Balance

Photo by the AP's Jim Mahoney

Photo by the AP’s Jim Mahoney

He was always eating. Always.

Usually some kind of salad. Maybe every once in a while a sandwich. Jason Worilds did not miss a meal. He couldn’t afford to. You come into the NFL at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds _ undersized in the irrational way that only football players are considered undersized _ and being tethered to the training table is a necessary job requirement that becomes ingrained long after it outlives its usefulness.

Manners counted too. At least to Worilds. Whenever you’d make your way over to his stall in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room, he’d finish chewing whatever he was working on, bashfully wipe his mouth and apologize before giving you a few minutes to chat. He wouldn’t say much, it just wasn’t his way. Or maybe it’s because he just didn’t want to talk about football.

It didn’t matter anyway. Whatever polite and politically correct statement came out of Worilds mouth were largely unnecessary. Starting last summer, the narrative was in place. Journalism by watercolors. Worilds was entering his fifth season with the Steelers. He’d signed a one-year contract that paid him $9.75 million. Only four months of steady play separated the self-effacing kid that grew up in northern New Jersey from financial security for life _ his and the generations to follow.

It’s always about the money right? That’s what we’re taught. That’s what we’re obsessed with, who is spending what in a never-ending arms race to evaluate self-worth. Worilds just happened to do it in a job that made him a multimillionaire.

He did what every employee is instructed to do whether your employer is the local bakery, the high school down the street or the ATMs disguised as NFL franchises: he maximized his earning potential.

It made him richer than he ever imagined. This is the same kid who eschewed a limo to his senior prom _ he took his mom, by the way _ just because it wasn’t his style. He took it because it was offered. It’s not that he asked for it, necessarily, but that’s what the rules _ rules he didn’t come up with _ determined the going rate was for linebackers with his unique skill set. The deal raised his profile and raised the stakes too. Worilds entered training camp last summer on the cusp of the kind of small ‘s’ stardom (at least locally) reserved for those who wear black and gold and make a habit of burrowing opposing quarterbacks into the green sandbox disguised as the turf at Heinz Field.

James Harrison. Greg Lloyd. Joey Porter. Kevin Greene. Worilds was on the brink of joining them. He and linebackers coach Keith Butler talked at length during training camp last summer about how pivotal 2014 would be in not just shaping Worilds’ football career, but his entire world.

“I think for him, he said ‘Well, Coach money’s not important,” Butler said last summer.

It sounded like the right thing to say, even if players _ check that, employees _ in every walk of life say the same thing every day, unsuccessfully trying to squeeze a little sincerity into their triteness. We are programmed to make it about the zeroes on our paychecks. It’s how we keep score, the running tally always at the ready just in case you thought about stepping out of your place in line.

Only Worilds was not kidding. Not by a longshot. A season came and went. He played well if not spectacularly. His 7.5 sacks led the Steelers even though his coaches asked him to drop back more and attack the quarterback less to help a defense that played without its once considerable sense of menace.

Worilds said repeatedly _ politely of course _ throughout the year he’d proven he was a productive NFL player worthy of a long-term deal somewhere, be it Pittsburgh or some place else. The Steelers declined to hit him with a franchise tag _ which would have made him one of the highest-paid players at his position in the league _ but it hardly made a difference.

When you’re talking about making $11 million or “only” the reported $7-8 million a year Worilds figured to get as a free agent, either way you’re still just talking about an awful lot of damn cash for a guy whose mother worked multiple nursing jobs just to help the family get by.

Worilds’ teammates kept an eye on him. He sat a couple of spots over from Troy Polamalu and James Harrison in the Steelers locker room, franchise icons who won multiple championships but entered the twilight of their careers dealing with their own diminishing skills and murky medical future as the miles and the hits and the grind of 20-plus years treating their bodies a 3% body fat projectile missiles piled up.

As 2014 wore on, Worilds grew only more introverted. His answers blander. His sentences shorter. There is little doubt he cared about the season, cared about the guys next to him. Outside of that, who really knows?

“He’s always been a quiet guy,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “And when you’re a quiet guy, people can’t figure you out. That’s when people just get to writing.”

