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Yielding to Weight of Night

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
March 6, 1993

Millions of people face the problem, not just Joe Gibbs. It's so basic that William Butler Yeats just called his poem "The Choice."

"The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work," wrote the Irish poet.

The best poet of the 20th century knew that the idea of "having it all" was nonsense before anybody ever dreamed up such a fatuous phrase. If you want to win the Super Bowl or write "The Tower," it doesn't just happen. You slave for decades at your craft. And hope you get lucky too. Coaches call it "sacrifice" and "dedication." What they mean is that for every ounce of excellence that you want to add to your professional life, you have to rip a pound's worth of soul out of the quality of your private life.

Yeats felt The Choice was an eternal and insoluble problem. "In luck or out the toil has left its mark." Yeats said those who perfected the life of family and friendships -- what we now call "quality of life" -- were inevitably left with "that old perplexity an empty purse."

They didn't get the satisfactions of praise and acclaim either.

Yeats's most bitter and most lasting phrase, however, was his description of the feeling of those who work enormously hard, find success and yet have a perpetual dissatisfaction, a partial emptiness. Yeats, presumably speaking from personal experience, called it "the day's vanity, the night's remorse."

The night's remorse finally caught up with Joe Gibbs yesterday.

The most successful coach in Washington Redskins history dropped out of the rat race. Which, of course, left all the rest of us rats feeling awestruck, ashamed and angry.

How dare he do the right thing.

Until yesterday, Gibbs was, in some ways, a typical phony American workaholic. He said all the correct hypocritical things that so many of us say. Our family comes first. If we have our health we have everything. Success, money and fame aren't as important as our "values" and "keeping things in perspective."

Then Gibbs would go out, year after year, and work 16 or more hours a day, seven days a week from July through January and sleep on his office cot four nights a week. The purpose: winning football games for the Redskins and being a big success himself.

For a while, Gibbs and his wife and two sons exchanged videotaped messages during the season so they could keep track of each other's lives. The Gibbs family lived only a few miles from Redskin Park, but, you know, gotta study those game films. Nobody's ever run off left tackle before.

Gibbs said he killed the videotape idea because the tapes he got back were becoming increasingly angry. Paraphrased, what his family said was: "You aren't here, as usual, when we need your help. Will we ever see you again?"

Yesterday, Gibbs explained at great length every aspect of his decision to resign. He'd had health problems at the end of the season -- which boiled down to being overweight, stressed out and so frazzled that he felt too sick to sleep at night for the last month of the season. By the last game, he was a zombie, functioning on adrenaline in public, but, in General Manager Charley Casserly's words, collapsing like an exhausted actor as soon as he left public view.

Gibbs sought several medical opinions, got a name for his condition -- "migraine equivalence" -- and found out he'd feel fine in a few months. He was reassured that he had no serious medical problem. "But it got me thinking. It made me back off," he said.

Then Gibbs's car won the Daytona 500. The victory was a thrill. But having his wife, Pat, and his sons, J.D. and Coy, as part of the race team was a revelation.

To put it succinctly, he saw what he'd been missing.

At his long news conference yesterday, Gibbs had tears in his eyes. And that told everything. Especially since it is doubtful that ever happened at a lectern before. Not when he praised Jack Kent Cooke's ownership or his players' courageous efforts or his affection for Washington and its fans.

What got him was when he said, "Our son {Coy} is playing at Stanford and I only saw two of his games this year. That bothers me. I want to sit in the stands and just be a dad."

Gibbs said thousands of other words. "I need to spend some time catching up. ... I want to back up and try another kind of life. ... My sons are going to be the most important things I leave here on earth. ... There's a window of opportunity here for me with my family. It won't be there in a couple of years. ... Pat is happier about this than anybody."

A dozen years ago, Gibbs had lips. They've been squeezed out of existence. All that's left is a line in his face. That is what pressure and denial do.

Cooke, intending praise, said yesterday that he knew Gibbs was his man for Redskins coach within 30 minutes of meeting him 12 years ago. "He had an intensity of purpose," the owner said, "almost an obsession to succeed."

The obsession has worked itself out. Joe Gibbs isn't burned out. Quite the opposite. He seems headed toward some sort of improved mental health.

Gibbs was many things yesterday. Grateful. Dignified. Classy. One of the greatest coaches in NFL history. And a very scared man. Over and over, he said, "I need a job." He didn't rule out anything -- TV, public speaking.

"This is a leap of faith for me," he said. "I don't know what's out there. I don't know if I can do without football. ... This is the toughest choice I've ever faced."

For 12 years, Joe Gibbs has been one of the nicest, most decent, most honest men ever to coach an NFL team. That's why he always seemed like an anomaly. Yesterday, in resignation, he never seemed to be more fully himself.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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