by David Elfin

As hard as it might be to imagine since they’ve spent nearly two decades in the doldrums, the Redskins had ruled the NFL in 1991, going 14-2 and then handily winning their third Super Bowl in a decade. But that success came in the face of a reality with which every athlete eventually has to deal. Half of Washington’s 22 regulars were at least 30. Age began to catch up with coach Joe Gibbs’ team as it began 1992 with a 13-point defeat at up-and-coming Dallas, close victories over 1991 playoff victims Atlanta and Detroit and a shocking loss at ne’er-do-well Phoenix.

So the defending champion Redskins were certainly in need of some good news as they welcomed the Denver Broncos to RFK Stadium 20 years ago Monday. And was so often the case when times were tough, it was Art Monk who provided some relief.

The 35-year-old receiver had opened the season just 18 catches behind Steve Largent’s all-time record of 819. Monk was still six catches shy of the mark heading into the Denver game.

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Monk, a very private man, wanted as little as hoopla as possible when he broke the record, but as fate would have it, the whole league was watching since the game was on “Monday Night Football.” And as had been the case eight years earlier when Monk surpassed Charley Hennigan’s record for catches in a season in the victory that clinched the NFC East title, the slumping Redskins needed a lift.

That was the case, going into the game, but the contest wasn’t much of one as Washington cruised to a 34-3 rout. In the fourth quarter with victory assured, Gibbs had quarterback Mark Rypien target Monk. And then it happened. With 3:12 left, Monk topped Largent on one of his typical 10-yard out patterns. His teammates mobbed him and raised him onto their shoulders as the fans went wild.

Monk would stretch the record to 940 catches, but it would barely last three years before Jerry Rice broke it. Ten others have since surpassed Monk’s mark as the NFL becomes ever more pass-oriented, but that night remains a special one in Redskins history. Washington would back into the playoffs at 9-7, but Gibbs retired the following March, ending a glorious era and starting the current dry spell which has featured just three playoff berths and two postseason triumphs.

Largent, who like Monk, calls the Washington area home these days, said the right man broke his record.

“I loved watching Art work his magic,” Largent wrote in an email. “His work ethic, demeanor, character, toughness, courage as a man and as a football player were all off the charts! “

Joe Theismann, Washington’s quarterback during Monk’s first five-plus seasons, said that his favorite target “had a flair for consistency.” Monk, whose 68 touchdowns are the fewest among the 12 players with the most catches, wasn’t as exciting as such deep threats as Randy Moss or Terrell Owens and he was their antithesis in terms of notoriety.

At 55, Monk remains trim. If not for his bald head, he still looks capable of getting open on a down-and-out. But although he was elected to the Hall of Fame on his individual merits in 2008, the ever-humble man’s career was always focused on team goals.

“I’ve seen how success has gone to people’s heads,” Monk said. “I’m proud that I didn’t let football change who I am. I was raised to never brag on myself. I never tried to promote myself. I always wanted to be a part of a team and contribute to a team. You look at our core group and they were the kind of people who reflected the kind of player that coach Gibbs wanted: very hard-working, committed to the game, committed to each other, unselfish, played hard, played well under pressure.

“We were more than teammates,” Monk added. “We did stuff together off the field. My kids call Charles, Monte [Coleman] and Darrell [Green] uncle. Their kids call me uncle and my wife {Desiree, whom Monk met while they were students at Syracuse] auntie. We really became a family. A lot of guys have it backwards. They want to do well and hope their team does well. I believed that if the team played well, the individual things would take care of themselves.”

And that remained true on Oct. 12, 1992 when the one-time butterfingered college running back became the most prolific receiver the NFL had ever known.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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