It’s what we do. We ask questions, get quotes, try to provide context and perspective. We are emissaries between the players and the thousands in the stands and millions on TV who have turned a children’s game into high commerce. We try to humanize them, strip away the very real wall that exists between Them and Us and find common ground.

Yet in most cases we don’t really know them, not really. The majority of our interactions are no more intimate than having a friendly chat with somebody in an elevator or a hallway.

Close personal relationships are difficult to establish let alone maintain. There’s not enough time, not enough access and in most cases not enough give a damn on either side. The players are almost to a man professional and courteous but hardly forthcoming. We are always in search of the next nugget, the next incremental development, the next Meme-worthy moment to share on Twitter or our blogs/Facebook pages whatever.

It’s a business exchange and a good one. They get paid handsomely to play. We get paid (not nearly as handsomely in most cases) to watch. We try to wring meaning from symbolic moments on the field or small conversations off it.

In the end though, they only let us know as much as they want to let us know. If we knew them, really knew them, then maybe we wouldn’t be surprised when somebody like Worilds walks away from a something that seems impossible to resist.

Hours into free agency on Tuesday, right at the moment we assumed he’d spent years pointing toward, that precious time when a player truly controls his own destiny, Worilds grabbed hold of it in a way few imagined. He retired.

No leaking through sources. No posturing. Three tweets and then poof. Gone. Done at 27. Leaving easily $10 million in guaranteed money on the table for someone else to fight over (and there will be no shortage of candidates).

It’s the why that is tripping us up.

He didn’t do it to be a movie star, as Jim Brown did when he retired at 30 back in the 1960s. He didn’t do it because his spot in the Hall of Fame was cemented, his financial future secure and his drive ebbing, as Barry Sanders did in the 1990s. He didn’t do it rather than face a lengthy and painful rehab from foot injuries as San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis did on Tuesday just hours before Worilds’ midnight missive.

Worilds tweeted he was going to pursue other interests. For some, pursuing anything other than becoming lavishly wealthy and famous is beyond reason. People want an explanation. He has declined countless interviews in the last two days (including multiple ones from me).

Five years ago I would have been baffled. Three years ago irate. At all times I would have taken the cynic’s stance. It’s my default position, though I’m not accepting full blame on that one.

For every Jason Worilds there are countless other athletes who feign retirement only to come trudging back through the locker room door for riches, vanity, opportunity, desperation or any combination of the four you choose.

Maybe he’ll come back, helmet in hand. Outside of marriage, parenthood and probably a mortgage, there are few things you should commit to at his age that you can’t wiggle out of if you feel like it. Provided he stays healthy and in shape and there are jobs that require 260-pound guys to run at top speed after a piece of leather available, he’ll have another chance to prove himself if the spirit moves him.

Things change. Narratives change. The ones we built for Worilds was on the well-worn premise that wealthy, fame and glory were his ultimate pursuit. He never said it. Not on the record. Not off. We foisted it upon him because that how it works whether there’s truth to it _ to be fair, there almost always is _ or not.

During one of our conversations last October with the Steelers struggling at 3-3, we talked briefly about the stakes and the future.

“If I have 30 sacks and we got 8-8, what did we really do?” he said.

I joked that if he did have 30 sacks _ which would smash the NFL single-season record _ his accountants would need accountants he’d be in such high demand in 2015. He laughed then repeated something he’d said in one way or another for years.

“I don’t really look as far as that,” he said. “I just try to be the best I can be day in and day out and I think the rest will fall into place.”

It fell into place for Worilds on Tuesday, just not the way we wanted. Not the way we planned. Not the way that fits so easily into the little narrative box we had built for him.

Perspectives shift. He made more money last season than all but a precious few will make in our entire lifetimes. We always viewed the next contract as “The Big One.” The smaller truth is it had already happened. The larger truth is no answer he could ever give will sate those who can’t fathom making the choice in the first place.

He spent 20 years chasing a dream. We always assumed that dream included the trappings of the modern star athlete as we know it. We we wrong.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about it. Politely, (as if there is another choice). Without a salad in his hands and some other place he needs to be. Without cleats on his feet. Without the expectations of others on his shoulders. Healthy. Happy.

A man _ not just a football player _ in full.

Balanced at last.

