will people think if I don't? What if I get in there and am a nervous wreck?' That's what I was thinking when I dropped that long pass. The first three or four, I was counting. But it was getting to be a close ball game. I didn't think about the record. I didn't realize what was going on until the referee called me over and said, 'Congratulations. I think you broke some kind of a record.' "
He finished the regular season with 106 receptions for 1,372 yards and seven touchdowns. His mother says they have never talked about what the record means to him. "I'm just not a braggart," Lela Monk says. "There's some record broken every day."
They don't keep statistics for how many of those catches were made the hard way, coming across the middle, as they say in football, where so many lesser, more fragile receivers fear to tread. Charley Taylor, the receiver to whom he is most often compared, says, "He's a cross between Billy Dee (Williams), Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar."
Washington reveres its Redskins. The town could be his. The thought has never crossed his mind. Don't count on seeing him swagger into Duke Zeibert's this winter. As for the rubber-chicken circuit, well, he's got one personal appearance lined up. He plans to take his first vacation since high school and manage the Redskins' basketball team while his lawyer, Rick Bennett, works out an extension of his contract with the Redskins. He signed six one-year contracts as a rookie, the last of which would pay him $190,000 for the 1985 season. "After the college all-star games, we'll get everything done," says Bobby Beathard, Redskins general manager. "We're not going to let this guy get away.
"He would be a terrible guy to have to negotiate a contract with and have a knock-down, drag-out battle with. He wins you over."
In a beer-drinking, breast-beating, braggadocio world, Monk is an anomaly: quiet, self-deprecating, reserved. He just doesn't fit the football-player image. "Maybe," his wife Desiree says, "it's time to change the image."
They met in college at Syracuse. "I remember the day we met, I asked him if he played a lot," Desiree says. "He just laughed. He was the star of the team."
His college quarterback, Bill Hurley, says he can't remember ever hearing Monk curse. Monk only started spiking the ball in the end zone because kids who asked for his autograph told him he was boring. His teammates had to talk him into joining the Fun Bunch.
"I'm always reminded of Joe DiMaggio, who was as quiet and reclusive as Art is," says Jack Kent Cooke, the team's owner. "Here was a quiet, gentlemanly man who spoke in sub-tones. He reminds me of Art."
Silence is often mistaken for something it's not: arrogance, standoffishness. He says his wife gets angry at him for being so quiet. He likes to observe. This makes other people nervous.
"I sometimes get the impression that people don't think I'm bright because I'm quiet," Monk says.
In high school, he was good at art and music. His father's first cousin was Thelonious Monk, the jazz pianist. Monk moves to his own rhythm. "I've seen too many other people, not just in sports, but other friends, and whenever something happens that's a big change in their lives, then the person changed," he says. "We were never friends anymore. Their whole attitude changed, the way they treated me and other people. I never liked that. I always said to myself I was never going to be that way.
"Some athletes on other teams I've gotten to meet, they're so cocky and arrogant. They're always bragging on how well they do this and that. Not just sports but businesses they have. That just turns me off."
Which is not to say he is without an ego. Ego drives you to go across the middle. "Everyone has an ego or they'd be a vegetable," says his wife, who had a minor in psychology.
Because he has an ego, his mind drifts back to RFK Stadium and all the ifs, ands and buts of the season. In those moments when the children aren't screaming and the telephone isn't ringing, he is back on the sidelines, thinking about "all the other times we had come so close and had pulled it out," about "how we started off losing two and won the next five and everyone thought we were going to fold and we didn't" and about "how close we came and what we could have done better.
"We had gone to two Super Bowls. I think we were all kind of spoiled and just expected to go again. Not that we didn't work hard.
"But just being a human being, maybe you overlook things, or not work as hard as you should, or take things for granted."
So the season leaves him with resolve and disappointment. And that, he says, "will stay with me until we start playing again."