So as Washington swept through that magical 1991 season, winning 17 of 19 games, including a 37-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, his study of law was our secret.
I have no idea what kind of general manager he’s going to be. But I know this: Washington could not have hired anyone smarter, tougher or more relentlessly decent than Martin Mayhew.
In all the years I have covered sports, from Earl Weaver to Joe Gibbs, from Eddie Murray to Jeff Bagwell, I have never met anyone I admire as much as Mayhew.
He played the entire second half of a 1992 game against the Kansas City Chiefs with a broken arm.
“Richie, my arm is killing me; I can’t jam the receiver,” he told defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon at halftime.
Mayhew cried postgame as trainers gingerly cut off his jersey and slipped his shoulder pads over his head before sending him to an X-ray room.
He was the cornerback opposite Deion Sanders at Florida State and Darrell Green in Washington. That is, he got every team’s best shot.
He was neither tall (5-foot-8) nor particularly fast. But he studied endlessly, memorized the opponent’s plays and tendencies, and was rarely, if ever, out of position.
In that way, he was the archetype player for Gibbs: tough, smart, prepared.
Mayhew was a 10th-round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills in 1988 and spent nine seasons in the NFL, including four with Washington (1989-92) and four with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1993-96) after getting a degree in business management at Florida State. He handled his own investments and was part of countless charity projects, including raising money to build a well in Senegal.
Back to law school: Unless his teammates asked directly, Mayhew didn’t reveal he was going to school. He took two courses — property and contracts, and legal research and writing — and went to class three hours on Mondays, two hours on Tuesdays and an hour on Wednesdays.
That the Redskins sprinted through a 14-2 regular season made his life easier because Gibbs would give the team Monday and Tuesday off after victories.
He was squeezed Wednesdays, when he would practice until 5:30 p.m., change into street clothes and be in class at 7:55.
“At first, it was real hard, but gradually you get into the swing of it,” he told me in some of the bits and pieces of interviews we did on the topic that season. “You tell yourself, 'Okay, it’s Tuesday morning; this is what I have to do.’ It takes some discipline. It worked out.”
Mayhew studied when he had a chance. “I made it a point not to study from Friday until after the game,” he said. “I wanted to stay focused on football. Sometimes after a game, I’d go eat and go home and study. If I had papers due, I’d go home and work on the paper. I’m looking forward to being able to dedicate more time to it and being a full-time student this spring.”
By the time he was comfortable balancing football and school, he let his position coach, Emmitt Thomas, in on his secret.
“I don’t know who else knew and who didn’t,” Mayhew said. “I know that, over the course of the year, I’d be talking to friends and someone would hear me talking and ask what we were talking about. I’d say, ‘I’m taking some classes.’ If anyone asked, I told them. I’d say 50 percent of the team knew. The thing is, it didn’t affect my time over here. It didn’t affect anything. There was no point in saying anything.”
He finished his law degree before beginning his post-playing career in the front office of several teams, including eight seasons as the Detroit Lions’ general manager.
I bumped into him early one morning in Lubbock, Tex., where he had spent a couple of days studying Mike Leach’s offense and talent at Texas Tech. He had poured himself into the Lions’ GM job just as he had done with every other gig he has had along the way.
In 2004, Mayhew was ranked among Sports Illustrated’s “Top 101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports.” He was the product of a strict household, his father a middle school principal who told him, “Think for yourself; don’t follow the crowd.”
His biggest payday came after the 1992 season. He signed a four-year, $5.5 million deal with the Buccaneers. Free agency was a stressful time, and he eventually offered me a deal if I would stop pestering him and his agent.
“Listen,” he said. “Leave me and my agent alone. And when we get a deal done, I’ll make sure you have it first.”
Several weeks later, I got a telephone call from a guy on The Post’s night sports desk.
“Make of this what you will,” he said, “but a guy claiming to be Martin Mayhew wants you to call him and left a phone number.”
In one of the happiest hours of his professional life, he remembered that he had given his word about how the deal would be reported. To Monte Coleman and Darrell Green and Art Monk and pretty much anyone who has gotten to know Martin Mayhew through the years, his return to Washington is a sweet day.
He knows how winning organizations are constructed and the things that separate organizations that win from those that don’t. He may just be a home run of a hire.
Richard Justice is a former Washington Post sportswriter who covered Washington’s NFL team from 1990 to 1997.