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The Owner and the Onus

Skins tix

Those tickets up there? Those are my Magna Carta. My Holy Grail. The pebbles that grew into stones that evolved into the cinderblocks that became the foundation of my adult life.

And this post is going exactly where you think it’s going _ unless you think it’s going to be about cancer, sorry not this time_ but first, a love story.

My childhood memories before the 1982 NFL season, particularly when it came to football, are vague. I remember briefly adopting the Cincinnati Bengals as my favorite team in 1981 because they switched to the tiger stripes on their jerseys and they happened to make the Super Bowl. I was 7. My first favorite player was Cris Collinsworth, because he was Cincinnati’s best wide receiver. The fact we shared the same skin tone was merely coincidental.

The flirtation with the Bengals didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Grow up in the Washington D.C. suburbs as I did, and really, you had no choice. There was the Redskins and there was everything else. And by everything else I mean God, family, friends, work, life, whatever.

None of that mattered Sunday afternoons, especially not in 1982, not with Riggo and the Hogs and Theismann and the Fun Bunch and Dexter and the Pearl Harbor Crew and Coach Gibbs and nattily clad owner Jack Kent Cooke, so perfectly dubbed “The Squire” by Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser.

That 1982 team was my first true love. They were instant gratification. Sundays would come and Sundays would go, and they’d find a way to win. The joy those triumphs brought my family, particularly my father’s side, was indescribable. My grandmother would make spaghetti and bring cucumbers soaked in vinegar. One of my aunts would bring deviled eggs. We’d eat after the 1 p.m. games _ at halftime during the 4 p.m. games _ and watch and celebrate.

They won the NFC East during a season truncated by a two-month players’ strike and crushed the Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs. Then they took out the Minnesota Vikings the next week _ with Riggins bowing to the masses after 37 wearying carries for 185 bruising yards as RFK Stadium trembled in delight.

The Dallas Cowboys, with Tom Landry and Tony Dorsett and Randy White and that ugly star and nauseating aura of entitlement, awaited in the NFC Championship game.

And my dad got his hands on two tickets. He could have taken my mom. He could have taken my grandfather. He could have taken my uncle or any one of his buddies.

He didn’t. He took me. And it changed me _ and bonded us _ in a way that I will never forget.

I remember it was cold. We had a thermos of hot chocolate. We sat a million miles away _ at least it seemed a million miles away to this 8-year-old _ and it couldn’t have mattered less. I remember looking at the scoreboard as it flashed jersey numbers (for some reason it seemed like linebacker Neal Oklewicz made every tackle for the Redskins that day) and chanting “We Want Dallas” at every stoppage in play.

I’d love to tell you I remember Darryl Grant causing the earthquake that sent the Redskins to the Super Bowl but I don’t. I do remember the glee of 55,000 true believers walking out to the parking lot, some of them singing “Hail to the Redskins” at the top of their lungs. The way it snowed big snow flakes on the way home. The look on my typically taciturn father’s face. The smile lasted for days. Maybe weeks.

Seeing him happy made me happy. I became more than his boy that day, I became his buddy. We felt like equals. We felt like friends.

And while those moments became more fleeting as I grew up and our relationship became more distant before his death in 2010, the fact those ticket stubs remained on his dresser for years afterward served as a sign to me that he wanted to hold onto a part of that day forever. The only time I truly lost it after he cancer took him so abruptly at age 59 didn’t come as I stood at his bedside as he took his final breath, it was when I discovered the ticket stubs while taking an inventory of his things. Though my parents divorced when I was 17, the tickets remained in the same spot they’d always been. My guess _ my hope _ is his memory of that day did too.

The Redskins won the Super Bowl the week after that Cowboys’ game and two more by the time I graduated high school. My passion for them is what led me to become a sportswriter for a living. (Well that and the realization during my one inglorious fall as the smallest offensive lineman/linebacker in the history of the 75-pound Waldorf Wildcats that I was probably going to spend most of my teens in traction if I continued to play.)

My fandom for the franchise has flickered more than flared over the last two decades, though the embers remain ever vibrant just waiting to be stoked.

