Some things Dan McQuaid believes in; others he lets go.
He used to say you don't stop trying for something you want until you know for sure there's no way of getting it, and he still believes this to be true. "Whatever came easy?" he'll ask over a burger and beer someplace. "You tell me whatever came easy."
And he'll say, "My life's been in turmoil ever since college," and he'll laugh a little because it's the right thing to do when you're 25 years old and sort of tired and let down and looking to set things straight, or just looking back over the past five years and trying to make sense of it all.
The other day against Dallas at RFK Stadium, before a national television audience that saw him yield five quarterback sacks to Cowboys defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, Dan McQuaid remembered something he'd almost forgotten about himself. McQuaid, who plays offensive tackle for the Washington Redskins, remembered "that a guy, no matter how good he may be, can beat me a hundred times and I'd still get up off the ground and come back in his face."
He'll tell you it was a damned hard lesson to pick up on again, and that he'd hoped for a better day. This was, as he puts it, his "biggest and best shot," his chance to show his friends and family back home in Sacramento, Calif., that he'd made out pretty good for himself, that he was a pro, a starter in the National Football League.
"I wanted it to go so much better," McQuaid said. "But it's over now. From what I saw on film, I never got knocked down. He didn't completely overpower me. Most of the time, he was rocking me back and I was trying to cover up, which put me out of position.
"By the end of the game, I was frustrated because I didn't know how to stop him. He was bull-rushing me and getting underneath me while I tried to get inside. I kept saying to myself, 'I've got to stop him, I've got to stop him.' That's when I forgot about my technique and really got in trouble.
"It's behind me. I'm not a quitter. And I'm not the kind of person to break down over something like this."
Jeffcoat, who was named NFC player of the week yesterday, said, "People shouldn't get down on Dan McQuaid. He's a good ballplayer, and he did all right. It was probably my best day as a professional, the kind of day Ed Jones and Randy White kept telling me I had the potential to have. All this year, I'd been putting pressure on quarterbacks. I just finally got on track. But it wasn't Dan McQuaid's fault. Sometimes you're gonna have a really good day and sometimes you're not."
McQuaid started in place of all-pro Joe Jacoby, who has missed almost four full games with a sprained right knee and probably will not play against the New York Giants Monday night. But that McQuaid started at all is just short of incredible, considering the struggles he's had to endure to find a place in the league. The Redskins acquired McQuaid on Aug. 24, in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams, the club he'd signed with as a free agent in 1984 after an unheralded career at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Although he feels a deep burn whenever pressed to look back on those days, McQuaid is not ashamed to admit that he didn't even start most of his senior year in college. He says the reason is simple: a new coach, Harvey Hyde, figured several changes needed to be made to pick up the program. McQuaid says he was one of those changes and knew what was coming even before the start of August practice, when a junior college transfer stood in his place for a picture of the starting offensive team.
He ended up starting five of 11 games and played mostly on special teams. These days, he says, he never stops to wonder why he chose to stick it out, hard as it was. He just always knew it would be worth it, it would be worth every minute of sacrifice. He had gotten married as a junior, when he was only 20, and not long after, he and his wife Susan had a baby girl. They named her Jilian, and McQuaid still keeps her picture in his billfold, although he hardly ever sees her anymore.
"I've been married and divorced already," he said. "I guess my wife never saw my future playing football like I did. I knew what I wanted to be, even then, though hardly anybody else did. She wanted me to quit the team when things were bad. She thought I should quit school and get a job, but I basically said no, I wouldn't.
"I was getting about $400 a month on scholarship. For a while, she worked, but she soon quit. We couldn't afford much. We couldn't go out all the time and buy clothes or eat at restaurants, but nobody wore rags and nobody went hungry.
"I think what happened, she expected something from me that I couldn't give. And I don't think she knew what football meant in my life."
After his first training camp with the Rams, he weighed less than 240 pounds, much too light for a position dominated by 300-pounders. He had a slight back sprain and the Rams decided to put him on the injured reserve list, allowing him to remain with the club and work to get bigger. He remembers, "The coach said, 'Your job this year is to weigh 300 pounds.' "
After reporting at 6-feet-7 and 270 pounds, he thought he'd looked good in camp this year, and he knew he could contribute to the team. Then came the trade. "I'd heard about the Hogs," he said, "about all these 300-pound guys. But when I got out here, they all looked to be about 6 feet tall. They looked like porkers, you know. You look at 'em and wonder if they can play but when they get out there it's unbelievable."
Who can say if he's really a Hog yet, if he'll ever be, if the Hogs even exist anymore? He plays offensive tackle for the Washington Redskins and lives in an apartment in Reston. He makes about $60,000 a year but probably would play for free, although this is what he does for work now; this is his living.
What he wants is to make Northern Virginia his home. After he works out a new contract after the season, he hopes to buy about 10 acres of land out in the country and have a house built. He pretty much has the floor plan already figured out in his head, and he said he "won't stop trying for something I want until I know for sure that there's no way I can get it."
Which is what he's always said. And that reminds him of something. "I never got anything easy. If there was anything I really wanted, I had to work for it. I love my dad, but he would always give me the things I wanted second-best, and I had to work if I wanted anything better.
"I was thinking about that the other day when I talked to my little girl on the phone. It was before the Dallas game, and she said, 'Daddy, are you gonna be on TV?' And I said I would be. Then she said, 'Will you wave at me?' And I said, 'Sure, baby, I'll wave at you.' Then I tried to explain that I don't really know when the camera's on me . . . I told her I'd be busy working. But I don't think she understood."