Renaldo Wynn sat in the last of six seats at the burgundy table the Washington Redskins use for games of dominoes during down time at Redskins Park. As Wynn prepared to play, defensive tackle Daryl Gardener ambled over from his locker room stall a few feet away, with a scowl that was especially terrifying on the face of one of the most gargantuan players in the NFL.
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound defensive tackle stood over Wynn and boomed in a tone that seemed to come out of a loudspeaker: "Get up off the seat, punk! This is my table. I'm about to play dominoes. Now, get up off the table!"
The locker room turned quiet. Wynn is only three inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Gardener, but he was fazed nonetheless, knowing Gardener's reputation for being domineering and disruptive. He stammered before a teammate said to Gardener: "What's up with you?"
Gardener finally flashed a toothy smile: "Man, I'm just joking." The locker room exploded with laughter as Wynn exhaled, belatedly joining the giggles.
"He's always trying to get you with a bully move," Wynn said this week, smiling. "And then he'll catch you off guard and go: 'Oh dawg, I'm just playing.' He knows his reputation. So he just tries to get you with it. You have to learn not to take him serious."
After an ominous start, the Redskins have learned that Gardener, 29, is a stark contrast to the image generated before the club ostensibly took a risk in signing him last summer after six seasons with the Miami Dolphins. And as the 5-8 Redskins play out the string of their third straight season without a winning record -- facing the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at Veterans Stadium -- Gardener's performance has been one of the few positive notes.
"I'm doing the same thing I did in Miami," said Gardener, who chose the Redskins over the Denver Broncos partly because his home town is Baltimore. "So it's kind of interesting."
When Gardener was cut by Miami, Coach Dave Wannstedt hinted at recalcitrant behavior. Back problems, which had forced him to miss 14 games over two seasons, made some NFL teams leery of pursuing him.
Gardener -- who signed a one-year deal with $1.8 million with incentives -- has been listed as probable or questionable throughout the season because of his back problems. But he has missed just one game and garnered consideration for the Pro Bowl. He also has emerged as one of the most popular Redskins in the locker room while displaying leadership through passionate play. So Gardener's new teammates express puzzlement at the perception of the tackle before he joined the Redskins.
"I'd heard some things that he might have had some problems in Miami," safety Sam Shade said. "But I really didn't talk to any of the players from Miami. I'd read some stuff where people that supposedly know football said he was this or that.
"But man, he's been great. You ask any guy on this team, and they'll tell you he has a positive attitude, he's hardworking, and he's made plays."
Wynn agreed: "I never judge a book by its cover. I've heard all the stories and everything. But the media, what they portrayed him as in Miami, I don't know, maybe that was a different Daryl. I know right now he's a great guy to be around, a great locker room guy, one of the leaders on the defense."
At first, Gardener's acquisition appeared doomed by back woes that had truncated his previous two seasons while seemingly putting his career in jeopardy. He missed three preseason games because of back spasms, and his grouchy demeanor seemed to confirm past reports. When his back kept him out of Game 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles, defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis told reporters Gardener's health the rest of the season was a bonus.
But the 37-7 loss to the Eagles is the only game Gardener has missed this season. Gardener already has participated in the most snaps of his career, partly because of Lewis's system. In Miami, defensive tackles were regularly rotated; under Lewis, Gardener is seldom removed from games. And if the seventh-year tackle plays in the final four games, it will mark his most games since the 1999 season. The Redskins have made resigning Gardener a priority and are negotiating with his agent, Neil Schwartz.
"I told everybody my back was fine," said Gardener, a Pro Bowl alternate in 1999. "It wasn't going to be any more worries. The only problem I had was in the beginning of the season, which was due to not having much of an offseason to rehab."
On Sept. 15, 2000, Gardener underwent surgery to remove a fragment of herniated lumbar disk and missed six games, ending a streak of playing in 66 straight NFL games. Following a strong start last season, Gardener underwent another back surgery on Nov. 24, 2001, and missed eight games. The Dolphins had planned to move him to defensive end to lessen pressure on his back.
After signing with the Redskins, Gardener underwent an injection procedure called a facet block that appears to have stabilized his back. Cortisone was injected into a joint in Gardener's back to alleviate the pain.
"It basically controlled the mechanical pain that he was having," said Gerard Varlotta, Gardener's personal physician. "Now with the reduction of inflammation, he has less pain."
Schwartz said there are lingering concerns about Gardener's back. "I know it's there, but I think the back at this point is really a non-issue or should be a non-issue."
If anything has been a non-issue, it's Gardener's attitude in the locker room. Redskins coaches say when he first joined the team, his demeanor was brusque as his back problems flared while trying to learn a new system. But eventually, Gardener thawed, revealing a sunny disposition.
"Maybe he didn't know as many people earlier," said Coach Steve Spurrier, who considers Gardener one of the team's leaders. "Once we got to know Daryl, he's become a little more friendly and everybody is comfortable being around him. We probably didn't know him very well at the beginning."
Midway through the season, Shade lost his starting job to safety Ifeanyi Ohalete before suffering a serious neck injury that may end his NFL career. Gardener pulled Shade aside for extensive conversations that included spirituality and life beyond the NFL. "It wasn't just about football," Shade said. "He really seems to care about teammates. It's genuine."
Defensive tackle Delbert Cowsette was on the bubble before making the roster. Gardener has worked with Cowsette, a second-year player out of Maryland, to develop his skills, demonstrating pass-rush techniques, encouraging good moves and critiquing areas that need improvement.
"He's tried to build my skills," Cowsette said, "just stuff like talking to me on the side. I don't know what kind of reputation he had down in Miami, but he's been good to everybody on the team. I haven't seen anything outrageous."