After all, I may be the only man in America to have this in his closet:

Schroeder

That is the jersey of former Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder. He’s known mostly as the guy who came in when Joe Theismann’s leg was snapped in two during a Monday Night Football game like a first grader getting his hands on a Twix. I didn’t care that his prowess for throwing the deep ball was only matched by his petulance when he got benched. He was my guy. (And I maintain that if Doug Williams knee forced him out of Super Bowl XXII for the entire game Schroeder would have led them to victory anyway).

While I haven’t lived in DC for 15 years, I’ve done what I can to catch them when I can.

I flew halfway across the country to watch Jim Zorn coach in Dallas. I paid more than $400 bucks to watch Peyton Manning fillet them in Indy. I jumped out and down for 10 minutes the day Joe Gibbs returned in 2004. I was crushed when Sean Taylor was murdered and pissed when Art Monk spent year after year on the waiting list before going into the Hall of Fame.

And because of all that, because of the years and the money and the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent fixated on a franchise that made me want to become a sports writer before I ever figured out I wouldn’t be good at anything else, I can say this.

The nickname has to go. Has to.

And here’s why: because it doesn’t matter. The name itself _ like the nicknames for basically every other team in every sport at every level _ does not matter. People do not root for teams for the nickname. They might have an affinity for certain jerseys because they look cool. They may swag out because there’s something about how the colors silver-and-black go together or the way the NY falls on a Yankee cap, but the names themselves do not matter.

My connection with the Redskins has nothing to do with the word Redskins. My connection is with the players  _ my heroes _ that brought those jerseys to life. My connection is with the fans _ my mother and father especially _ who communed every Sunday at the altar of the burgundy and gold and spent every Saturday night watching “Redskins Sidelines” on Channel 9 (RIP Glenn Brenner) and every Monday at the dinner table obsessing over every triumph and mistake the day before.

That day I walked into RFK, the guys wearing the home whites could have been named anything. Seriously, anything. Not for one second in 32 years have I ever expressed an affinity for the Redskins other than the way the name evokes such strong feelings about my childhood.

But it would have been that way if they were called anything else. Because it does. not. matter.

I used to think the argument over whether the name was racist and offensive was dumb. It’s just a name and an emblem. It’s laundry, right? 

Not really. The first domino fell when trying to get my son (who was 3 at the time) to watch a game with me. He asked me who was playing. I told him the Redskins were playing.

“What’s a Redskins?” he asked.

“Hmmm. Well, see Colin, they’re well. What I mean is … it’s ummm.”

And then I just gave up. The truth is it’s a compound word. Red and skin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it started out as a way to describe the tone of Native Americans along the Delaware River Valley but over the years “redskin lost its neutral, accurate descriptive sense and became a term of disparagement.”

OK then. You’d think that’d be enough to start a relatively short and effective conversation about maybe switching the name right?

Well, not exactly.

Owner Dan Snyder _ who like me grew up in the DC area and basked in the glory and the agony of each season as a child and who unlike me became smart enough and rich enough to buy the team for himself _ has dug in his heels. He told ESPN recently “The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride.”

Snyder also put his money where his nickname is, establishing the Original Americans Foundation early this year, a group which pledges to work with tribal communities to provide resources and opportunities.

All of which is well and good. Here’s the thing though. He’s owned the team for 17 years. The team has been named the Redskins for [checks Wikipedia] oh, 17 years. Why now _ only after the critics have started coming after what ESPN’s Bob Ley called the “low hanging fruit” of bashing the name _ is Snyder suddenly so down for the cause?

Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the fan base (my mother included) has joined in. And they’re not alone. A poll released last week indicated 71 percent of Americans are just fine with the nickname staying

Which makes perfect sense, except for the part where it doesn’t. Asking the casual fan _ almost all of whom are an ethnicity other than Native American _ on whether the team should keep its nickname is akin to doing a poll in the south during the 1840s and asking folks who aren’t slaves if they think slavery is cool.

Over the top? I don’t know, any more over the top than having the most popular professional franchise that represents the capital of the most powerful country in the world boasting a nickname that is the equivalent of a slur?

I understand the defensiveness. I believe some of the energetic defense of the nickname is due to a sense of “racism by association.” My mother thinks “I like the Redskins. I’m not a racist. But if you say the name is racist and I’m a fan of the team, then I’m a racist.”

