Following yesterday's practice at Redskins Park, Darrell Green trudged off the field alongside the other defensive backs -- younger defensive backs -- before showering and changing into his dress clothes. For the past two decades, every face in the ritual -- from the players to coaches -- has changed except for Green's.
When the 42-year-old cornerback suffered a hip flexor after breaking up a potential touchdown pass against the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 25, the possibility it was a season-ending injury served as a reminder that Green will finally retire.
The last of his 20 seasons has been especially disappointing for Green. After entering the year with grand goals, the Redskins are all but eliminated from the playoffs and Green's reserve role has been further reduced.
"A capital 'D,' as in disappointment," Green said of the Redskins' 5-7 record.
And at least one Redskins player, like so many others in the organization, hopes that his teammates will use the final four games to provide a bit of glimmer.
"I hope that every guy on this team -- if you can't find any other reason to play other than the love of the game -- gives a little more push for [Green]," linebacker Eddie Mason said. "Because I really want to see him go out on a high note."
But it will be difficult to use Green's impending departure as motivation starting Sunday against the New York Giants at FedEx Field. Although thoughts of retirement flood Green's mind -- "I've thought about it a lot" -- the cornerback chooses to remain the quintessential team player until the end. "I haven't made a big deal of it, particularly around them," said Green, who will turn 43 on Feb. 15. "We have to stay focused and try to win."
The Redskins will have to win without Green playing a key role on the field for the first time since being selected by the Redskins in the 1983 draft out of Texas A&I. During the 20-17 victory over the Rams, Green was replaced by Rashad Bauman as the nickel back -- the third cornerback in passing situations. And Coach Steve Spurrier will use the final four games largely to evaluate younger, inexperienced players.
Even with those moves, Green is so intertwined with the franchise that many players haven't looked at this season as his final, final one. They poke fun at Green, dubbing him the "Godfather," yet note that he remains one of the fastest players on the team. So when Redskins players bring up the "r" word, it's to declare that Green will never retire.
"It hasn't really hit us yet," said safety David Terrell, in his third season with the Redskins, echoing teammates. "We're still going about it as if he's going to be here another 20 years. This guy is still young at heart.
"He's still running around like a kid. I don't think it's actually going to hit us until maybe that last game -- or after that last game. We're thinking about it but at the same time we're going to have a deeper, sorrowful feeling once he's actually gone."
Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins' assistant general manager who has been part of the organization since 1960, agreed: "The anticipation has been there but it's something that just doesn't stay with you day after day. Darrell to most of us is home-boy. You just expect to see him."
On Sept. 4, 2001, Green announced that he was leaving that season, as the cornerback increased awareness in the Darrell Green Youth Foundation, which he started in 1988 to benefit the underprivileged. But in December 2001, Green announced that he would return for one more season. The announcement came one day after Green intercepted a pass against Donovan McNabb in a 20-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, giving Green at least one pick for the 19th consecutive season, an NFL record.
"We tell him it's not his last year," cornerback Champ Bailey said yesterday, "because he's said before he's going to retire but it hasn't happened. So we're going to keep giving him a hard time."
But Green insists that he is serious this time.
"I am gone," Green said. "I will never play pro football again. But I will take a million memories."
One memory that Green won't cherish occurred is last week's 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, extending the Redskins' losing streak to 10 against their NFC East rivals. Green was fully recovered from the hip flexor. So it was the first time in Green's career that he was active and didn't play. And the experience especially stung coming against the Cowboys in his home state.
The coaching staff hadn't told Green that he was being replaced at nickel back, a gesture often given to veterans. But this week, Marvin Lewis explained to Green that the defensive coordinator intended to use the cornerback but the Cowboys' unexpected scheme forced him to stay with Bauman.
"I was in at least two packages of defense [to be used]," Green said. "For us to go and put our packages in, the team [Dallas] has to do what we expect them to do.
"I felt an incredible pain in my heart but the reality of it is there was no negligence on anyone in this organization's part."
Although the season is all but lost, Green can set some personal achievements, such as making an interception for the 20th season. (He came close twice.) But Green plays down the significance of those marks, and doesn't want any obligatory minutes the rest of the way.
"Don't do me any favors; don't patronize me," Green said. "I'm not looking for that and they are not doing that. I've already played more plays than any player in the history of this team. I'm not driven by records. I'm more driven by wins."
Teammates are used to Green's selflessness. After being named a starter his rookie season, Green didn't become a reserve until 2000, when Deion Sanders was signed to play alongside Bailey. Sanders retired after one season, but when the Redskins selected Fred Smoot in the 2001 draft, then-coach Marty Schottenheimer made the rookie a starter. Green didn't hesitate to give pointers to Smoot the same the veteran has done with Bauman.
"He helped me learn the small stuff," Smoot remembered. "He really guided me. He didn't mind teaching me. He didn't mind watching me blossom."
Green still shows his leadership, prodding teammates to stay focused on winning the final four games. When media criticism mounted against Spurrier, and running back Stephen Davis publicly questioned the coach's play calling, Green and Bruce Smith called the first players-only meeting of the year.
Teammates say that those qualities by the "silent leader" will be missed next season.
His final game is against the Cowboys at FedEx Field. And Green's retirement will surely be on everyone's mind.
"I know when the end of the season comes," Mason said, "there'll be some tears shed to see the old [number] 28 getting his stuff together, and getting up out of here."