Jeris White, the 31-year-old top cornerback for the defending Super Bowl champions, was holding out when the Redskins opened their 1983 season thirty years ago tonight.
So Washington, which hadn’t been a defending champion in more than four decades, replaced White with its first-round draft pick, a self-described “little-bitty” kid from Division II Texas A&I.
The rookie hadn’t enjoyed training camp in Carlisle, Pa. because “these receivers were beating me every day. I knew I had the talent. It was the frustration of trying to learn and figure it out. [But] by the end of training camp, I felt I belonged.”
As Darrell Green was about to show a national television audience on “Monday Night Football” against the archrival Dallas Cowboys. The host Redskins were leading 10-0 in the second quarter at RFK Stadium when Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett burst into the clear and seemed headed for an 83-yard touchdown. After all, no one ever caught the 1976 Heisman Trophy winner from behind.
But then, as late Washington linebacker Mel Kaufman recalled, “This missile goes by me.” The missile was wearing a No. 28 Redskins jersey.
“My brain didn’t register, ‘This is Tony Dorsett,’ “ Green said. “I remember running past our whole defense. That was just basic pursuit to the ball. I did the same thing to Eric Dickerson, Curtis Martin [both Hall of Famers] and [Oakland’s] Napoleon Kaufman [when I was 38]. I caught everybody. But it was magnified because it was my first game and it was the Super Bowl champion Redskins against the Cowboys.”
Green reached Dorsett at Washington’s 6-yard line and tackled him much to the superstar’s surprise.
“For most of that run, another guy was chasing me and I could see him out of the corner of my eye, but I had my vision blocked from Darrell,” Dorsett remembered. “All of a sudden, Darrell pulls up beside me and I’m like, ‘Dang! Where did he come from?’ ”
The Cowboys, perhaps because they were stunned by Green’s play, settled for a field goal as the Redskins built a 23-3 lead only to wilt after halftime and lose 31-30. It would be one of just two defeats – each by a point — for Washington, which would return to the Super Bowl.
Way more people remember Green’s feat than the fact it came in a loss. It was the beginning of a record-setting 20-year Redskins career that included two Super Bowl triumphs, seven Pro Bowls and an NFL Man of the Year award.
“I got to watch the making of Darrell Green,” said defensive end Charles Mann, a Redskins teammate from 1983-93. “I got to watch him blossom and develop from this little kid from Texas who was a little apprehensive about whether he was going to make the team to who he became. There was nobody out there as fast as Darrell, but it wasn’t just speed. Darrell ran with more determination than other people.”
Green, who had held his own in races against Olympic champion Carl Lewis during college, ran 40 yards in 4.3 seconds or less into his football dotage. For most of his fabulous career, Green was known as a speed guy, a cornerback who didn’t have to play with great technique because of his astonishing ability to make up ground so quickly.
Even Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, who coached Green during the latter’s first 10 seasons, proclaimed, “One of the most amazing things I saw in sports was Darrell running the 40-yard dash.”
Despite that gift, Green sometimes wishes he hadn’t made the play on Dorsett, especially since the Redskins still lost the game.
“Chasing Dorsett down put me on the scene, but suddenly I went from being too little to, ‘He’s just a fast guy,’ “ Green lamented. “People didn’t think I was a cover guy even though [defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon] was putting me on the best receiver every week by my second year. I loved the NFL’s Fastest Man races [which he won all four times he entered], but the real joy for me was covering Drew Pearson, Tony Hill, Mike Quick, Roy Green and later [Hall of Famers] Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin.”
For all of Green’s angst about not being appreciated for his coverage skills, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008, his first year of eligibility. The only other pure cornerback from his era who’s enshrined in Canton is Deion Sanders.
It should also be noted that Jeris White never played in the NFL again once Green replaced him, making it one of the stupidest holdouts ever.
Today, at 53, Green continues to live in Northern Virginia where he operates his Youth Life Foundation, dabbles in various entrepreneurial pursuits and serves on the boards of several non-profits. And he’s always on the run, just as he was 30 years ago tonight at RFK.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.