First mom, you’re not a racist. Nor, I’m sure, are the hundreds of thousands of others who part with a substantial chunk of change for tickets, parking, food, the 18th version of a Robert Griffin III jersey or anything else that Snyder (who also does not appear to be a racist) has monetized to within an inch of your wallet’s life.

If you like the team, that does not mean you are a racist. If you’re not bothered by the name, that does not mean you are a racist.

You know who was a racist though, in deed if not in words? George Preston Marshall, the man who co-founded the Boston Braves in 1932 then switched the name to Redskins the following year because _ according to The Associated Press story at the time _ he didn’t want his team to be confused with Major League Baseball’s Boston Braves. The fact he had several Native Americans in uniform was immaterial.

“The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins,” the AP quoted Marshall as saying on July 5, 1933.

Marshall was a visionary marketer. He moved the franchise to Washington D.C., in 1937 and saw that football was entertainment. He created the Redskins Marching Band, who made “Hail to the Redskins” the first fight song for an NFL team. That song’s lyrics include the lines “beat’em, swamp’em touchdown let the points soar” which last I checked, appear to be pretty damn offensive. “We Are The World” it is not.

Marshall wasn’t, however, a visionary in terms of progress. Even as the number of African-American players flourished throughout the NFL in the 1950s, his team’s roster remained all white. It wasn’t until his hand was forced by the federal government _ which threatened to pull Marshall’s lease on DC Stadium _ that he reluctantly traded for Cleveland Browns star running back Bobby Mitchell. Of course, this was after Marshall drafted former Ohio State running back Ernie Davis, who declined to play for the Redskins because of Marshall’s reluctance to integrate the team.

So let’s see. Folks are backing a nickname considered a slur that was thought up by a guy who refused to sign African-American players for 15 years after it became common practice.

Yeah, that makes sense.

It’s the why that gets me. Why does the name matter? Will people stop coming to games, watching on TV or buying swag if Snyder decides to ditch Redskins for something _ anything _ less offensive.

No. In fact, he’d probably make MORE money. New name means new merchandise. It also means Snyder will still get to sell Redskins merchandise because if there’s anything the NFL loves it’s selling old jerseys as a revenue stream. People can complain all they want about the state of the economy, but I’ll start worrying only when I see folks stop shelling out money for things like this: 

When I was a kid, the NBA team in Washington was called the Bullets. In the late-1990s owner Abe Pollin _ pointing to the alarming rise in gun violence in the city _ held a contest to change the name. They came up with the Wizards. The colors went from red/white/blue to blue/gold and something else. It was an uninspired choice, but I understood the reasoning even if any sort of link between the team’s name and DC becoming the “Murder Capital of the World” for a brief time had nothing to do with each other.

There are much larger issues in the NFL _ and in life _ than the nickname. I get that. And when the Redskins play in Houston this afternoon, I’ll keep an eye on it even as I work in the press box at Heinz Field doing a job that I love, a job whose seeds were planted on that unforgettable day 31 years ago when RFK shook and the jubilation gave me a high I’ve spent three decades chasing.

But here’s the thing. The name is fixable. An easy fix at that. If even a small handful of people are offended _ and really, the number is considerably higher _ then what’s the point of keeping it around.

There was a time when it was OK to say “colored” or “Negro.” I know this because I heard those words from people in my extended family as a kid. That doesn’t mean it’s OK anymore.

Times change. And this is all so arbitrary and unnecessary. Any other name would work. Unlike college, the NFL is about the names on the back of the jersey, not the one on the front.

I don’t root for the word Redskins. I root for Riggo and RG3. For Schroeder and Santana and Coach Gibbs and (for now) Jay Gruden.

And I root for this silly nonsense to end so I can pass my love for the franchise _ and the link it provided to my father _ along to my son. I’m already fighting an uphill battle. He and his little sister will grow up surrounded by Steeler fans. And if they become one, I can deal with it.

Of course, if they opt for the Cowboys then they’re out of the will. I mean, you gotta draw the line somewhere.

Like say, a nickname whose time has come and long since gone.

Hail to the Redskins? I’ll hail when common sense prevails. Until then, may the battle for decency “fight on, fight on, till it has won.”

Then _ and only then _ will the franchise become “sons of Washington.”