If not outrageous, Gardener does not couch his remarks to the media. After the Green Bay Packers trounced the Redskins, 30-9, on Oct. 20 at Lambeau Field, knocking Washington to 2-4, Gardener told reporters the Redskins would make the playoffs next season largely because of the club's new personnel. But when Gardener's comments were relayed to Spurrier the next day, the coach brushed them aside. "If everybody played like Daryl," Spurrier responded then, "we would be much better off."
"I wasn't giving up on the season," Gardener explained Thursday. "You realize you're bringing in a new staff. Everybody is going to have to jell. The truth hurts. I'm going to tell the truth; I'm going to let it fly. People take it the wrong way."
This past week, several Redskins players defended Lewis for his prolonged dance with Michigan State and its head coaching job. But Wednesday, Gardener told a media throng: "Put this out there: It's a distraction." The next day, Lewis brought up the remark to Gardener, albeit in a teasing fashion.
Over the years, Schwartz has admonished Gardener for not filtering his remarks in the media.
"I've had conversations at times with Daryl about being politically correct, but Daryl is Daryl," Schwartz said, chuckling. "The only thing I can tell you is if you know Daryl, you love Daryl."
Parting of Ways
The Dolphins loved Gardener after choosing him 20th overall in the 1996 draft. Gardener, who started as a rookie, wanted to play his entire career with the Dolphins and seemed to get his wish in July 2000 , signing a seven-year extension. As recently as April, Wannstedt described Gardener as one of Miami's hardest-working players.
But enmity surfaced after Gardener missed mini-camps in June and July. The Dolphins withheld a $200,000 bonus, which was to be triggered by Gardener attending at least 90 percent of the team's offseason workouts. Gardener, who had traveled to Turks and Caicos Islands to deal with family problems, instructed Schwartz to serve as liaison with the Dolphins. But Wannstedt wanted to speak directly to Gardener. When the tackle didn't return several calls, Wannstedt released him, after reportedly consulting with linebacker Zach Thomas and defensive end Jason Taylor.
"It just got to the point where everything came to a head," said Gardener, who would have made $5 million this season in Miami. "The man [Wannstedt] lied to me."
Wannstedt and Dolphins General Manager Rick Spielman declined interview requests. But after the club cut Gardener, Wannstedt told reporters: "This decision, I think, was best for our team."
However, some Dolphins disagreed.
"For teammates to gang up against somebody when he's going through some trying times, I think it's real chicken [expletive]," Dolphins tackle Marcus Spriggs told the Orlando Sentinel. "I feel the man's invaluable to our team. The man's a heck of a player and a heck of a person."
He's been a heck of a player this season, racking up 58 tackles (42 solo) and three sacks. But Gardener's numbers aren't his entire influence on Washington's 10th-ranked defense.
Gardener often flushes quarterbacks out the pocket and jams the offensive line, enabling linebackers to stop the run. Thus, Gardener constantly faces double teams, which frees right defensive end Bruce Smith for single coverage. "He's definitely been a big plus for me," said Smith, who has six sacks this season. "And for this defense."
Linebacker Eddie Mason said: "A lot of times, [Gardener] doesn't get a lot of credit. But if you go back and watch that tape and you look at some of the plays that he makes: He takes linemen and treats them like rag dolls. He's got one lineman in this arm and makes the tackle with the other arm. It looks superhuman sometimes."
Gardener has a quick first step that covers substantial ground -- "three and a half yards," Redskins offensive line coach Rick Hundley said, chuckling -- and possesses uncanny speed to chase down tailbacks. Thus, Gardner's combination of size, strength and speed make him unique.
"Most interior guys are on the shorter side," said 49ers left guard Dave Fiore, who faced Gardener during San Francisco's 20-10 victory on Sept. 22, and believes he deserves to make the Pro Bowl. "He can use his arms and size to really take advantage of shedding blocks and reading the run as well as using his leverage to make pass rush moves."
When Gardener attended Baylor, the defensive lineman was 60 pounds lighter at 240. Yet at the time, Gardener still struck an imposing figure. And Gardener stood out by running a 4.8 in the 40-yard dash and clocking one of the team's best times in the 20-yard shuttle.
"Those type of guys don't come along much," said Chuck Reedy, who coached Gardener at Baylor and now coaches at Goose Creek High in South Carolina. "Daryl Gardener was physically the most imposing-looking guy that I had seen coming out of high school. He could run for his size and kept getting bigger. Everybody was in awe of his physical tools."
Even in the NFL where large players are not as unusual, teammates and opponents remain in awe of Gardener's physique. Gardener is built like a swimmer, with his torso forming a V-like shape. (Wife Tarneshia's nickname "Shorty" is tattooed on his chest.) But Gardener -- who has two sons and a daughter -- lifts weights as much as any Redskins player. An example of Gardener's dedication, coaches said, is that he regularly arrives at the practice facility before 6 a.m. to work out before receiving back treatment. Teammates jokingly wonder if Gardener is planning on another profession.
"I've told the man you've got an easy career for the WWF," Wynn said, laughing. "When you're done, man, you can just go right in and probably be one of the top guys."
The drawback to Gardener's size and swagger: Off the field, it can be intimidating. For instance, with his booming voice, bearded visage and massive build, Gardener can bully NFL tackles into giving up their seats.
"Most people stay away from him at first," Mason said. "They don't really like to approach him because of his stature and maybe how he looks or whatever. But the thing about him is if you just go up to him and get to know him, he's one of the nicest people you'll meet."
Then Mason quickly added: "That's what he is off the field -- not on the field."